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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Out of This World SciFi/Fantasy Classics: King Kong (1933) review


Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Skull Island warrior chief)

Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest P. Shoedsack

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here tonight to tell you a very strange story. A story so strange, that no one will believe it. But ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we, my partners and I, have brought back the living proof of our adventure... An adventure in which 12 of our party met horrible deaths. And now ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you anymore, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and god in the world he knew. But now he comes to civilization. Merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!"

The Short Version: A timeless, stunning, revolutionary monsterpiece is this, the greatest giant ape opus ever made. Aside from putting an adventure spin on the 1757 tale of 'Beauty and the Beast', KING KONG remains the granddaddy of all monster movies; and one that has influenced the furry flurry of big ape movies that followed in its thunderous footsteps. Prepare to be amazed by one of American cinemas greatest wonders of the motion picture world.

Filmmaker Carl Denham charters a ship to a mysterious island where a legendary giant ape is said to reside. Intending to shoot an epic motion picture there, Denham and his crew arrive and run afoul of virgin sacrifices, dinosaurs and Kong, the god of Skull Island. Realizing the moneymaking potential at hand, the great ape is captured and taken back to civilization where he eventually escapes, and runs amuck in New York City.


"Did you ever hear of Kong? Neither beast nor man. Something monstrous. All powerful. Still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear. Every legend has a basis of truth. I tell you there's something on that island no white man has ever seen. If it's there, you bet I'll photograph it!"

In 1933 a benchmark in Fantasy-SciFi cinema was set when KING KONG was unleashed on a movie-going public hungering for some relief during The Great Depression. Costing a little over $672,000 (a hefty sum at the time), the film made 2 million during its theatrical run that began March 2nd, 1933. Arguably the single most famous giant monster movie of all time, KING KONG has permeated the world cinema iconography unlike any genre picture before or since. Its enduring popularity comes from a variety of factors, but largely due to the imagination and genius of Willis O'Brien and the model-making par excellence of Marcel Delgado.

Prior to KONG, both O'Brien and Delgado had showed what they were capable of with the silent film, THE LOST WORLD (1925) -- itself remade in 1960 directed by Irwin Allen (whose remake is about as hollow as Guillermin's '76 KONG). But it was O'Brien's animation in KK that pushed his imaginative stop-motion skills to another level. Unfortunately, it took him 17 more years to receive acknowledgment for his efforts and groundbreaking effects work. In 1950, O'Brien received a Best Visual Effects award for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). However, it was the hands of artisan Marcel Delgado that crafted the models that O'Brien would bring to life.


The builder of dinosaurs, and most notably for the famous '33 Kong model, Marcel Delgado was a master of the apes long before Rick Baker's expert primate handiwork. Born in Mexico, he was 20 years old when O'Brien gave him an offer he couldn't refuse (but did, initially) wherein Delgado built 49 dinosaur models for the silent film, THE LOST WORLD (1925). Working over two years on the prehistoric picture, his biggest, and most noteworthy work came in the form of Kong, the King of Skull Island (his brother, Victor, assisted him). From there, Delgado began a working relationship with O'Brien on a few films (including SON OF KONG, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD); and unfinished, shelved pictures like CREATION (1931) and WAR EAGLES (1948); and others like THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), DINOSAURUS! (1960), MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961), and 1962s JACK THE GIANT KILLER.

Suffering for nearly a year from head injuries incurred from a fall, the creator of Kong passed away the day after Thanksgiving, November 26th, 1976. Dino De Laurentiis's remake of KING KONG would open just three weeks later. Without O'Brien, Delgado would likely never have graced the screen with his remarkable models; and without Delgado, it's likely O'Brien's animated beasts wouldn't have shocked and awed legions of monster film fans for decades and still counting.


Apes were a popular attraction in movies prior to KONG, and long after it. Few were as big, but none were as famous as the original Eighth Wonder of the World. Constructed from the rubble of an unfinished Willis O'Brien movie titled CREATION (1931), and a first draft script bearing the moniker of 'The Beast', KING KONG was soon to become a reality. Its genesis lay in Merian Coldwell Cooper's fascination with Paul du Chiallu's 1862 book 'Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa'. From the young age of six, the vision of a 'Giant Terror Gorilla' stayed with him till it was visualized on screens around the world in March of 1933.

For a movie made over 80 years ago, KING KONG (1933) holds up incredibly well. Aspects of the film are obviously dated, but overall, it's astonishingly ahead of its time. The production is noteworthy for filmmaking techniques that, despite their antiquated nature compared to those of today, display a passionate level of craftsmanship that will never be replicated. Also in KK's favor is an unusually fast pace. Once the protagonists make it to the island approximately 30 minutes in, the running, screaming, and rampaging beasts take over, and never lets up.


"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead." -- Old Arabian proverb.

One of the first, and most famous examples of the 'Scream Queen', Fay Wray went down in cinema history for the woman that stole Kong's heart in 1933. The image of the stunning Wray in the great apes grasp arguably became the most famous example of the 'Monster and the Girl' motif that would adorn countless genre advertising campaigns for decades. Starring in a few horror films including DOCTOR X and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (both 1932), KING KONG's Ann Darrow is far and away her most famous role. The last line in the picture from Denham, that the planes hadn't felled Kong, but was "beauty killed the beast", is among the iconic pieces of dialog in motion picture history. Wray passed away in August of 2004 shortly before Peter Jackson's KONG remake began filming. 

Among the many striking attributes of KING KONG is its visual canvas. Virtually every special effects trick in the book was used in the picture. Many of these involved multi-layered backgrounds and matte paintings. The jungle sequences are some of the most startling I've ever seen. The level of depth perception is phenomenal. The effects crew designed awe-inspiring vistas of this baroque jungle that oozed something very dangerous, yet possessed a fairy tale quality. 

This sense of depth and scope reaches its zenith during the climactic duel atop the Empire State Building as four buzzing bi-planes fill Kong's body with machine gun bullets. Much like Cagney in WHITE HEAT (1949), Kong is "on top of the world"; and dies in equally spectacular fashion. The '76 version sloppily handled this highlight, while the World Trade Center subs for the Empire State Building. The '05 remake was more successful in reflecting the grandeur of the original. In the '33 version, the surrealism of this gigantic skyscraper relegating the other buildings to an almost ant-like level of stature is breath-taking. With that said, there were other aspects of KONG that took viewers' breath away for other reasons.


"A gift for Kong [he says]...[He] wants to buy her. He's offering to trade six of his women for Ann." -- Captain Englehorn relays to Denham the Skull Island tribal chieftain's offer.

Much has been written by assorted critics who have read a bit too much into the alleged racial subtext of KING KONG. Granted, there are some visible ethnic stereotypes (such as Charlie, the Chinese cook on the ship), but nothing to the extremes of what some say is present just under the surface. Personally, I only just discovered it -- finding it all surprising, if wholly ignorant in its angrier applications. For me, KING KONG is just a movie, and a damn good one. Instead of going over everything some individuals take issue with in detail, I'll highlight links so you can see for yourself. 

Incapable of viewing it as the fantastical monster movie it is, some see it as a racist motion picture. Some have stated their case with restraint, while others have displayed outright hatred for the film. Just google "King Kong racist" and you'll find a variety of opinions on the topic. This detestation seemed to reach an apex with Peter Jackson's "insensitive" 2005 remake. Granted, everything in our modern, mollycoddled, politically correct society is tiresomely labeled as racist; but this eyebrow-raising correlation has been notated and discussed since as far back as the mid 1970s -- only in later years did it seem to be come more common. It can be fun to interpret films, but sometimes, what one sees is often more a reflection of their inner selves, and how they perceive society around them as opposed to some blatant, or hidden meaning allegedly intended by filmmakers.

Personally, I've never (and it seems many others haven't, either) seen KING KONG as anything more than escapist entertainment. It was the time of the Great Depression, and I can't imagine the filmmakers, or even the moviegoers giving a damn about a political agenda. Curiously, to a contingent of viewers, the giant ape symbolizes more than just an enormous gorilla worshiped as a god on some faraway island by primitive natives. Yes, some have viewed Kong as the embodiment of a black slave ripped from his native habitat -- chained and put on display for the enjoyment of onlookers -- as if there were a surplus of rich white gorillas enjoying martinis and banana daiquiris somewhere in the world. 

Admittedly, as far-fetched as some of these claims are, such connections make for interesting reading, but it also brings to question the potential prejudices of those who make them. Taking the monsters size into account, I have no idea how else you'd restrain a 25-50 foot giant if not with chains; yet as these critics seem awfully preoccupied with color -- Kong obviously is not; no, he's an equal opportunity destroyer. Kong shows a noticeably violent disdain for both black and white folks -- stomping, tossing, and eating them as he seeks out Ann -- the one woman that captured his fancy. 

Oddly enough, virtually no one bitched, nitpicked, nor complained about the natives attempting to trade six of their own women for Ann; or for the fact that King Kong himself was built entirely by a genius Mexican immigrant; and where is the furor over the Japanese in black-face natives of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)? If you look hard enough, you'll "see something" in every movie, or work of art. But many won't have to look too far to see that KING KONG (1933) is no more than an exceptionally well made piece of entertainment. As Freud would likely have said, "Sometimes a movie is just a movie."


A number of plot details were removed between the time the film went from 'The Beast', to 'The Eighth Wonder', then 'Kong' before the 'King' was added to the title. Initially, a group of convicts were part of the plotline, but were removed. Carl Denham's profession changed from a big game hunter to a filmmaker. The motivation of Denham going to the island was altered. Some scenes were written that presented a softer, gentler side to Kong, but these, too, were cut. After its completion, the filmmakers had a rather robust, if lengthy movie on their hands that would lose some of its action sequences; some of which would become legend over the years.

At 125 minutes, Cooper deemed the picture too long, and a few sequences were removed to speed things up; these included the elimination of the CREATION footage of the Arsinoitherium; shots of a charging Styracosaurus; Ann menaced by a giant snake prior to the Kong and Tyrannosaur battle; and the fabled, much coveted 'Spider Pit' sequence.

The violence in KING KONG was extraordinary for the time. Granted, the Hays Code wasn't being enforced to the degree it would be the following year, so questionable material in movies was common. Much of this risque material was violence wrought by the monsters both on and off Skull Island, namely the title primate. Some of the scenes severed from the film for its 1938 re-release include Kong removing Ann's clothes, his rampage on the native village where he stomps, smashes and eats the natives, and when he casually drops a woman to her death mistaking her for Ann during the conclusion. It wasn't until 1956 that most of the cut footage was re-implemented. Today, all surviving, or known edited sequences have been restored. There remains a modicum of hope that somebody runs across the lost 'Spider Pit' footage so that fans can finally see what O'Brien referred to as his finest animation.


1. KING KONG was sequelized in rapid fashion just nine months after its release with SON OF KONG (1933). An inferior film, it expanded on the Carl Denham character that was mostly glossed over in the first movie.

2. Caricatures of Kong have been featured in a variety of animated, and hand-drawn cartoons for decades (including THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY). One of the most well known among fans is THE KING KONG SHOW from 1966 -- a Rankin Bass/Toei Studios endeavor.

3. Cooper and Shoedsack's movie was hugely popular in Japan. A Japanese film studio even produced their own version in 1938 entitled KING KONG APPEARS IN EDO. It is now a lost film, as some 90% of Japanese movies prior to the end of WW2 are no longer in existence from multiple reasons. KK partially inspired the Nipponese sensation, GOJIRA (1954), or GODZILLA. So successful was GODZILLA, that Toho Studios eventually hit on the idea of pitting both top draw monsters against one another in the same film. KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) became, and remains the biggest moneymaker in Toho's long-running G series. Ironically, the giant island-dwelling ape was more popular in Japan than their own homegrown leviathan.

4. The aforementioned THE KING KONG SHOW was turned into a live-action kiddie epic via Rankin-Bass and Toho in 1967. The resultant film, KING KONG ESCAPES, remade classic moments from the 1933 original movie.

5. The giant gorilla was the centerpiece of a variety of commercials ranging from Pistachio's to cars, trucks, and even burgers; the latter of which was a Bembos Burgers commercial where Godzilla put in a cameo. Arguably the most ambitious of these was a 1972 David Allen stop-motion animated Volkswagen commercial. In the 90s the great ape headlined commercials for Coca-Cola and Energizer Batteries. He was also used as a publicity tool for the films 50th Anniversary in 1983 when an 84 foot KK balloon was attached to the Empire State Building.

6. Kong was the inspiration for the classic video games Donkey Kong and Rampage for various gaming platforms. A giant rampaging gorilla was also a part of the Playstation 2 giant monster game War of the Monsters from 2003.

7. Numerous comic books and magazines have featured Kong's likeness, or aped a famous shot from the original movie substituting a different character. During its original run, Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine put the Eighth Wonder on their cover in one form or another on eight different occasions.

8. The character was parodied in movies (AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON [1989]), was the center of bizarre plot points (the 1978 European movie, BYE BYE MONKEY) and utilized in song lyrics (THE MUPPET MOVIE [1979], ABBA's 'King Kong Song' from 1974). Additionally, Skull Island was the setting for the opening of Peter Jackson's gore-soaked zombie comedy-horror film, DEAD ALIVE (1992).

9. KING KONG (1933) was cloned in motion picture form a number of times, most infamously in the late 1970s. In the 1960s, there was the trashy KONGA (1961). The barrel scraping THE MIGHTY GORGA closed out the decade in 1969. QUEEN KONG (1976) was a spoof from Great Britain; THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) emerged from Hong Kong; and YETI: GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY (1977) hailed from Italy.

10. The original 1933 production has been remade on two occasions thus far. Although there have been numerous attempts to remake the film over the years, the first remake came in 1976 under the direction of John Guillermin; and again in 2005 from Peter Jackson.

Still a cinematic marvel over 80 years after its original theatrical release, KING KONG (1933) continues to leave an indelible mark on pop culture; a remarkable feat. It's the vintage version of today's Hollywood blockbuster, but forged in a way that is quickly becoming a dying art. Hands of the artists that brought Kong and his surroundings to life are rapidly being replaced by hands who create their fantasies inside a computer. Whether mesmerizing audiences with its imagery, its spectacle, or its creatures, Cooper and Shoedsack's production of KING KONG (1933) laid the groundwork for all those that followed in the mighty apes enormous footprints. It is truly one of the greatest wonders of the cinema world that continues to astonish and entertain audiences all these years later.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers 2 disc set.

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