Saturday, 11 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: King Kong (1933)


Dirs. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Finally, since an unknown period where I first saw an image of the legendary ape, as a child like most of us when we dig into books about horror films, I've seen King Kong. The original version, not one of the many remakes or spin-offs. Here's a slight tangent - why do we take so long to see established classics, leading to many of us having a list each of films we're ashamed of never seeing? Probably because we know - the films in question almost always available, usually preserved for future prosperity or in heavy rotation for new formats or special edition releases by studios - the film can be prioritised in favour of lesser known ones and those in danger of being left on the wayside, even if it's ten or more years later you finally get round to the well known film. This is neither helped by the way the DVD and Blu-Ray industry works - my most feared and despised phrases are "limited edition", "out-of-print" or "bankrupt or out-of-business DVD company" - and while they are yet, thankfully, less common for me then I'd worry about them to be, there is a bad habit of mine to worry about this and completely neglect all the well known films that deserve to be seen. Thankfully King Kong is no longer an issue.

Back to the film itself, it's well known and entrenched in pop culture - parodied many times, remade twice, the latter by Peter Jackson. In complete contrast to its 2005 remake, with its longer length and added dramatics, the original version in comparison to the mega-blockbuster version feels like a b-movie, which could've transitioned to a cheaper work with far less spectacular effects in the fifties. The lack of pretence is surprising, but it's also refreshing, as it certainly has the gloss behind it with its elaborate crowd scenes and sets. It's just that it never troubles itself with pretence, closer to those monster b-flicks of decades later. A group of people, lead by risk taking, adventurous film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)  go to Skull Island, hoping the legend of a god called 'Kong' is true. The down-on-her-luck Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), after found by Denham trying to shoplift an apple from a grocery stand, is given a moment of wondrous luck, not only given a paying job to help her off her feet but also one as a lead actress in his planned film. In a funny anecdote by Denham, the reason he had to have an actress, choosing her, is because the critics demanded his films have romance in them, impossible in not evoking the hoops Hollywood films have to go through to appeal to everyone now. Also for her favour is that one of the crew of the ship, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), is attracted to her and she starts to like him too. Unfortunately there is the issue of the tribe on Skull Island and Kong. Cue a giant stop motion ape. Kong himself marks a flag in the rise of stop motion as an art form, the work of Willis H. O'Brien on him stunning for me to see, but added to knowing the individuals who learnt from his techniques. Personally the most interesting thing as a viewer is that, while the central character here too, he is simply a brutish beast, the monster of a b-movie to threaten the human characters. He has too much charisma, through O'Brien's talents, to be merely a plot device, but he's still a giant, violent gorilla who wrecks anything in his path even though he doesn't have concepts of good and evil in his simian head. Admittedly the circumstances, though you're entirely on the side of the human characters, or are supposed to, are probably why he has become such an iconic, sympathetic even as a beast. That, and for me, how much the poor bugger has to put up with, especially as whilst still on Skull Island, he has to protect poor Ann Darrow three times from the dinosaurs and other beasts living around him one-after-one without a break, not leaving him along and with the human interfering with his business. The only thing that may put you against Kong is that, in an eyebrow raising moment where he peels Darrow's clothing, he is more than likely a perverted monkey, but I don't want to go any further in that directions.

There is a danger that next to the ape, pervert or not, the human characters will become uninteresting. Thankfully this film is entrenched in the rules of pulp storytelling found in short stories and adventure comics - make sure the characters have enough to like, enough charisma, even in the Chinese chef on the ship's crew who gets a line or two to make him memorable, but not waste time with fluff like "drama" or "psychology" that'll get in the way of a romp and a giant ape fighting a dinosaur. Even Wray, who is a proto-scream queen here, continually in high pitch or fainting, never becomes a flimsy damsel in distress. (Interestingly, she does remind me physically of Naomi Watts, who would play Darrow in Peter Jackson's version). The spectacle itself around them is entertaining because of the pulpy nature. The practical effects look fake now, but the stop motion and superimposition of said effects with real actors (not their stop motion doubles) has a magic to them that's still exists, shining more in fact knowing how painstakingly hard it must have been for those involved to have to, frame-by-frame, move Kong and the other beasts to make up a single minute of footage, let alone a whole feature's worth of effects. Their artificiality also adds to their virtue, the weight still there but the fantastical nature of the effects, because they are obvious,  equal. Case in point is Kong himself, moments of fluid, tremendously detailed expression and gesture in the model through O'Brien's work, but also there is a spasmodic twitch to all examples of the art form I've seen, here and in films now that use stop motion in a reflective quality, where to fit the fact the ape is given life through constant movement, even his fur, possibly by accident, is in constant flux and as alive. By the end, the skill to give Kong life helps immensely, as powerful now seeing the iconic Empire State Building sequence as it might've been back in the thirties, only now the casual lack of pretence makes the scene more worthwhile for me to see finally in its original context. Especially in vast contrast to Peter Jackson's take, seen once all the way through, seen in fragments on holiday this year, including the Empire State Building scene, which is so overtly dramatic, emotionally arch that it's terrible kitsch, not even the good kitsch with reflection and reward to it.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
There is a strangeness to stop motion because of its artificiality mixed with the skill in its creation. But aside from that, there wasn't any chance of this qualifying for the list.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
Is King Kong appropriate for a Halloween season? Well it involves a giant ape, monster movies appropriate for the season, as with giant dinosaurs terrorising people. There is the infamous spider pit scene, deemed too gruesome and lost, that sounds like it went into the horror abruptly in an adventure romp. As much as I have no interest in Jackson's remake, his remaking of the lost scene sounds interesting to see, having been made available and done inbetween making his own adaptation of the entire movie. The original film itself is also worth taking a slot in this just for me being able to see it. Knowing the influence this film has had on popular culture and that a lot of films have replicated the plot of this over and over again, be they a- to z-grade movies, and that this has had influence in everything from stop motion effects in other movies to Kong having a major role in a Godzilla film as a titular opponent in Japan. While the planes and beauty both caused his end, Kong is still a beloved and immortalised creation, and the links to this film make it necessary to have in the blog.  

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