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’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.
(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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.