Saturday, March 1, 2014

King Kong (1933)

KING KONG             A                    
USA  (100 mi)  1933  d:  Merion C. Cooper and  Ernest B. Schoedsack

And the Prophet said, ‘And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.  And it stayed its hand from killing.  And from that day, it was as one dead.
—Old Arabian Proverb quoted at the opening

The ultimate special effects movie, often copied, never equalled, an enduring masterpiece that touts nothing less than the Eighth Wonder of the World!!  Fay Wray stars as the platinum blond goddess who’s kidnapped by the natives of Skull Island to appease a towering 50-foot ape.  What would Sigmund Freud have had to say about this monstrous sexual fantasy, perhaps the ultimate anxiety dream?  The film’s epic climax, in which the giant beast battles fighter planes from atop the Empire State Building is fondly remembered as one of the most exciting moments in cinema screen history.  Few films can compete with the longevity of this film, as popular today as when it was released, and then re-released like Disney films for each successive generation in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956 when the film was eventually sold to television, where it had to contend with different cuts of the film as various scenes had been cut out of the original prints, as stricter censorship practices existed following the 1933 release.  However an uncensored 16mm print was found in Philadelphia in 1969, restoring the original running time to 100 minutes.  Today a digital restoration was completed by Warner Brothers in 2005 adding a 4-minute overture.  The film has had a revolutionary impact on the making of movies, where ironically, like Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR. (1924), it’s also one of the earliest films about making a movie, one of the first where the director will stop at nothing and foolishly do whatever it takes to get the picture he wants, even endanger his lead actress and crew.  In fact, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is so humorously over-the-top as the movie’s reckless adventure filmmaker, he wants to make the most extravagant picture ever made, “It’s money and adventure and fame!  It’s the thrill of a lifetime!”  According to Peter Jackson, who made a remake of the film in 2005, “I think as a film, [Kong] inspired more people to become filmmakers than any other film ever made.  I’m absolutely certain of that fact.”  It may be this film that we have to blame for opening the Pandora’s Box of special effect movies in Hollywood, but at the time, released in the heart of the Depression, it went on to break all previous box office records and saved RKO from certain bankruptcy, where without Kong, there would have been no CITIZEN KANE (1941).

According to an old Mike Royko article (King Kong Confounds Freud . - Google News), Freud might have speculated the movie represents a myth about aboriginal man living in small hordes, where the strongest male had as many wives as he could, jealously guarding and protecting them from other men.  Freud’s oedipal complex explains how the sons left the horde at an early age, only to return at a later date to kill their patriarch father, inheriting his clan.  Members of the clan might be upset about their slain leader, so to insure the spirit does not seek retribution, some animal was chosen as a tribute, where the animal’s life would be protected and treated as sacred.  Eventually both the animal and father would become enjoined as a tribal god, enduring long afterwards through an inseparable myth.  On Skull Island, native women become human sacrifices to the god.  Once Kong reaches Manhattan Island, however, the god son becomes the sacrificial object himself, whose martyrdom is meant to atone for the original collective sin against the father.  In death, he reveals mankind’s relationship to the primal father and the evolution of his religion.  In this evaluation, Kong represents at different times the primal father, the substitute totem animal, and finally the son, where multi-faceted symbolism is typical in mythology, where King Kong becomes fable, dream, and religious allegory.  Based on a book called King Kong Cometh by Paul A Woods, there are multiple psycho-literary essays on the Freudian resonances of the film.  One chapter depicts Kong as climbing “the tallest penile structure in the city … straddling its tower and placing Ann within the silver pouch inside its foreskin.” Kong, we are told, is a manifestation of the id in us all.  Or, other views suggest he exemplifies “all the contradictory erotic, ecstatic, destructive, pathetic and cathartic buried impulses of ‘civilized’ man.”  King Kong is a colossal prehistoric freak of nature who can pick a man up off the sidewalk and chew on him as if he were an hors d’oeuvres.  The original Kong may be naughty, but never evil, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood that the savage creature, unlike the civilized men who attack him, is just being true to himself.

While the origins of Kong may have originated in Paul Du Chaillu’s book Equatorial Africa about a hunt for a wild gorilla in Africa, directors Cooper and Schoedsack befriended one another during World War I, both sharing a passion for nature and adventure, exactly like Denham, while traveling the globe shooting nature documentaries, usually facing the dangers of wild animals and an uncertain reception from natives.  While this idea stemmed from Cooper’s obsession with the book, meeting visual special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien in 1931 sealed the deal, as RKO combined O’Brien’s unfunded project called CREATION about a shipwrecked crew landing on an island full of dinosaurs with Cooper’s giant gorilla movie.  While the screenplay was written by Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose, who fell in love with Schoedsack aboard a ship, just like the Driscoll-Darrow affair she would write about, they used the massive jungle sets from THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932).  But the real genius behind Kong was the visual conception of O’Brien, whose stop-action animation techniques were first developed for his earlier film THE LOST WORLD (1925).  Cooper realized that by using O'Brien's techniques, Kong could be made without costly location shooting in Africa, where the majority of the work would be provided by stop-motion puppets, some 18-inches for jungle scenes, while others were 24-inches for city scenes.  The puppets were made of a steel, ball-and-socket skeletal framework covered with a sheet of latex rubber and bear fur.  They were also equipped with wires to control facial expressions, and an inflatable diaphragm to simulate breathing, where he could express emotion and react to the situation around him, becoming the first feature film to use stop-motion to create a continuous character.  When you watch Kong, he appears more lifelike when his hair is bristling throughout the film, an unintentional side effect of O’Brien moving the puppet around.  The process of animating Kong one frame at a time was a labor intensive operation, where at a work rate of 10 frames an hour, requiring 1,440 frames for every minute of film, it would take animators 150 hours just to get a minute of film.  Several methods were used to combine the stop-motion Kong footage with the live-action shots of the actors, which included shooting on the same piece of film twice, but only exposing different portions of it, loading two strips of film into the camera at once, combining a montage of images, and it’s the first ever use of miniature rear projection, projecting live footage into miniature settings.  According to Martin Scorsese, “There’s something about the way the special effects work in King Kong himself, the way he moves, that made him very life-like, and still for me, of course I’m older, but I still prefer that movie over the digital movies.  It gave him a soul.”  While O’Brien never received the credit he was due, his invention was revolutionary in the movie business, sparking the interest of a young special effect wizard named Ray Harryhausen who contacted O’Brien after seeing the film at age 13, eventually becoming partners, working together on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), while Harryhausen’s own legendary works include JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) and CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).   

While the film takes awhile to get going, many young children won’t have the patience to stick through the relatively slow paced opening, as it’s a Depression era movie where a ship sits in New York Harbor ready to leave on a mysterious adventure, where the director Carl Denham is famous for shooting pictures in exotic locations, but for this film, he needs a girl, suggesting “If this picture had romance, it would gross twice as much.”  He scours the city hoping to find the right girl, searching the Mission district, happening upon Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a poor woman wandering the streets caught stealing an apple, which opens the door to a new world, offered a job described by Denham as the adventure of a lifetime, but first and foremost it’s a job, something to get her out of her depressed existence, with the hope that it might even bring her fame.  Heading out into the high seas, the destination is so top secret that even the captain and crew are not told where they’re going.  Adding to the monotony is the flat, one-dimensional character of the first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot in a wooden Charlton Heston style role) who openly tells Ann there’s no place for women onboard as they just get in the way.  Of course, he soon becomes her love interest, especially when intrigue builds from the curiosity surrounding cases of dangerous bombs contained in the cargo deck and a photoshoot on deck where Denham eerily rehearses Ann with the chilling instructions, “Throw your arms across your eyes and scream, Ann.  Scream for your life!”  These blood curdling screams have become synonymous with actress Fay Wray, as at this point she still had no idea what to expect.  When the ominous destination is revealed to be the mysterious, fog enshrouded Skull Island, where some large, prehistoric beast is believed to be living there, the entire look of the film suddenly turns into an exploration of the exotic.  When the sound of native drumbeats can be heard from the ship, piquing the curiosity of Denham and his men, they immediately bring their cameras onshore and discover a native dance ceremony in progress, “Holy mackerel, what a show!” where Denham’s brazen attitude is to throw caution to the winds, immediately exposing the crew.  When the chief confronts them, what draws his attention is Ann, the only white woman they’ve ever seen, where he offers to exchange six black women for her.  When this doesn’t work, the natives wait until nightfall and kidnap Ann off her own ship, and sacrifice her to a giant beast living on the other side of a massive security wall.  Denham and his team arrive too late, but when King Kong, a 50-foot ape sees Ann, who is screaming to the high heavens, both hands tied to giant columns, he doesn’t eat her, but instead brings her back to his mountaintop perch with Denham and his men in hot pursuit.     

While this section of the movie was all shot on a studio lot, the exotic backdrop is dripping with intense atmosphere that couldn’t be more riveting, as Kong encounters other prehistoric dinosaurs and is forced to set the screaming Ann gently down to the ground on a safe spot while he faces mortal enemies in battles to the death.  Denham and Driscoll follow the giant footprints left behind and soon realize other giant creatures inhabit the island, where initially they encounter an enraged Stegosaurus, emptying their rifles, but despite killing the enormous dinosaur, in this world humans are seen as powerless and puny creatures compared to the giant Kong, little more than annoying gnats who can be swept away with one simple gesture.  The real interest is watching Kong in his fanatical quest to save Ann while fending off other dangerously terrifying creatures that try to attack her, including hand-to-hand combat with a Tyrannosaurus Rex which is nothing less than enthralling, eventually retreating to a cave at the summit of Skull Mountain with a panoramic view overlooking the entire island.  The visual splendor of a Lost Paradise is largely unparalleled, where this exotic jungle landscape feels like a time warp and conjures up memories that stick with the viewer for a lifetime.  Despite losing the entire rescue team except for Denham and Driscoll, the you-are-there intimacy provided by Cooper and Schoedsack is precisely what Denham hoped he could capture, where this little escapade into another world feels like a film within a film, where the viewer’s sympathies soon turn to Kong, who is so protective of Ann and obviously means her no harm.  When he playfully tickles her with his massive fingers, it’s a genuinely tender moment, where the romanticism in an action picture is again exactly as Denham hoped.  Driscoll’s perseverance is heroic, rescuing Ann at the summit, where a dive into the river far below gives them time to escape back to the village, where now its Kong in pursuit hoping to retrieve his prize.  Despite closing the massive gates to keep the creature out, Kong is able to break through sending the villagers into chaos.  Despite the loss of his men and barely getting back alive, Denham is not done and recklessly pursues what he came for, hurling a gas bomb at Kong, temporarily knocking him out, where his response is to shout victoriously, “We’re millionaires, boys!  I’ll share it with all of you!  Why, in a few months, his name will be up in lights on Broadway!  Kong!  The Eighth Wonder of the World!”

Nothing is quite as captivatingly spectacular as the action on the island, but the return to New York with Denham’s prized possession in tow turns into a display of arrogance, greed, and human hubris.  Showcasing this mighty animal held in chains to be ogled by Western audiences for high priced tickets at a spectacular formal dress gala event turns into a freak show at the circus, where one has to question who is the real freak of nature?  When the curtains open and the photographer’s blinding flashbulbs create a furor similar to an attack, Kong becomes enraged, despite being shackled, especially at the sight of seeing Ann again, believing she may be threatened, where he breaks free and rampages through the city streets in search of her, leaving nothing but utter mayhem in his wake.  Anyone who has seen the GODZILLA (1954) movies from the last 50 years (ironically inspired by a fictional character created by animator Ray Harryhausen in the 1953 sci-fi movie THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS) or even the SPIDER-MAN (2002, 2004, 2007) series has seen a similar emphasis on panic and pandemonium, where mass destruction in a heavily populated urban environment leads to chaos on an unprecedented scale.  The human instinct to kill and destroy this creature feels a bit overwhelming, but it’s a response to hysteria and confusion.  Kong’s instinct, on the other hand, is to climb the highest skyscraper, where inside Ann sighs with relief in her hotel apartment believing she has escaped the beast, where her fiancé Driscoll portentously exclaims “We’re safe now, dear.”  At that very moment, who’s giant face should appear out the window in a macabre game of peek-a-boo, but Kong’s, adding a delirious touch of humor when he smashes his fist inside, knocking out Driscoll, and grabbing his love interest Ann, carrying her safely while climbing to the top of the Empire State Building in an iconic image that’s pretty hard to top as one of the great and enduring moments in cinema.  A squadron of military biplanes is ordered to shoot him off the ledge with machine gun fire, so long as they could get off a shot without endangering the girl, but little thought is given to the impact a giant 50-foot creature would cause falling to the ground.  Setting Ann down to safety, Kong manages to knock one of the planes out of midair, but the others are too much for him, with Cooper as the pilot and Schoedsack as the gunner who ultimately shoots Kong down, knocking him off his perch in a devastating moment when he tumbles down to his sad and tragic death, where a cynical policeman can be heard saying “Well, Denham, the airplanes got him,” but the film ends with Denham’s famous reply, “Oh, no, it wasn’t airplanes…it was Beauty killed the Beast.” 

One of the first mythic films in history, King Kong can be seen as a parable of modernism, specifically a look at humanity handed down by its nineteenth century intellectual forefathers, born of scientific rationalism, conscious deliberation, and cold philosophical abstraction, where Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building, only recently completed just two years earlier when this film was originally released, a Babel-like tower that represents the edge of heaven, much like Kong’s high throne on Skull Island, where he is literally a god in his world, but unlike his home island, his natural world has been replaced by materialism, where instead of flying Pterodactyls there are fighter planes, where the power and destruction of man-made flying machines triumph his natural strength and mythical godliness.  It’s interesting that we are allowed both a sympathetic view of Kong as a noble beast, a special effects character capable of carrying the entire film with its performance, but also an unsympathetic portrayal, where Kong is exhibited much like Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus who was nakedly placed on public display throughout Europe in the early 19th century as an example of a savage black race, supposed scientific proof that the white race was superior, an example of racial prejudice and exploitation colonialism, as portrayed by Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (Vénus noire) (2010).  While the film resembles a B-movie, the actual cost was $672,254.75, where Fay Wray was paid $10,000 for her 10-week shoot, black actors and extras were paid half as much as their white counterparts, and no Academy Awards were awarded to this film, as there was no Special Effects category until 1939.  The sound department headed by Murray Spivak ran dozens of tests to find the right sound coming out of Kong, one that was unlike any other creature on earth, where his roar was a combination of lion and tiger sounds slowed down and played backwards, where the tone was designed to match the musical soundtrack.  The film is also one of the first times an entire musical score was written for a movie, where composer Max Steiner synchronized his music with the action.  Wray recorded all her screams in one afternoon session during post-production.  On the film’s 50th anniversary in 1983, one New York theater held a Fay Wray scream-alike contest in its lobby, while two days after her death on August 8, 2004, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her memory.  It was Wray who humorously quipped  “Mr. Cooper (one of the directors) said to me that he had an idea for a film in mind.  The only thing he’d tell me was that I was going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.  Naturally, I thought of Clark Gable.”

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