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Monday, March 31, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: King Kong (1933)

Director: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Shoedsack
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot

There’s a certain purity to this film that can’t quite be described. The special effects are primitive, and it is thematically problematic, but it’s also a prime example of great fantasy and great filmmaking. If it wasn’t, it couldn’t have inspired two remakes, and the story would have long ago lost its fascination for us. But King Kong is a film firmly rooted in the collective imagination and regardless of the technological advances of the last seventy-five years, there’s just something about the original that’s worth going back to again and again.

The titular monster, for those who don’t know, is a giant ape found by filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) on the mysterious Skull Island. When the natives of the island sacrifice actress Anne Darrow (Faye Wray) to the beast, he becomes infatuated with her – so much so that after being captured and taken to New York, he goes on a rampage through the city to find her, culminating famously in his climbing the Empire State Building and eventually being felled by planes. I saw the most recent version of King Kong before seeing the original and it’s kind of amazing to me that both films can feature all the same major plot points and yet the original is told at a brisk pace, running about 100 minutes, while the latest clocks in at around three hours. Admittedly, that’s because Peter Jackson’s version spends more time establishing Kong as a character rather than just a monster, but there are also a lot of needless additions to the new version which fatten it up. The original Kong more or less runs on three characters – Denham, Anne and Anne’s love interest Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) – and one monster. There isn’t much dimension to either the characters or the monster, but that’s okay. The film perhaps works because of, not in spite of, this.

I opened by stating that the effects are primitive - and they are - and yet this version of Kong seems more… real, somehow to me. It’s not that I’m unaware that it’s an effect – this fact is hard to miss – it’s just that those strange, jerky movements have a certain charm which is lacking in films that rely heavily on CGI to make things “realistic.” It works maybe because the story exists so firmly in the realm of fantasy, making it easier to accept this strangely moving creature who doesn’t look like he belongs in the world he’s set-up against. The original King Kong is a film I didn’t bother to see for a long time because I assumed that it would be lost on me, growing up as I did with films light years ahead in terms of the sophistication of special effects. I was surprised at how effective I found this movie. Kong doesn’t blend in seamlessly, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the power of this film is the degree to which he stands out, the degree to which he looks so “unnatural.”

Thematically the story is problematic and probably always will be. We are talking about a story that hinges on a giant, black creature’s infatuation with a white, blonde woman, which plays pretty obviously into societal anxieties that date back centuries. The newer version of the film softens this somewhat because the relationship between Kong and Anne is more… consensual and requited. However, that still leaves the portrayal of the residents of Skull Island. In this respect I actually find that the original is less problematic than the newer version, perhaps because the original doesn’t dwell so long on it. It establishes the islanders as “savages” (although, to be honest, they look a lot less “savage” in the original than they do in Jackson’s version), has them sacrifice Anne, then moves on from them.

However, even though the racial politics of the film are suspect, the film itself ultimately does work. Yes, the characters are thin and the plot only holds together as well as it absolutely has to, but this remains nonetheless of masterpiece of it’s genre. This is the standard for monster movies, and I doubt that any CGI smorgasbord that comes out in the years to come is ever going to usurp it. There’s just something very special about this movie that you can’t really understand until you’ve seen it.

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