Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Still Kingly After All These Years

78 years ago today, King Kong premiered and lived up to its hype as The Eighth Wonder of the World. King Kong was the result of the hard work, creativity and talents of co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, writers Ruth Rose and James Creelman, story developer Edgar Wallace, actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot, and of course, stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien who made Kong the legend he is today. David O. Selznick put the whole team together, hyped the hell out of it and 78 years later, it stands taller still than most action adventure movies made since.


I've returned to it time and again, as a viewer and a writer. Recently I pondered the merits of Carl Denham as a director and earlier tried to answer the question that audiences, critics and historians have been asking since it opened (and my friends and I asked as kids): Why is there a door in the wall big enough for Kong? I chose to be optimistic in my answer, I hope you agree. I even put Charles Grodin on my short list for his role in the remake.

Speaking of which, when Dino De Laurentiis put together that multi-million dollar remake in 1976, I was there opening weekend. Same in 2005 for the Peter Jackson heralded remake. Being such a fan of the original I was disappointed in both but being a Kong fan in general I also liked much in both even as I longed for the simplicity of the original.

The main problem both remakes run into is mistaking one of the most ridiculous premises in the history of storytelling for something to build real characters around. The original made no such mistake. Wray, Armstrong and Cabot play caricatures and play them to the hilt. The relationship between Wray and Cabot is given nothing in the way of development nor should it have been. The original contains an honesty that is rarely found anymore in this type of filmmaking. That is to say, they knew people were showing up to see the big gorilla do lots of big gorilla stuff and that's what they gave them. The movie is streamlined unlike few others.

Being made in 1933, it is also filled with racial stereotypes that make the modern viewer uneasy. The Chinese cook aboard the S.S. Venture is played as a foolish simpleton and the islanders are played as stereotypical jungle tribesman. Not only that but, of course, when they lay their eyes upon the white woman, they simply must have her for a sacrifice, although in this case it's probably more of a "hey let's try something new for Kong" than anything else. King Kong is not a movie to turn to for enlightenment on any subject, much less racial harmony but has, for the most part, escaped the pitfalls of some of the more racist elements of early cinema, of the Stepin Fetchit variety, by virtue of the fact that all of its characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. That and, as noted earlier, none are developed in any meaningful way.

What we're left with is watching amazing stop-motion animation of a giant gorilla fighting dinosaurs, shaking men off of logs and climbing the Empire State Building. That was enough for audiences in 1933 and it's still enough today. Happy 78th Birthday to King Kong. Long live the king.
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Kong and his leading ladies:

The original, one and only Fay Wray


Jessica Lange


Naomi Watts


And, for good measure, non-Kong leading lady Syvlie Vartan poses with the giant Kong model made for the 1976 remake