Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: KING KONG (1933)

King Kong rules as the alpha ape among a crowd of cinematic simians, and the original 1933 movie that bears his name has influenced countless other films. Many of our modern blockbusters can trace their roots to King Kong; its special effects work and emphasis on big action sequences showed later filmmakers what the masses craved, and for that we can either praise or blame Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who both produced and directed the film. While its oversized stop-motion ape and attitudes toward race and gender might well strike today's viewers as out of date, King Kong remains an essential picture for any horror or adventure genre fan, especially those interested in the evolution of the technical tricks that bring movie monsters to life.

Fay Wray screams and screams again as Ann Darrow, a penniless girl picked up off the street by director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) for his latest crazy picture scheme. Denham leads an expedition to a mysterious island where Kong and his human subjects live, but the movie maker's plans go awry when the natives kidnap Ann as a sacrifice to their giant gorilla god. After much peril and the deaths of numerous men, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) manages to save Ann, and Denham takes Kong as a captive back to New York for public exhibition. Kong inevitably breaks free to run amok in the city, and Ann is once again carried off by her terrifying admirer.

In an age of ever more complicated CGI effects, it's easy to see the limitations of the movie's techniques, and Kong has been parodied and revisited so many times that his power to shock has more or less disappeared. In 1933, however, he really was the Eighth Wonder of the World. Nobody had seen anything like him before, and the scientific study of actual gorillas was still in its infancy, so audiences didn't have extensive knowledge of the animals to contrast with the movie's nightmare vision. Stop-motion makes Kong an expressive, mobile creature, able to fight spectacular battles with dinosaurs and sea serpents, and composite shots of stop-motion and rear projection bring him and his human costars into perilous proximity. The work done by Willis O'Brien to bring the creature to life inspired Ray Harryhausen to make his own stop-motion monsters, and Harryhausen in turn inspired another generation of special effects wizards and blockbuster movie makers to create even more realistic dinosaurs, aliens, and giant gorillas. Without King Kong, we wouldn't have Jason and the Argonauts (1963) or Clash of the Titans (1981), and we wouldn't have Jurassic World (2015), either.

Despite its revolutionary special effects work, King Kong is very much a product of its era, with racy Pre-Code sexuality and casual violence that were excised from later reissues until the end of the Hays Code period. The story, which Denham insists on casting as a version of "Beauty and the Beast," really has more to do with taboo interspecies desire. Ann is chosen by the natives as a "Bride of Kong," which suggests a fate both deeply disturbing and biologically impossible. Kong reinforces the idea in the scene where he pulls away pieces of Ann's clothing like petals from a flower, revealing her exposed flesh for his own enjoyment and the titillation of the audience.The movie opens with a pointedly sexist discussion that segues into Driscoll's begrudging attraction to Ann in spite of her being a useless girl. For her part, Ann spends a lot of time insisting that she hasn't been any trouble to the ship's crew of red-blooded, woman-hating sailors, who then get killed trying to save her from Kong's clutches. The Skull Island natives are an overtly racist mess, while Kong himself is a more subtle commentary on the same themes, and Denham's unchecked capitalist chauvinism never gets the comeuppance it deserves. In a modern movie, at least, we can be pretty sure that the monster will eat a guy like that before the final scene fades. None of these problems should keep people from seeing the picture, since the same sins have been repeated in dozens of blockbusters since, but it's important to go into King Kong with an understanding of its not very subtle subtext.

Robert Armstrong and Frank Reicher return for the sequel, Son of Kong (1933), in which Denham and Captain Englehorn find another giant gorilla on Skull Island. The original movie was remade in 1976 and 2005, but each newer version has problems of its own, with the most recent treatment from Peter Jackson clocking in at a whopping 187 minutes. See more of Fay Wray in Doctor X (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Bruce Cabot, a regular in Westerns, appears in Dodge City (1939), Angel and the Badman (1947), and Cat Ballou (1965). The Most Dangerous Game (1932) makes a fascinating double feature with King Kong; it also stars Fay Wray and was shot on the same sets.