So there I was, banging my head over how to tie in Thanksgiving somehow here at the Vault, when none other than Mrs. B-Sol pointed out a connection so obvious I'm still kicking myself for missing it. I don't know about you, but when we were kids growing up in the New York area, the airing of King Kong on syndicated television each Thanksgiving was a bona fide holiday tradition. I never quite got the relationship, but you can be damn sure I was glued to the TV every Turkey Day immediately after the big meal to catch this, the granddaddy of all giant monster flicks.
And that is why this week's Retro Review is for Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's timeless 1933 masterpiece.
It is almost impossible to fully imagine the kind of impact this film must have had for movie audiences at the time. Virtually nothing like this had ever been seen before, and the sheer spectacle of it cannot be overstated. In our own age of overdone CGI effects blockbusters, some may find it quaint--yet for my money, the skill with which this movie is executed, particularly form a technical standpoint, has always been and continues to be breathtaking.
Naturally, the true star here is Willis O'Brien, the genius responsible for pioneering stop-motion animation in film, and the man who brought the Eighth Wonder of the World to life. Kong is a living, breathing character, with pathos and depth of personality. He is brought to life in a way few animated characters ever have been, before or since.
The scenes with the monster are all pure joy to watch. His encounters with other fantastical creatures on Skull Island, in particular, stand out. One can't help but get the impression, watching something like the legendary battle with the T-Rex, that the filmmakers were profoundly confident in their work, and so wanted to showcase it as strongly as possible. The attention to detail is staggering, especially when we consider that the labor involved far exceeds anything undertaken in the field of CGI today. It should also be mentioned that the fine work of Hollywood sound effects man extraordinaire Murray Spivack goes a long way toward bringing these creatures to life as well.
The acting is a bit stilted, even by early 1930s standards (when stage-style delivery was still often the norm), but after all, we're not here to watch the actors. Nevertheless, it needs to be pointed out that Robert Armstrong is magnificent as the master showman/filmmaker/entrepreneur Carl Denham. His awesomeness is only further highlighted in the wake of the catastrophically bad performance of the hideously miscast Jack Black in Peter Jackson's well-intentioned yet disappointing 2005 remake.
And then there's Fay Wray. Although she would never again attain the level of prominence this role gave her, she will forever be etched into the annals of Hollywood immortality as Ann Darrow, the stunning "Beauty" to Kong's "Beast". Her screen presence is truly remarkable, exuding a certain aura that only comes from the demure and ethereal leading ladies of this era. It should also be mentioned that the gal could scream like a champ, and manages to get across an impressive amount of understated sexual charisma during her scenes with her decidedly wooden and uncharismatic leading man, Bruce Cabot.
Max Steiner, the go-to guy for Hollywood film scores during much of the 1930s and 1940s, provides one of his absolute gems for this film. Particularly memorable is the plaintive motif I like to call "Kong's Theme", which Kong fans will instantly recognize when they hear it. A simple melody, it nevertheless puts over the tragedy of the monster so very effectively.
But once again, it's the special effects that are the stars of this film. Decades before Lucas and Speilberg put the concept of special effects movies on the map, here is this 1933 black and white film that still has the power to dazzle with some incredible set pieces. The Stegosaurus; the log scene; the destruction of the native village; the New York rampage; and of course, that iconic Empire State Building battle with the bi-planes.
What a testament it is to the work of Cooper, Schoedsack and O'Brien that we feel so deeply for this creature by the time he's gunned down at the end. Watching him fight off those fighter pilots, who can help rooting for the big guy? And seeing him take bullet after bullet, desperately hanging on all the while as his life slips away, gets me every time. Very rarely has a CGI creation moved me to this degree.
You don't need me to tell you that King Kong is a classic--perhaps the classic of golden age genre cinema--but I can tell you that I definitely rediscovered that fact today, as I showed it to my kids, nieces and nephews on DVD to continue the tradition I myself enjoyed as a child. Long live Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.
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