Saturday, March 2, 2013

Happy 80th Birthday, Kong!

Today, my favorite movie of all time turns 80 years old.  Seems hard to believe that it has been eight decades since King Kong made his fateful climb up the side of the Empire State Building with the beautiful Ann Darrow in his hand, only to meet his demise at the hands of a squadron of biplanes.  What is not hard to believe is that the movie has endured, finding new audiences with each successive generation.  It is an incredible film, both in story and in production, and despite the limitations of the era in which it was made, it remains far superior in every way to the attempts to remake it in 1976 and 2005.

King Kong was released on March 2, 1933, in the thick of the Great Depression, and still made over $1.8 million in its initial release (adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of over $300 million today).  In 1938, King Kong became the first movie in history to be re-released; it earned another half million the second time around.

Although often lumped in with the monster movies of its day (Frankenstein and Dracula were only two years old at the time of Kong's release), this is no horror movie.  More than anything, Kong is a story of unrequited love; it just happens that the rejected suitor here is a 24-foot tall gorilla.  If Kong is a monster, it is only because he was forced to be one when kidnapped from his home to be put on display in a world he neither knew nor was capable of understanding.  Had Carl Denham and his crew not been constantly in search of the almighty dollar, Kong would have lived out his days in that prehistoric world hidden behind a giant fence on Skull Island without bothering a soul save the occasional triceratops or an unfortunately wandering native.

The acting is most definitely of the style of the era: stage-heavy, but not stilted. Keep in mind, movies had been silent just six years before; subtlety in delivering lines was not yet well developed among the acting community.  Yet Robert Armstrong nearly steals the movie in the role of Carl Denham.  Yes, he is the heavy who steals Kong away from his paradise, but he is also father figure to Fay Wray's Ann Darrow and narrator for the viewing audience.  Armstrong gives the Denham character a depth that makes him hard to truly dislike.  While he is certainly a money-hungry promoter, he truly cares about his crew, about the young actress he pulled into this adventure, and even about the beast he has inadvertently unleashed in New York City.

It would be easy to dismiss Fay Wray's performance as Ann Darrow as a one-dimensional damsel in distress, but she is a surprisingly strong character when she isn't enfolded in a giant ape's paw.  Yes, she is well-known for her screams throughout the picture (many of which were recorded and added in post-production), but watch the subtleties in her reaction shots, and pay attention to her interaction with the crew of Denham's ship, and especially with her less tall suitor, Jack Driscoll, played by Bruce Cabot.

Driscoll, it turns out, is the one-dimensional character here: he is the stereotypical 1930's guy-who-gets-the-girl. He's got the football team captain looks and spouts the right lines at the right times, but possesses not an ounce of either personality or insight.  Whether it was Cabot's intent to play Driscoll that way or inability to do better, the flatness of our wanna-be hero's presence actually works far better in the film than a charismatic, engaging presence would have.  Nothing should (nor, in truth, could) distract from the true star here.

So much has been written about Willis O'Brien's absolutely astounding special effects given the era in which the film was made that space need not be wasted parroting all of that well-deserved praise here.  All one needs to do is compare the 1933 Kong with the robotic 1976 version and the CGI'd 2005 version to see that a tiny miniature and a stop-motion camera many moons before brought more life and emotion out of Kong than more modern and supposedly more sophisticated technologies did decades later.  Through his facial expressions and body language, you know what Kong is thinking and feeling at every moment.  And if you do not find yourself shedding a tear for Kong at the end, when Denham delivers the film's classic closing line, "It wasn't the planes. It was Beauty killed the beast," you may want to check to see if you actually have a soul.  Of all the characters, it is the wild giant ape who is the most human.

If you have never seen the original King Kong, it is simply a glaring omission from your life experience list that you must correct.  If you can, find the 2005 DVD issue which presents the most complete version of the film available, at a running time of 104 minutes.

Happy 80th birthday, Kong!