Sunday, December 11, 2016

King Kong (RKO, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I showed my friend Bob R. the King Kong tape, and he liked the movie but faulted it technically. He was impressed by the way the ape was designed — with stouter legs, arms and trunk than a really existing gorilla, which would be necessary (from a bioengineering point of view) to support the weight of a creature of such size — but was upset at how fast the animated creatures moved, unnaturally quickly given their body weight as depicted. The film has become a hallowed classic, both due to the amazing (for their time) effects and the interesting sense of characterization Willis O’Brien and his technicians gave to Kong, but some of the animation looks pretty stiff and jerky (while some of it is brilliant — the degree of smoothness is really variable, and indicates that the animators got better at it as the production progressed). Bob did like the fact that the film was so visually oriented — directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack structured it so that, once the rather talky opening is past, long sequences have no dialogue at all — after the rather dialogue-driven Bogart movies I’d been running him, he was relieved to see an action movie for a change. — 3/18/93


I came back here at 10 and crashed about an hour and a half later — and this morning, having a hard time sleeping from all the heat, humidity and generally testy weather, I ran the “uncensored” tape of the original King Kong from 1933. Interesting similarities to Jurassic Park, less in the subjects of the movies themselves than in the times in which both were released (times of economic depression — one suspects King Kong served the same fantasy purpose during the First 20th Century Depression that Jurassic Park is serving in the Second 20th Century Depression: getting people’s minds off their economic troubles by depicting worlds in which the elemental struggle is for sheer survival — though Kong at least mentioned the Depression in its opening scenes, while Jurassic proceeds in ignorance of it, as if this is still the 1980’s). It’s ironic to note just how many direct quotes from Kong are in Jurassic — not merely the camp gates (as if we didn’t get the reference from the visual quote, as the cars pass through the gates of Jurassic Park one of the characters says, “What are we going to see — King Kong?”) but also the bleeding dinosaur in a later scene being another obvious example.

Kong remains a superb movie today: beautifully staged and paced, with impeccably done special effects (about the only problem with the effects — aside from the one Bob R. noticed, which is that the dinosaurs do move too fast for their body weight as depicted — is the sometimes shaky process work by which the animated models were matted into scenes with human performers) and, above all, a plot that stems from passionate conviction. The filmmakers — Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack and his wife, screenwriter Ruth Rose — clearly put themselves into this film (the Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray characters were clearly inspired by Cooper, Schoedsack and Rose, respectively), and the main reason this movie holds up so well (while the 1976 remake was a mega-flop) is that the people involved in this production actually knew the way of life they were depicting. They may never have run into giant apes or living dinosaurs, but they’d lived and suffered through enough natural challenges that they knew how they’d react if they ever did — and it’s that conviction (satisfying the first law of fantasy: that, once the initial fantastic premise is passed, the rest of the film must be absolutely realistic and accurate as to human behavior), even more than Willis O’Brien’s special-effects genius, that makes this movie live. — 7/2/93


I walked over to his place at 6:30, after giving my roommate John P. his dinner, and ran Charles the dual tape I’d made years ago of the movies King Kong (the restored version) and Son of Kong. As I mentioned to Charles, what I find the most interesting thing about these movies is not so much their fabled special effects (though even by modern standards, the effects work in both films remains stunning — about the only lapse being that some of the animals move too quickly, a flaw Charles noticed as Bob R. had when I showed him the original King Kong) as their dramatic honesty. I pointed out that the filmmakers, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, had made their reputations with documentary films made in jungle and desert locations, and one film in particular — Chang, their 1927 film about a village in Thailand menaced by a mysterious beast who proves to be an elephant (“chang” being the Thai word for elephant) — provided the overall structure and inspiration for King Kong. As Orville “Goldie” Goldner (who actually worked on the production of the Kong films) and George E. Turner wrote in their book The Making of King Kong, “King Kong is essentially a fantastic version of the realistic Chang, an expansion of genuine adventures encountered by the producers and writers into the realm of the impossible.” There are many sequences in Kong that are out-and-out reproductions of scenes that apparently appeared first in Chang (a movie I’ve never seen but have read a great deal about), including the sequences of Kong’s final stampede through the native village on Skull Island, in which various natives get trampled by the monster and a woman comes in and scoops up her child out of the path of the rampaging Kong at the last minute to save its life.

More importantly, the documentary experience of the filmmakers behind King Kong is, I think, responsible for the basic honesty of the film. As the Goldner/Turner quote above suggests, Cooper and Schoedsack were sufficiently experienced as documentarians and explorers that, though they had never seen a 50-foot ape themselves and knew full well they almost certainly never would, they knew how they and their characters should react in that type of situation. This kind of honesty appears in virtually every frame of these films; when Fay Wray appears at the beginning, she’s wan, almost anorexic and looks like a New York street girl who’s desperately poor, which is what she’s supposed to be playing, rather than a glamorous actress wearing a dowdy dress. And when she and Bruce Cabot emerge at the end of the Skull Island sequences, rushing through the jungle to flee Kong after having dived into the sea to escape him, they look like they’ve just been through the experience — her dress is damp and torn and her hair disheveled, unlike so many other films in which characters emerge from similarly dire predicaments with their costumes and hairdos in perfect place. — 11/3/96


After that TCM ran the original King Kong, also a movie that ran into censorship trouble and was severely cut before its 1933 release and was even more severely cut for its reissue in 1938. The main omission pre-release was the deletion of the giant spiders in the canyon that ate the members of the expedition’s crew after Kong threw them off the log bridge (in the film as it stands they merely fall to their deaths), and the main deletions for the reissue (since censorship was stronger in 1938 than in 1933 — as witness what happened when the same studio, RKO, asked permission to re-release Topaze; the Production Code people gave them a flat no because the original movie openly described Myrna Loy’s character as a mistress; and for similar reasons MGM was denied permission to remake Anna Christie in 1936 and 1946, though by 1962 the censorship had lightened enough they were allowed to re-release the 1930 Garbo version intact) were the scene in which Kong tears off Fay Wray’s clothes and the scene in which she takes a woman out of a New York bedroom and drops her to her death when he realizes she is not Fay Wray. (I had seen King Kong for the first time in 1970 and had repeatedly watched it for 20 years before I finally saw a print that contained the “strip scene.”) Peter Ray came over at about this time and — surprisingly — didn’t like the movie very much; he and Charles both pointed to some pretty clunky early-1930’s dialogue and sequences in which the characters didn’t seem all that smart. Charles said that Robert Armstrong should have brought gas bombs to the theatre in case Kong went out of control while being put on display, and that Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray should have thought of leaving their room and running out into the hallway when Kong stuck his arm through their window in an effort to recapture her. To me, however, King Kong holds up beautifully in spite of these minor lapses, not only in the much-discussed characterization of the monster (who retains a surprising degree of audience sympathy in spite of the number of people he kills during the course of the movie) but also in the basic honesty of the film. The producer-director team of Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack had previously been known for documentaries (King Kong was a virtual remake of their 1927 film Chang, in which a village in Thailand is menaced by a giant elephant), and therefore they actually knew how a film crew would behave in the jungle and how individuals would react in situations of extreme danger. There’s one remarkable scene that is an astonishing example of the honesty of this film: when Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray finally make their escape from the jungle, they are shown running directly at the camera (a surprisingly unusual choice of angle) and they are genuinely disheveled, their clothes drenched in water and their hair and faces dirty and stringy, looking like two people who have actually been through a harrowing, life-threatening experience instead of two movie stars coming out of a supposedly dangerous situation with every strand of hair and molecule of makeup miraculously in place. — 12/15/97


Turner Classic Movies’ prime-time schedule last night consisted of a tribute to the art of stop-motion animation co-hosted by Ben Mankiewicz (who, when I was still a regular viewer of this channel, I called “a nodule off one of Hollywood’s most illustrious family trees”) and Travis Knight, son of Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight (the man who made such embarrassing appearances in Michael Moore’s movie The Big One) who picked three movies that had particularly inspired him to become a stop-motion animator in an era in which the highly complex, artisanal and very expensive process of stop-motion animation had largely been superseded by digital effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI). He graduated from animator on films like Coraline (2009) — which I saw with Charles and liked, though I didn’t mention Knight’s name in my blog post (I praised producer Tim Burton and director Harry Selick for their use of stop-motion, though: “[T]he use of puppets and models to enact the characters enables Selick to bring them to the screen without the heavy literalness of a version in live-action with computer-generated effects shots”) — to full-fledged director on last year’s Kubo and the Two Strings, which I might have been more interested in if its publicity had made clear it was done with stop-motion and not CGI (as cleverly as they are scripted, the Pixar movies seem all too phony and blocky because the CGI characters have neither the tactile photo-realism of stop-motion nor the ultimate freedom of drawn animation) — and he introduced three films that had been particularly influential in drawing him to such a retro career as stop-motion animation. The basics of stop-motion have been around as long as movies themselves — it was one of the techniques the founder and patron saint of special effects films, Georges Méliès, used in the 1890’s — but they were refined into an art form by one man: Willis H. O’Brien, who while growing up in Oakland in the early 1910’s acquired a movie camera and decided to use it to bring inanimate objects to screen life.

His earliest films were in what would today be called Claymation: a boxing fan, he made crude clay models of prizefighters and animated them for his camera. Ultimately he got into making novelty reels for the Edison company which brought to life the dinosaurs and other animals of the prehistoric world (he made one film called The Dinosaur and the Missing Link and called the ape-like creature he designed for it the ancestor of his most famous creation, King Kong). In 1919 O’Brien hooked up with a producer named Major Herbert Dawley and filmed a one-reeler called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, which featured fully animated model dinosaurs integrated with human actors. After O’Brien and Dawley had a falling-out, O’Brien got involved with another producer, Watterson Rothacker, who first set O’Brien to work on novelty reels but then bought the movie rights to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, about a Brazilian mesa where the dinosaurs never died out and a British expedition that discovers them. Rothacker signed a deal with First National Pictures to co-produce his film (this would become the main way movies got made after the collapse of the studio system in the 1950’s but it was highly unusual in the 1920’s), O’Brien did the effects, and the film was a huge hit in 1925. But even coming off a blockbuster success, Rothacker and O’Brien couldn’t interest First National in doing a sequel or any other studio in following it up — until 1930, when the recently formed RKO Radio Pictures (a branch of RCA which had absorbed the FBO studio owned by Joseph P. Kennedy — yes, the father of those Kennedys) bought an O’Brien story called Creation, about an island that suddenly rises from the sea off the coast of Chile and turns out to have dinosaurs on it (the human characters get introduced when a ship crashes into the island, which none of its crew knew was there, and is shipwrecked), and hired Harry Hoyt, the director of The Lost World, to film it. All went well until William LeBaron, RKO’s production chief, was fired by the corporate bosses in New York and replaced by David O. Selznick. Selznick hired Merian Cooper, who had been co-producing jungle documentaries at Paramount with Ernest B. Schoedsack, to be his assistant and review all the movies RKO was then making or developing to see which ones they should continue and which they should cancel.

Cooper saw the test footage of Creation, derided it as “just a bunch of animals walking around,” and put it on his hit list — but he kept O’Brien and his crew on salary because Cooper had had an idea of his own for an adventure film and he realized O’Brien’s techniques might be an economically reasonable way of making it. What Cooper had in mind was a sort of fantasy extension of his documentary work: a film crew would travel to an unknown island in the South Pacific and encounter a 50-foot ape that was terrorizing the locals. The crew would capture the giant ape and exhibit it in New York City, where it would break loose and climb the Empire State Building. Cooper and Schoedsack not only co-produced and co-directed King Kong but based the three main human characters on themselves: maniacal movie producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) was Cooper, his tougher and more proletarian assistant Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) was Schoedsack, and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose, who got the assignment to write the film because she’d been on several of the Cooper-Schoedsack expeditions and knew how people would behave under extreme peril. The resulting film, first called The Eighth Wonder and then Kong until Selznick, about to leave RKO because of his own power struggle with the bosses in New York, decided at the last minute that since the Cooper-Schoedsack documentaries had all had similar one-word titles (Grass, Chang, Rango), audiences would think a movie called Kong with Cooper’s and Schoedsack’s names on it would be another documentary. So he added one magic word to the title and the film went out as King Kong. The 1933 King Kong is a film that has it all: it’s a fantasy but one that plays by a strictly observed set of rules. Its human characters behave in ways that are believable for the kinds of people the script tells us they are. There are a few lapses, notably in the characters of the island’s natives, who, even though the locale is the South Pacific, are shown as Black rather than Polynesian and not only act in the accepted booga-booga style — though Cooper, Schoedsack and Rose had them speak in the authentic language of the Nias Islands and the Production Code Administration had them submit the natives’ dialogue both in the original language and in an English translation so the filmmakers didn’t sneak anything censorable into the movie (so much for the idea that the 1930-34 period in Hollywood filmmaking was truly “pre-Code”!) — but they’re so enthralled at the idea of a white blonde woman that the native chief offers to trade six of his own women for Ann.

But for the most part King Kong is an excellent film, which was a blockbuster hit from day one and made RKO even more money during its periodic reissues, and the main reason for its quality is that it moves. It’s a strongly put-together story that gets all the exposition out of the way early on so that, once Kong and the dinosaurs are introduced, the pace never lets up (Merian Cooper slashed the 140-minute rough cut to 100 minutes — leaving out some of the most powerful and elaborately produced effects sequences on the cutting-room floor — precisely to make sure the final film was one big rush of energy for the audience; when I heard that Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake ran 190 minutes, that drained me of any desire to see it), and there are such rarely seen touches of realism as the haggard appearance of Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray in the shock cut that shows them escaping from Kong in the jungle. For once they don’t look like they just came out of their dressing rooms, but like people who’d actually survived and just escaped from the horrible events we’ve just been shown them undergoing. The quality of King Kong — its superb integration of effects scenes into a story that makes sense, its multidimensional characterizations (as reviewer “telegonus” noted, “There are no wholly sympathetic characters in the movie. While some people are more likable than others, there’s really no one to identify with”), the gritty reality with which the opening scenes (especially Denham’s plucking Ann from the line outside a women’s mission and her offer of a job) are staged (they look more like a Warner Bros. movie than something from RKO, and indeed the year before King Kong was released Fay Wray appeared with Lionel Atwill in the Warners film Doctor “X”, another sinister fantasy that opens on a New York waterfront in heavy fog), and the fact that even though they may never have encountered living dinosaurs or giant apes, the people who made this movie had been through similar experiences in jungle environments. While this time around a little part of me was wishing RKO could have filmed King Kong in two-strip Technicolor (though the use of black-and-white — the set designs were largely copied from the artist Gustave Doré — is quite artful and beautiful) even though that would zoomed up the budget and made the effects work even more difficult than it was, King Kong stands out as one of the two greatest giant-monster movies ever made (the 1954 Japanese Gojira — a far, far superior film to the chopped-and-channeled U.S. release, Godzilla, we got two years later — is the other) and an “effects film” that for once uses special effects to tell a coherent and profoundly moving human story instead of the story being just an excuse to present the effects. — 12/11/16