King Kong (1933)
When you think of big event pictures, can you really get any bigger than King Kong? As if the name and the stature of the character weren’t grandiose enough, the stop-motion spectacular of its visuals have come to epitomize the wonder of cinema. Considering it hit at the heart of the Great Depression and would go one to become one of the highest grossing movies in history is testament to its ability to whisk the viewer away into a world of wonder (and, for a time, New York, which itself certainly has a wonder to it, especially to a depression era public). With epic pictures like Gone with the Wind (also by Kong executive producer David O. Selznick) and The Wizard of Oz to follow shortly after, there’s definitely a case to be made for recessions and its impact on the escapism of cinema. But back to Kong – it’s been remade twice, both to big box office and critical success, but yet it’s the original that still climbs highest today. What is it about it that makes endure above all the others nearly eighty years later? Let’s all behold the 8th wonder in the world on Blu-ray and find out.
Everyone knows how King Kong ends, but not a lot of people are familiar with the overall story. As autobiographical as a fictional film can be, Co-Director Marian C. Cooper virtually places himself in the role of bombastic film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). For his next big undertaking, Denham wants to take his crew over to the mysterious Skull Island to give his picture an exotic quality that can’t be captured on the studio back lots (and of course, Skull Island would end up entirely filmed on back lots). He’s got his leading man, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), and he’s going to need a big strong man to lead the crew through all that rough wilderness. He needs a woman, though, against the wishes of his producers. It’ll appeal to a broader audience, Denham quips, dreaming big despite the fact that they head out the next day and he hasn’t even cast the part yet. At a newspaper stand, though, he spots the divine Ann Darrell (Fay Wray), takes her out for dinner and sure enough she’s on the boat the next day to Skull Island.
When they arrive at the island, they learn from the natives, who are all stereotypically portrayed as feral, spear-waving monsters, that on the island lives a great beast known as Kong. So big is this gorilla that they’ve erected a giant wall to shield themselves from his wrath and even offer a sacrifice to keep the peace with Kong. Denham, always wanting to go into the throws of danger to get a good shot, decides to go through the gate to hopefully capture some footage of the beast. As his cast and crew quickly find out, though, there’s a lot more behind the wall than a giant gorilla. They are all attacked by large monsters, from prehistoric dinosaurs like pterodactyls and brontosauri to sea serpents and cave dwellers. Many of the cast and crew are killed, but angelic Ann is grabbed by Kong and made his captive. While a wrecking machine to anyone that gets in his way, Kong is playful and affectionate to Ann, the beauty to his beast. Determined not to let his leading lady and off-screen love to fall victim to the beast, John sets out to trick the creature and rescue Ann.
John and Ann make it back behind the wall, but Kong won’t give up without a fight, using all his strength to ram through the giant gate. He tears his way through the village and its tribesman, but eventually succumbs to the smoke bombs thrown by Denham. With the beast unconscious, Denham gets the grand idea to tie him up and bring him back to civilization to show him as a theater attraction. Back in New York, the first showing of the Denham dubbed “8th Wonder of the World” does gangbuster business, but upon seeing Ann again in front of a picture taking paparazzi, he unleashes his inner Sean Penn and breaks himself free from the chains and goes after the press. Kong then smashes his way through New York City, wrecking subways and scaling buildings in search of his love. He finds her, and brings her to a sanctuary atop the Empire State Building, but the American air force has other plans.
Merian C. Cooper had such a holistic understanding of what made cinema so effective. He knew how story could motivate the action, he knew how music could heighten the action, and boy oh boy, did he know how to shoot action. In addition to directing movies, Cooper was head of RKO, and pioneered the Cinemascope and color film processes. More than knowing just how to make a picture, he understood the business side, the technical side and knew the ingredients required to move his audience. You see this mastery, not just of storytelling but of the medium itself, through every frame of King Kong, and it’s for that reason why the film has endured when so many other films have tried to, um, ape it.
Let’s get the first reason why Kong still inspires today out of the way: the effects. Willis O’Brien’s miniatures are filled with detail and move with a fluidity that suggests real life. His dinosaurs, salvaged from the cancelled film Creation, look breathtaking and his Kong is of course iconic. What makes the effects so spellbinding today, though, is that they are not mere examples of a simple, outdated technical process, they are an ingenious meld of many forms of visual trickery that provide something that still cannot be as convincingly created today. They are a combination of stop-motion, plate painting, matte cropping, foregrounding and backgrounding, miniatures and so much more, often all in the same single shot. There’s a bit where a wonderfully animated Kong grabs a large structure in the background and hurtles it out of frame, only to have it fall, in real-time on running actors in the foreground. There’s another where real actors, looking like ants on the screen, throw spears into the face of a comparatively gargantuan stop-motion Kong and the arrow transition is seamless. Cooper and O’Brien weren’t just content with pulling off a simple effect – they went to every length to suggest its authenticity. Even during the climax, they had shots of a stop-motion Kong shot through a moving plane’s perspective, thus animating both the gorilla and the camera itself shot by shot to suggest reality. You know it’s all fake, but it’s been orchestrated with such painstaking attention to detail that to this day you still wonder how they were able to pull it all off. With CG you might be able to pull off a similar level of grandeur, but the illusion is gone, it’s a simple fake. Plus, with how specialized the film (and effects) world has become today, the industry is lacking those grand visionaries like Merian C. Cooper who were able to dream even bigger than the screen. Computer technicians may be able to create comparable effects today, but they certainly don’t have a vision comparable to Cooper’s.
Another thing that Cooper does so well that other action movie directors have not is his attention to story and character. King Kong is not a long movie, but we go almost half the movie before we even see the beast. He spends a lot of time establishing his characters, although to be honest, do we really remember anyone other than Cooper himself and Fay Wray? What makes it interesting is that Cooper tells what he knows, offering a perceptive look into the spectacle of the cinema via his doppelganger director Carl Denham. He shows us what goes into making a grand movie, from casting to locations, and then has the movie form before us. When Kong finally does show up, his grandeur is even grander because he’s bigger than even the filmmakers within the film could have imagined. He’s bigger than Hollywood. Because Cooper effectively places himself in the movie, and because he takes the time to develop his Denham character and his leading lady, it seems almost real. Like another of the documentaries he had so memorably shot before.
Spending the first half of the movie without Kong does more than just develop character, though. It effectively builds our anticipation for the beast. The poster promised Kong attacking New York with Fay Wray in grip, and we definitely get that, but not before a full forty minutes of building tension and anticipation. Cooper has a storm on the seas and even the tribal drum thumping of the natives help personify the beast in nature, making the build-up to his unveiling even more intense. There’s hardly any mention of Kong either, which indirectly heightens his buildup even more. He definitely does become the elephant in the room, and by the time we do see him, it’s as if we already know him and fear him all at once.
Much has been made about Kong being the first real sympathetic special effect. I agree that Kong is a sympathetic character, something more than just a simple effect, but that’s not the reason he fascinates me. What makes him such an interesting character is not that we want him to live, but that we believe, indeed, that he is actually living. It’s not just his animation that seems genuine, it’s what the creature does. When he kills a dinosaur, he memorably plays with his limp jaw, opening it and closing it like a chimp playing with a new toy. When he grabs a woman who turns out not to be Ann, he simply drops her to her death without thought and carries onward. Where others have failed is that they’ve made the beast too sympathetic. Always compassionate and one that would never harm a fly. That goes against reality, as even a steadfast domestic dog would probably eviscerate a baby kitten if given the chance. Kong is driven by love, and that’s why we care about him, but he’s still a threatening animal, and that’s what makes him to believable. He’s not a MacDonalds Happy Meal…this beast has edge.
Merian Cooper was a grandstanding beast himself, and one who certainly deserved the praise. His King Kong is one of the true tentpoles not only of the genre, but of cinema itself. It’s a masterpiece of construction on all levels, from story and sound to camera and effects. It was made by a visionary who dreamed even bigger than the screen, and in a way was able to transcend even the biggest screen by making a creation that was in every way larger than life. Without a doubt, Kong is King.
King Kong is approaching eighty, and while the wrinkles are certainly there, the beast still looks good in HD. Remastered for the DVD release a few years ago to tie in with the Peter Jackson remake (remember that?), the film has been cleaned up if not totally restored. Given all the compositing done on all the effects shots (which comprise over a third of the film), it’s not surprising that instances of dirt still show up in the frame. It’s also not a surprise, given the optical process that required composite scenes to be shot again to preserve their integrity, that many images look soft as a result. Another hindrance in the quality of the picture is the occasional fading of the image or the coarseness of the grain in some of the poorer preserved reels. Considering all the grain present in the black and white image, though, the added resolution of Blu-ray definitely makes for a much more natural film image with the added bitrate. You’ll never confuse this 1.33:1 film for new, or even close to pristine, but it has been preserved, and with this digital transfer it won’t be going anywhere any time soon.
Talkies were just in their infancy when King Kong came barging into theaters, and as a result the spoken word was still something of a novelty. Because of that, and all the elaborate stop-motion effects work throughout the film, most of it still plays very much like a silent movie. Max Steiner’s (Gone with the Wind, Casablanca) bombastic score thus leads most of this DTS-HD Master Audio mono track, and it sounds about as full as an eighty year old movie could. Dialogue sounds a little thin and scratchy at times, but is always audible and mixed well with the music and effects. With King Kong, its antiquity is part of its charm, so a full surround remix would likely take away from the old authenticity of the picture. Thus, giving the film uncompressed audio in its original form is the best a purist could ask for.
This Blu-ray release of King Kong effectively preserves everything from the previous two-disc DVD except for the assortment of Merian C. Cooper trailers, which are all sadly absent save for the re-release trailer for Kong. That’s nothing to cry over, though, given that there are over six hours of tightly produced and informative extras. First is a live commentary with two special effects legends, Ken Ralston and Ray Harryhausen (who got his start animating the ape for Willis O’Brien in Mighty Joe Young), and with interview segments by Merian Cooper and Fay Wray spliced in between. The track is very enjoyable, with the two vets marveling at the film that inspired them, and with insightful comments by Cooper and Wray peppered in at moments that complement what’s happening on screen. Wray only gets a few sentences in throughout the track, but Cooper has quite a few snippets, although his are recorded in less than optimal audio conditions.
Harryhausen also lends his commentary to original test footage for the cancelled Creation, the film whose sets and miniature designs by Willis O’Brien, carried over to King Kong. The footage is presented in 1080p and a lot of it is rather impressive. Most notable is a sequence where a hunter shoots a baby triceratops in the eye, only to entice the wrath of its mother. Even in a test state, much of the footage in this short five minute demo reel is awe inspiring.
Another short sequence is the spider pit sequence that was excised from the movie. Let me clarify that. The original spider pit sequence was cut from the movie by Cooper for “stopping the story”, with only stills and some artists renderings remaining today. Peter Jackson and his Kong remake crew, though, aimed to recreate the infamous sequence from scratch using the same techniques as would have been used in 1933. The result is a pretty convincing little sequence, although the art and animation isn’t quite up to O’Brien standards. The scene itself is pretty wild, with several large, almost alien-looking arachnoids terrorizing the crew after Kong throws them all off the log and into the pit below. In the movie it played as if they just died when they hit the floor, and considering the fall, that’s probably exactly what happened. In this scene, though, they live for a moment before being attacked by giant crabs, spiders and other multi-legged creatures. It might be a bit too malicious and over the top compared to the rest of the movie, but still a fine piece of what’s effectively fan fiction. While the supplement runs six minutes long, only about forty seconds of that is unseen footage. This clip is also featured in full in the seven part documentary highlighted later.
It should also be noted that apart from this “lost” scene, the Blu-ray of Kong, like the DVD, includes an extra four minutes of the film that were previously cut from the 1938 to 1956 re-releases re-edited back into the film proper. The slow, ominous overture is also included as well to give the full theatrical experience.
That leaves us with two extras, but they’re both about as big as the beast himself. Large in scope, “”I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper” takes a one hour look into the storied history of Kong’s creator. The pieces fascinatingly reveals his tenures in the war and how it influenced his film instincts, his early documentary filmmaking and how his film gimmicks inspired Kong, and later how he’d run RKO, pioneer groundbreaking cinema advancements and develop a lasting working relationship with the legendary John Ford. Cooper lived a life that ten men couldn’t equal with all his accomplishments and the title of this documentary couldn’t be more prophetic.
The last documentary, split into seven large parts, is the gargantuan two hours and forty minutes “RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The seven parts are: The Origins of King Kong, Willis O'Brien and Creation, Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder, A Milestone in Visual Effects, Passion, Sound and Fury, The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence and King Kong's Legacy. All deliver pretty much as advertised, with a flurry of interviews with some of the biggest names in the business including Frank Darabont, John Landis, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, Rick Baker, Ray Harryhausen, the Chiodo Brothers(!), Fay Wray and even Harry Knowles, among many others. It’s an all-star cast to discuss an all-star film, and quite the fascinating history lesson with all the behind-the-scenes photos, illustrations, footage, letters and script pages shown on screen. Few films have had bigger, more all-encompassing documentaries, but few films have been as deserving as Kong.
Finally, the entire package is housed in a slim little Blu-ray book like many of the other Warner Brothers releases. It features thirty pages of liner notes written by Rudy Behlmer that provide a lot of history, trivia and context for the film and its creators. Overall, a pretty complete package.
Merian C. Cooper had a vision even grander than his most famous beast, and King Kong epitomizes his colossal command of cinema as a medium. The effects are layered and complex, and still more impressive than anything else today, and the way he builds up to the mayhem for the first half of the film demonstrates a master’s command at the helm. The film is as engaging and entertaining as ever nearly eighty years later, and this Blu-ray does its best to preserve the landmark. The DTS-HD audio and HD picture accurately preserve the dated, and at times weathered, film, and the six hours of extras really ensure no bit of the film’s grand history will ever be forgotten. The Empire State Building may not dominate the New York skyline the way it did in the thirties, but all these years later King Kong still remains atop the monster movie pack. Roarrrrrrr!!!!
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Great review! This is how all older films should look in HD
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