Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
King Kong is the touchstone movie for fantasists, surrealists and special effects daydreamers. Many cameramen and effects technicians can trace their interest in film directly back to childhood screenings of this amazing show. Master adventurers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack must have felt bored locked up on the R.K.O. lot, trying to keep the studio out of bankruptcy in the depths of the Depression. Then Cooper connected with effects artist ("technician" - bah!) Willis O'Brien and his amazing prehistoric illusions made from steel and latex. The maker of The Lost World (1925) was lamenting a troubled project, but when Cooper saw amazing possibilities in a fantastic jungle adventure, history was made.
Warners has been prepping King Kong for DVD for a long time and has come up with source elements and various forms of visual clean-up to make this familiar classic look newer than new.
Documentary film producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has to sneak his chartered ship Venture out of the port of Manhattan to avoid legal entanglements. Along with him go cameras, film, extra crewmen and plenty of guns and ammunition -- and a penniless derelict beauty from the Bowery, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). Their destination is a secret. Denham is determined not to let his unknown jungle thrill fall into other hands. Whatever it is, it can be filmed, which is why Miss Darrow is along - Denham's previous films have been criticized for the lack of a 'romance angle.' But when ship approaches the mist-shrouded Skull Island and hears native drums over the sound of the surf, everyone knows the expedition is in for adventure.
It's hard to imagine the impact King Kong must have had in 1933 -- the world had simply seen nothing remotely like it before on a screen. There's no comparison between this adventure's multiple episodes of high jeopardy and delirious fantasy and contemporary shows such as Trader Horn or the Tarzan series. Kong's thrill-ride construction and mounting excitement are difficult to top, even now.
The enormous hit was so popular that it held engagements in two of Manhattan's largest movie theaters simultaneously. Details of its magical special effects were left unexplained and un-promoted, allowing hucksters to claim that actors had donned a monkey suit to play the starring role. Various cultural factions have since laid claim to Kong. Art students marvel at the film's visions of Gustav Doré illustrations come to life. Musicologists point to Max Steiner's themed, tailored soundtrack music as a landmark in modern film scoring. And surrealists have kept the film alive in academic discussions as a prime example of the Irrational breaking through to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting normality. The giant ape from Skull Island has been made the symbol of a thousand political cartoons and has been suggested as symbolizing everything from the backlash of the Third World to the eruption of erotic desire in a repressed society. One of the best theories poses Kong as the anarchic Spirit of the Depression, a primitive force carrying out our inner desire to destroy an oppressive society. Merian Cooper surely had the inkling of these ideas in mind when he ended his picture on a fairy-tale note: "It was beauty killed the beast." Nice try, Denham ... okay boys, slap the cuffs on this lunatic while the lawyers figure out who's responsible for this carnage.
King Kong is the exact opposite of the drearily-plotted proposed film Creation detailed on one of the lengthy featurettes on this new disc. Even the episodic The Lost World was dramatically flat, but Kong adds a weird 'romance angle' that makes everything work. Unemployed Manhattanite Ann Darrow says yes to a guy with a great line -- "No funny stuff, strictly on the level" -- and a few weeks later finds herself kidnapped by a giant ape and facing a terrifying fate. Kong uses a slow build-up to introduce its characters and to establish the bizarre setting of a prehistoric island dominated by an incredible mystery. Then Darrow is given to Kong in a ritual sacrifice and the entire last 2/3 of the film becomes an extended action scene in a fantastic jungle setting. Most of the rest of the movie is dialogue-free, save for Ann Darrow's constant screaming. Fay Wray's shrieks are undoubtedly the most famous screams in screen history.
King Kong is magically superior filmmaking. As with other mavericks like Howard Hughes Cooper and Schoedsack were playing outside the normal Hollywood pattern, putting their own personal fantasies on film. Once one realizes that various characters were meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, the film's acting compares favorably with many films of 1933 -- have you seen Cavalcade, the Best Picture Oscar winner of that year?
The movie represents a giant leap forward in all technical departments. The Talkie Era was firmly established with the picture's fully designed sound-scape. Musical moods match the action on-screen as tightly as the sound effects, which are chosen for dramatic effect over realism. The static, music-free first few reels make the ominous entry of jungle drums at Skull Island all the more of a contrast. Editing tempos rise and fall with the action, and the cutting becomes nightmarish in the New York finale. Fast cuts of terrified faces make the threat of Kong personal while the sight of the ape demolishing a modern city hits the heights of pulp surrealism. The film also packs a strong charge of erotic Horror, a new Modern Horror separate from the Gothic norm of Dracula and Co. The terror is arbitrary and savage. Seeking one particular female, Kong sees a second in a window, and climbs to find an unlucky third woman sleeping peacefully in her bed. She's yanked from her dreams by an unimaginably ferocious monster and dangled dozens of stories over the city. When Kong realizes his mistake, he thoughtlessly drops her to her death. Imagined from the point of view of the sleeping woman, the episode is uniquely chilling. The censors must have thought so too, as they cut the scene along with a half-dozen others, in 1938.
The movie proves the superiority of special effects design over simple technical achievement. King Kong's miraculous effects are amazing for 1933, superb work done with limited film stocks and a lot of mechanical invention. Live action, animated figurines, matte paintings, miniatures and even cartoon animation are combined in ways that still intrigue modern effects people aware of just how few effects tools existed in 1933. The film is as much as an adventure into the unknowns of filmmaking, as were Cooper and Schoedsack's journeys to far-off lands in Chang and Grass.
Finally there is Kong himself, the first modern giant movie monster and one of the few capable of generating a thrill beyond the mere novelty of destructive daydreams. Kong has a personality and feelings and is uncommonly gentle with Ann Darrow. To possess her he'll take on native warriors, bomb-throwing sailors and challenge an entire world beyond his comprehension. King Kong is the story of the 20th century, when everything rural and wild came to the city to be transformed... or destroyed. Kong creates havoc in the streets but is soon reduced to a public enemy on the run. He takes his Beauty to the highest peak but his conquest is only temporary -- the world of Man is not going to leave him in peace. One doesn't have to relate to Kong as loveable to register a sense of loss when he's finally brought down.
According to the IMDB, W.C. Fields' paramour Carlotta Monti is somewhere in the show ... I wonder if she's the premiere attendee that cracks wise about there already being enough apes in New York. And famous Native American athlete Jim Thorpe is said to be one of Noble Johnson's Skull Island warriors, in blackface, I'd have to guess.
Warners' two-disc Special Edition of King Kong is worth the build-up, as the picture looks better than ever before and the second disc contains upwards of three hours of quality extras including a genuine surprise from New Zealand. If I heard the multi-part making-of docu correctly the picture source is a prime 1933 English release print containing all of the scenes cut for the 1938 release in matching quality, without telltale splice jumps. Savant has seen the movie in theaters but never a really good print. The slightly grainy image shows more detail than ever before, especially in areas of the screen that were previously darker. Foliage stands out better now, and so do the rough edges of all of the 1933 special effects techniques - traveling mattes with odd contrast mismatches, unwanted images that at times 'ghost' through solid objects. Eyes accustomed to modern CGI effects will need to re-educate themselves, as King Kong's magic is much more than a perfect matte line or an animation model with fur that doesn't ripple as it is being animated.
The clear sound track has an extra goodie not heard by this reviewer before, an overture cue before the main titles.
The special edition extras are truly special due mainly to the loving affection for Kong represented by the participation of top effects people inspired by Willis O'Brien, the Hollywood Children of Ray Harryhausen. Phil Tippet and Rick Baker are among the happy interviewees on Sparkhill's long string of featurettes that cover all aspects of things Kong. There's an exhaustive account of the (very bad) plot of the proposed Creation and a good run-down on the difficulties in creating the sound effects from Murray Spivack in person. Knowledgeable experts make interesting observations about the craft of monster-maker Marcel Delgado and Willis O'Brien. Animator Randall William (Randy) Cook points out a telling character detail - when Ann Darrow is attacked by the serpent in the cave, Kong's attention is diverted because he's picking a flower for her. Harryhausen himself provides the informal feature commentary for his favorite film accompanied by special effects supervisor Ken Ralston. Harryhausen talks about visiting the East Indian Ocean with his wife in search of an Island like the 'real' Skull island, a story that would be hard to believe if he didn't say it so matter-of-factly. Archived audio bites from Fay Wray and Merian C. Cooper are interpolated into the mix.
But the best extra is provided by Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson, who reveals himself to be this film's super-fan of all time and a man of uncommon good will. Already a collector of existing artifacts from the original shooting, he gathers together his effects crew to re-create the missing Spider Pit sequence. In what must be the most elaborate effort ever for a DVD, Jackson's crew painstakingly designs and builds five pit monsters and animates them the old-fashioned way, allowing us to appreciate what David Allen called the "Lost Art" of the stop-motion technique. Their re-creation is then cut into the existing picture (as an extra excerpt) to convincing effect. The WETA group also restores the Styracosaurus that was omitted from the original cut, even though the fleeing sailors are obviously being chased by something close on their heels. The 'new' sequence is in B&W and treated to match the original look of the film; they've even put flaws into the shots consistent with the effects in Kong -- some ghosting of images during compositing, etc. It's obvious that the Spider Pit was an unnecessary and overly gruesome digression, but we'd still like to see the original. That crazy two-legged lizard that climbs up underneath Jack Driscoll did indeed come from the pit below. The spirit of the sequence eventually found expression in O'Brien's The Black Scorpion; the inky-black spider puppet in that film (the one that crumples when shot) may have been originally built for Kong. 1
What the new Spider Pit sequence reminds us of most is Peter Jackson's Forgotten Silver with its painstaking recreations of antique filmmaking. And almost a bigger surprise is Jackson himself, who appears to have lost a huge amount of body weight. He's transformed into almost a different person! Although Jackson's new Kong remake is for a different studio the lack of any direct mention of it in the extras is a refreshing touch. Jackson's participation throughout speaks of filmmaking excitement, not marketing strategy.
As they say, that's not all. I'm King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper is the hour-long cable documentary about the amazing filmmaker's adventurous life that we've already had a hint of in the Milestone DVD reissues of Chang and Grass. It was produced by Kevin Brownlow's Photoplay productions for TCM. The original Creation test footage digitally cleaned up by WETA is viewable separately, along with the new Spider Pit scene.
The final extra is a string of trailers for features produced by Merian C. Cooper. Not included, nor mentioned anywhere on the disc is Cooper and Schoedsack's ultra-weird 1935 version of She with Helen Gahagan Douglas and Randolph Scott. It would make a terrific double bill with the 1965 Hammer She but I believe it's no longer in the official RKO library. Cooper worked a lot with John Ford. He brought in outside money from deep-pocket Easterners like John Hay (Jock) Whitney, and was part of the informal Ford family. In Cooper's commentary bites we learn that he married Dorothy Jordan, a favorite Ford actress who played Martha in The Searchers. According to Cooper, he had casting meetings with both Jordan and the incomparably cute Fay Wray, who always reminded Savant of an idealized adult Shirley Temple. He chose Wray to act and Jordan to marry. I think we can hear Ms. Jordan in the background, laughing at that remark.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
King Kong rates:
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Subtitles: English, Spanish, French; Commentary by Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray; I'm Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper -- 2005 documentary; Merian C. Cooper Movies Trailer Gallery; RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World - 7 Part Documentary: The Origins of "King Kong", Willis OBrien and "Creation", Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder, A Milestone in Visual Effects, Passion, Sound and Fury, The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence, King Kong's Legacy, Creation Test Footage with Commentary by Ray Harryhausen
Packaging: two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2005
1. Rumors got out of control earlier this year when websites reported sketchy information that the original Spider Pit, or some part of it, had been found. That leaked the secret WETA project in an unforeseen manner, adding more excitement to the release of this DVD. Savant received later "hush-hush" word that 'fragments' of the missing scene were indeed found "in a French print." I now have to assume that I was being fed disinformation and am glad I stopped reporting on the issue.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson