Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Film Appreciation - Holy Mackerel, What a Show!


Cody Hamman celebrates the 80th anniversary of King Kong for Film Appreciation.

March 2, 2013 marked the 80th anniversary of the premiere of directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong and I was surprised at how the day passed by with so little fanfare. At any rate, I didn't see much of a big deal being made about it, despite how popular the film still is even this many decades into its existence.

The initial idea for the film came from Cooper, who had long had an interest in monkeys and apes. After reading W. Douglas Burden's 1928 account of his expedition into the East Indies in search of the massive reptiles that were said to live there, reptiles which we now know as Komodo dragons because Burden called them such, Cooper came up with the idea of a film centered on a gorilla fighting Komodo dragons. When Cooper first pitched the idea, it was deemed by the studio system to be too costly. It wasn't until he was working for RKO in 1931 that he saw an opportunity to make his "gorilla vs. lizards" movie before him - the studio had already built a jungle stage for their production of The Most Dangerous Game, which could also be used for the gorilla picture, erasing the expense of location jungle shoots. At the same time, a movie about shipwrecked sailors going up against dinosaurs on an uncharted island was going over budget. That film was cancelled, but the stop motion dinosaurs created by Willis O'Brien, a special effects artist who had long been bringing creatures to life on the screen, going back to shorts and features in the silent era, most notably the 1925 dinosaur movie The Lost World, impressed Cooper... O'Brien could bring his gorilla to life, and he could bring the dinosaurs from the cancelled project along with him, using them in place of Komodo dragons.

Over time, screenwriters Edgar Wallace, James A. Creelman, Horace McCoy, Leon Gordon, and Ruth Rose all worked with Cooper on getting the story just right. When the project moved forward into production, Cooper chose to co-direct the film with Rose's husband Ernest B. Schoedsack, with Cooper overseeing the effects-heavy sequences and Schoedsack working with the actors.

The film begins with filmmaker Carl Denham, who makes adventurous movies featuring exotic animals that he has no fear of, preparing to leave on a ship from New York to start his next production. What's odd is the fact that he has packed his ship with three times more crew than necessary and that the cargo includes a large amount of explosives, ammunition, and even gas bombs powerful enough to knock out an elephant.

The one thing the ship lacks is a woman, an actress for the movie. Denham needs to find one before they can set sail, because the public and exhibitors have demanded that his films start featuring actresses, they want to see love interests and romance blended in with the adventure and wildlife. Rose based Denham's personality on Schoedsack, but a lack of female presence in his movies is something Cooper had been previously criticized for, and it's the reason why his story always required that a female character be featured in it. Unfortunately for Denham, the secrecy surrounding his latest project and his reputation of recklessness is working against him, agents won't let him use any of their actresses... So he goes out looking for one on the streets of New York.

He finds the perfect potential star in lovely but down-on-her-luck former extra Ann Darrow, Fay Wray in the role that has made her immortal in the minds of cinephiles and a character that Rose, who was also an actress, wrote some of herself into. Ann is homeless and must steal food to survive, and Denham gets into her good graces by saving her from an angry street vendor. Joining Denham on his picture ship was too dangerous a prospect for most actresses, but when he lays it out to Ann - the chance to star in a movie, go on the adventure of lifetime, and get money and clothes - it's an offer she can't refuse.

The ship sets sail, and Denham doesn't give anyone details on their destination or what he aims to capture on camera until they're well on their way. Like W. Douglas Burden going to the East Indies to find the legendary dragons, Denham is taking his cast and crew beyond the East Indies, to an uncharted island described by a man on his deathbed - an island recognizable by the frightening landmark of a skull-faced mountain. An island which is is the heart of the legend of a monstrous, all powerful creature called Kong, a creature that is neither beast nor man and holds the island in a grip of deadly fear.

Passing through a great fog bank, Denham's ship does indeed reach Skull Island, which he and his crew find to be inhabited by a tribe of natives... Natives that worship the mysterious Kong, which they keep on the other side of a huge wall built between the jungle and their village centuries ago. The outlanders interrupt a ceremony during which the islanders are preparing to offer up one of their women to their ruler as "the bride of Kong"... and when the natives spot Denham's group, they change their plans - they want to give Ann to Kong. They're so determined to do so, that after Denham and his men whisk Ann back to the safety of the ship, they just raid the ship under the cover of night and kidnap the poor actress.

Natives lead the struggling, screaming Ann through the massive gate into Kong's domain, where she is tied to a platform and offered up as his new bride... Just over 46 minutes into the film, the title character, one of the most iconic creatures in cinema history, brought to life through Willis O'Brien's fantastic stop motion effects work, makes his appearance. We see the creature that the natives worship, a creature of legend, the thing that Denham has come to Skull Island to find. King Kong, a twenty-five foot tall gorilla-esque beastie. And when Kong lays eyes on Ann, it's love at first sight. He snatches her up and carries her off into the jungle.


From that point on, the film is almost nonstop action, with nearly 40 minutes of it being a total creature extravaganza as Denham and his men - including the ship's first mate Jack Driscoll, with whom Ann has struck up the beginnings of a relationship; Cooper did indeed get some romance into his film this time around - track Kong and Ann through the jungle and the remains of the cancelled "men shipwrecked on an island of dinosaurs" film show up. Kong's jungle is packed with the stop motion dinosaurs O'Brien created for the abandoned project, and the men and Kong go up against a stegosaurus, a brontosaurus, a plesiosaurus, and a pteranodon, among other prehistoric creatures that are glimpsed. Kong even engages in a showstopping brawl with a tyrannosaurus rex.

Many lives, both human and dinosaur, are lost on the way to the moment when Denham finally puts some of those gas bombs to use on Kong... Then the beast that dominated Skull Island and was worshipped by its primitive inhabitants is transported to New York City, where it's chained up and becomes a simple large animal to put on display for crowds of people to gawk at. But Kong's infatuation with Ann does not weaken, and when he busts loose of his bindings, he pursues her through the urban jungle of the modern world, to tragic results. The creature that is at first a terrifying monster ends up being a very sympathetic figure.

It's easy to see why King Kong was such a massive success when it was first released in 1933 (and during its several re-releases over the next 20+ years) - it's a spectacle on what was then an unheard of scale. Big, fast paced, constantly exciting, it builds and builds to one of the most famous climactic sequences ever.

80 years on, King Kong is still immensely entertaining, and ultimately heartbreaking. The action sequences remain thrilling, and the special effects are still quite impressive. Willis O'Brien did an amazingly awesome job on this film, and age has brought to his work an added charm.

King Kong is one of the all time greats, evident from the fact that it endures and continues to be revered these many years later. If Cooper hadn't managed to spin his primate fascination into such a rousing adventure film, cinema would have been greatly lacking over the last 80 years. Not only would it be missing one of its greatest, earliest spectacles, but the likes of Ray Harryhausen wouldn't have seen it and been inspired to create their own great works, and who knows how many giant monster movies we would've missed out on? I may have found the observations of its 80th anniversary to be lacking, but its legacy continues, and 85, 90, 100 years after its premiere and beyond, King Kong will be remembered.

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