Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Classic Movie Blog Association Blogathon: Film Passion 101 – King Kong (1933)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Film Passion 101 Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association from December 2-6.  For a list of the participants and the subjects discussed, click here.  Oh, and there are spoilers in this post…on the off-chance you’ve not yet seen the movie I’m discussing (hint: it involves a very big ape)…

I’m often asked the question: “Alvin…what movie influenced you the most as a classic film fan?”  I’ve broached the subject on the blog in the past; my mother and father (known and beloved the length and longth of the Internets as “the ‘rents”) allowed me to watch far too much television as a kid and in so doing, I discovered movies at an early age in the form of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Popeye), shorts (Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy) and silent films.  I had a real jones for the silents in my youth; they made a “comeback” of sorts partly because of a “nostalgia boom” in the 1970s, and also because of the hoopla that involved Charlie Chaplin’s return to America in 1972 (you younger people in the audience might not remember that we sent him packing back in the 1950s because we were convinced that anyone like him concerned about economic inequality and people going hungry must be some sort of a Commie).

It was a time when the concept for The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ was just a glint in someone’s eye, but the wonderful thing was that because there were pretty much only three channels to watch you were assured of finding something on.  TV stations ran a lot of old movies back in those days.  It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.

In the summer of 1976, our local library—the Jackson County Public Library in my hometown of Ravenswood, WV—instituted a program on Tuesday evenings where they showed classic films to the public free of charge.  I only really remember two of the offerings: the JCPL would run a chapter of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) every week (this would be the first serial I ever watched), and one evening they scheduled a showing of King Kong (1933).  Like the previously mentioned Chaplin event, there was a lot of ballyhoo about Kong at this time because a remake of the movie was scheduled to be released that December, and even the progress of making the movie was the focus of much media hype.  The library, however, had secured a print of the one that started it all, and I was definitely going to see it.

The audience for that showing of King Kong was later guesstimated at about 300 people; Ravenswood’s population was a little over 4,000 at that particular time, so to get that many folks out to see a forty-some-year-old movie was pretty impressive.  (I’ll refrain from making any jokes along the lines of “What else was there to do?”…only because the answer is sadly “Not a whole hell of a lot.”)  The weekly edition of The Ravenswood News (“Jackson County’s most popular birdcage lining”) that followed the event featured a picture of the packed-to-capacity library (suffice it to say, the architects did not envision a crowd like that ever turning up); I don’t have the photo available (storage shed would be my guess) but you can clearly see me standing by the projector (I grabbed a chair and sat right down next to it when I arrived a half-hour ahead of its scheduled showing) during an intermission like the audio-visual geek I was at the time.

I don’t have to go into great detail of the plot of King Kong: boy meets girl, boy loses girl to giant freaking ape, boy rescues girl, ape goes ape, boy reunites with girl after ape is shot off the Empire State Building.  Watching King Kong that night at the library opened up a brand-new world of wonderment for me.  Not the kind of wonderment that a thirteen-year-old Ray Harryhausen would experience when he first saw the movie—plus, he got a much better deal because he saw it at Radio City Music Hall, where it was preceded by a live show—it influenced him to where he became one of the silver screen’s preeminent special effects wizards, even working with Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Willis O’Brien on the Kong-like Mighty Joe Young (1949).  But it filled me with a kind of awe that there was a sort of…a simple majesty about movies, a magic that results from the simplest methods of filmmaking.

You see, I’ve seen the 1976 remake of Kong.  I wasn’t at all impressed by it.  I’ve also seen the 2005 version, which was three hours and seven minutes of my life that I will never get back.  The filmmakers involved in these two remakes seemed to believe that it was all about making the giant monkey look realistic…and it’s not.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the 1933 Kong, but believe me—I know it’s a stop animation model (the constant “rippling” of Kong’s fur was the result of the SFX folks having to move the model into positions during the filming); and yet there’s a part of me (a kind of childlike wonder) that believes it to be real (the Kong model has a lot of personality for an inanimate object, furrowing his brow and beating his chest).  The magic of the original Kong never ceases to fascinate me; as does the stop motion effects in such Harryhausen efforts as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Another aspect of Kong that I love is that despite the fact that the ape doesn’t make his appearance in the film until forty-seven minutes in, the movie still commands the interest of the audience from the very beginning we hear Max Steiner’s iconic music.  I was twelve years old when I watched Kong at the library, and I’m still amazed that my short attention span was able to sit through the first part of the picture.  It’s the way the filmmakers build the anticipation towards what mysterious thing is behind the huge wall on Skull Island—and believe me, there are a lot of handicaps beforehand to overcome.  As a kid, I didn’t quite catch on to a lot of the sexual imagery and Freudian implications of the film (that would come later in life); all I knew is that the “romance” between Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) was pretty hooty (“Say…I guess I love you!”).  The original Kong also benefits from its breadth of economy in terms of running time—it doesn’t take any longer than it needs to, something the 2005 version decided was unnecessary (I lost count of how many times I glanced at my watch during that thing).  I think most modern-day film releases have forgotten that longer doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Every time I sit down with the original Kong (it’s a favorite at Rancho Yesteryear; my mother calls it “the monkey movie” just as Jaws is “the fish movie”) I always find something I missed on previous viewings.  When I first saw it in 1976, I don’t believe the controversial scene where Kong peels off Fay Wray’s clothing was in the print we watched…and I know some of the more violent scenes that had been snipped in various re-releases weren’t there, like the ape stomping on a few natives and picking folks up in his mouth and chewing on them.  One famous scene that apparently was tossed in a studio furnace (though the 2005 version references it) was a deleted bit where the men who have fallen into a ravine after the mighty ape shakes them off a log bridge are devoured by giant spiders.  You can’t tell me that wouldn’t have been the sign you were really having a bad day:

FIRST MAN: Fred…you okay?
SECOND MAN: I’ve broken both of my legs…and cracked a couple of ribs…but if I get immediate medical attention I might make it…
FIRST MAN: Then maybe I shouldn’t tell you about that gi-normous spider headed our way…

King Kong has been described by many (including yours truly) as The Greatest Monster Movie of All Time.  I believed it when I first saw it in 1976, and I continue to subscribe to it today.  Seeing it pretty much cemented my love of classic movies, and I take comfort in the fact that while my mother often gives me pause to believe that I was a foundling left on a doorstep (she told me the other day that outside of Casablanca, she doesn’t care for Peter Lorre all that much) she’s always up for a viewing of Kong.  (As for my father…well, there’s a reason why large numbers of people watch Cops and Hardcore Pawn, and he’s just a face in the crowd.)  Sometime back when I was being interviewed by The Kitty Packard Project on my devotion for classic film, I noted “There’s a reason why these movies are still popular with audiences, not to mention vehicles like The Wizard of Oz and others—there’s a magic to them that appeals to the kid that I believe is in every one of us.”  It was a movie about an eighteen-foot gorilla (though he’s 24 feet by the time he gets to the Big Apple...talk about a growth spurt) that was responsible for that weaving that spell.


Chris Hewson said...

Yeah, one thing the world did not need was a King Kong remake almost as long as 1900! If only Peter Jackson stuck by his original plan, which would have strayed from the source material, and not been a ten hour xerox.

This was a massive favourite when I was a kid and still is! Unfortunately I was always optimistically curious about what Son of Kong was like, which burnt me when I actually got around to seeing it a month back.

Fritzi Kramer said...

Thanks for the King Kong retrospective! I think movie executives could do with signs that say "brevity is the soul of wit"
There is a reason why the original Kong continues to be the best Kong. Marvelous review/reminisce!

FlickChick said...

Wow - what a well done and wonderful article! What would you give for that picture of yourself in the local paper? You capture a child's fascination with the magic of film perfectly. Love it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great post, and so true about the three TV channels back in the day giving us lots of old movies without us really having to hunt for them.

I've seen the other "Kongs" too, and I agree, the original was the best. I learned how to make a Malay Deadfall with a gentleman's tie. Those are life lessons.

Rich said...

I can't defend the '76 version and won't try (though I've grown to appreciate it somewhat for its camp value), but I honestly feel like someone needs to say a few words in defense of Peter Jackson's version.

Jackson's KONG is overlong and more than a little self-indulgent, yes, but I believe Kong is a much more realized character than in the other two, and the reason why, even more than Andy Serkis' performance, is that of Naomi Watts. She, much more than Fay Wray or Jessica Lange, not only sells you on the reality of Kong as a character, but on their relationship, and I'm genuinely surprised that you never picked up on that, because it is so strong, to the point where I believe there's no contest. KONG '05 is too long, but Watts makes the whole thing worth watching.

John/24Frames said...

Excellent look back. We overlap a bit with KING KONG in our look backs. For me, in NYC, there was a local station (WOR which became a superstation later on) that had Million Dollar Movie, a show that was on every night and for one week straight showed the same film. They showed lots of flicks from RKO and of course KING KONG was one as well as MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Like you say, there were not many stations but there were plenty of movies to fill that air time.

Caftan Woman said...

Thanks. I've been having one of those days where I want to lose myself in a movie, but I don't know what I want to watch. Of course! Kong!

There is a special magic about "King Kong" that touches that spot in our hearts that makes us love movies. The minute the Steiner score starts, I'm hooked.

PS: Don't parents say the darndest things?

Rick29 said...

Ivan, KONG also fascinated me as a kid and continues to do so. Yes, the journey to Skull Island is deadly dull--but once the Big Ape appears, it's all gravy! I didn't even mind the lack of thespian skills displayed by Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot. Kong is the best actor in the movie, thanks to the wizardry of Willis O'Brien. Like you, the remakes held no appeal for me (and ditto for Kong's Japanese film appearances). The public library in my hometown also showed Tuesday evening movies, though the crowd never reached the size of 300 (the room only held about 60 people). Finally, I remember a lot of hoopla surrounding an "uncut" version of the original KONG that played theatrically in the 1970s. I watched it, but had trouble discerning the new footage. I suspect it wasn't much.

Toto said...

You can't help but sincerely care for "Kong" when you see how gentle he is with Fay Wray. When he is on screen, the movie is truly captivating. I really enjoyed your choice, Ivan, of this "monkey movie."

Silver Screenings said...

You've made a very going point about modern King Kong filmmakers getting too caught up in making the ape look realistic. I have also seen the 2005 version (dreck) – give me the 1933 version anytime!

The Lady Eve said...

I saw the 1976 remake and was so unimpressed with it - even 30 years later - that I didn't bother with the 2005 remake. There is only one KING KONG and it was made in 1933. Even though he terrified my mother in a theater when she was a child, I love that big gorilla, rippling fur and all.

grouchomarxist said...

I'm with Rich in the minority that, even with its flaws, found a lot to like in the 2005 remake.

The De Laurentis Kong, though, ay yi yi ... The only good thing about it was that SNL interview with John Belushi playing lovable old Dino:

"When the Jaws die, nobody cry.. when my Kong die, everybody cry. Everybody love my Kong.. kids, women, intellectuals, all love my Kong."

"Don't talk to me about the old Kong. I'm gonna tell you something about the old Kong. They'd call him in to start shooting at six in the morning.. he'd come in drunk. He'd say, we shoot at eight o'clock tonight. What you gonna say to a star that big..."

This isn't to say I don't love the original. It was the very first video I bought for my brand new Betamax. (Had to order it through Circuit City and wait for a month.)

It was definitely one of those movies that cemented my love of classic films. I was lucky enough to see it for the first time on a medium-big screen, back in the early 70s, in an old chapel on a local college campus. I was so completely blown away by it that I didn't mind the crappy sound system or the incredibly uncomfortable wooden pews. (Though I have to admit it was a cool venue for a Halloween screening of the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera, especially when they cranked up their magnificent pipe organ for the unmasking scene.)

In that first visit to Skull Island, O'Brien's attention to detail is simply astounding -- even if he did get some of them wrong. His dinosaurs weren't the lumbering behemoths usually depicted in literature and textbooks of the time, but quick and fierce, like in the Charles Knight drawings which were an obvious inspiration here and in the silent The Lost World.

I love those little touches, too: the way the T-Rex scratches at its ear (ok, tympanic membrane) when Wray starts screaming. O'Brien actually gave some thought to the physics of how a high-pitched noise would affect an eardrum that big. Now that's right damned amazing!

Citizen Screen said...

Wonderful choice and memories. I have a deep affection for Kong myself and you describe his wonder beautifully. I agree too that the biggest mistake the remakes made was trying to make him look too real. By doing so Kong lost all his charm and heart. I give the 1970s version a bit of a pass and tried to enjoy the latest remake, but beyond Kong Jack Black was simply awful (to me) and spoiled one of the greatest lines in film history.

I gotta add that I am super impressed with the choice to show Flash Gordon serials at your library as well. I've seen serials only online and would love to see them on a big screen some day.

Great read!


Gilby37 said...

Ivan, I think you are speaking of many of us when you say that you had parents who allowed you to watch too much TV. I'm so glad that CMBA members got to experience the good old days of anticipation of seeing a classic movie. gatherings like the one at your library are few and far between in our modern world. Thanks for sharing!

Page said...

Hi, Ives!
Before I forget, I love the new powder blue background.

I liked the 76 version of King Kong only because I adore Jessica Lange and I will watch anything she's in over and over. She's my favorite working actress by a mile.

Back to the original though and your observations. I would have to agree that it is the best monster movie of all time.

Thanks for sharing your early experiences with cinema with the rest of us.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Jimmy77 said...

It's interesting how some of the supposedly more violent scenes were cut out of the movie for years, yet the most brutal one was left in. I'm talking about, of course, the King Kong and T-Rex fight. Stepping on and chomping on some hapless victims was really nothing compared to how intense this confrontation was. Kong not only breaks apart the jaws of the T-Rex, but he also breaks its neck while crushing in its skull. This is then all followed by blood and loud cracking sounds. Kong also seems to be going out of his way to rob the T-Rex of any dignity it has left when he rides the dinosaur like a horse. Kong dominates the T-Rex so completely that oddly enough, as a kid, I actually found myself becoming turned on by it, especially at the climax when Kong completely crushes in the jaws and face of the dinosaur. As a youngster, I just found it hard not to get excited by the brutality of the fight in some fashion.