Saturday, January 12, 2013
All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 1 - King Kong (1933)
There were certainly plenty of giant monster movies to be made before 1933, most notably being a silent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" made in 1925*. But "King Kong" is the first giant monster to create an international film icon. King Kong as a personality has withstood the decades, remaining a pop culture star almost eighty years after his first inception. "King Kong" has been remade twice, but has inspired dozens of rip-offs, cash-ins, and homages, including great Godzilla himself, the King of the Monsters. When you think back to a prehistoric beast rampaging through modernity, King Kong inevitably will come to mind. This is one of those movies whose stories everybody knows by heart, even if they've never seen it. We know that King Kong lives on a jungle island full of dinosaurs, becomes enraptured by Fay Wray, gets captured by White adventurers, they take him back to New York, and then goes on a rampage through Broadway before climbing the Empire State Building and being shot down by fighter biplanes. Along with other Thirties films like "Dracula", "Frankenstein", and "The Wizard of Oz", "King Kong" is pure icon, having reached such mythological status that its almost impossible to objectively review.
However, I will try. We need to rewind ourselves back to 1933, when in the darkest days of the Great Depression, Hollywood was still innovating and expanding its film technology to new levels of believability and scope. Film had just passed out of its Silent Era only years ago, the idea of a film with vocal dialog was as new to audiences them as the abundance of 3D is to us now. Stop motion special effects were in their infancy, and really reached a major milestone after their usage in this film. "King Kong" is a precursor to the modern idea of a Blockbuster, an action adventure movie with its main draw being a fantastic use of special effects. Those effects, obviously, have not aged well, but since this is the oldest movie I've covered on Planet Blue by something like thirty years, that should not be surprising. Shockingly, "King Kong", despite being a movie resting mainly upon its cutting edge special effects, remains today a surprisingly watchable movie. I'd even recommend it over the more recent Peter Jackson version.
The overall plot of "King Kong" is actually bizarrely metafictional for a movie as old as my paternal grandmother. It features Carl Denam, a director of safari jungle adventure movies that were very popular in the early Thirties, who wants to stage a brand new kind of movie. He wants to find the world's most terrifying monster and have it fall in love with a gorgeous blond beauty and ultimately be defeated by that weakness. Denam explains his need for a female because "audiences want a beautiful heroine", noting with frustration the failure of his earlier films due to the lack of such a sexual draw. "King Kong" is oddly explicit to its audience with the tropes and machinations that its using to manipulate its audience, more or less giving away some of Hollywood's tricks. And as per his design, "King Kong" follows this exact plot. Carl even continues to sell his story at the end of the movie, noting next to the tragically destroyed body of Kong that "it was Beauty that killed the Beast". He's still the showman even at the end. I'm not sure how many movies at the time actually featured as central protagonists heroes trying to make a movie - and ending up in more or less the movie they wanted to create.
Carl Denam, thanks to good fortune, manages to find Anne Darrow, who may not be the most beautiful in woman in New York, but is certainly the most beautiful one to be all alone on her own and willing to go on adventure to the Indian Ocean to be in a movie. Anne Darrow is plaedy by Fay Wray, who definitely pulls off being a fair creature lovely enough to captivate even a giant monster. Fay is stunningly beautiful in this movie, to the point that she should probably be just as famous as its named star. And she spends plenty of scenes scandalously bra-less or with torn clothing showing lots of leg and pretty little feet, there's nothing wrong with that. She's also the best actor in this film, as most of her co-stars are basically one-dimensional terse Thirties lead men, being hard-boiled no nonsense men who can only show character through cynical sarcasm. They've seen it all, they can handle anything, and they flirt aggressively. There really are not many scenes where Fay Wray can do much with her character, but she brings layers of humor, coquettish independence, and brave curiosity. However, this being a Thirties movie, once Anne Darrow is captured by the island natives and then grabbed by Kong, she must now spend the rest of the movie alternative being fainting or giving classic horror screams until her bland love interest can save her.
Fay Wray in this movie also was the inspiration for Dr. Frankenfurter to become a transsexual. Can you blame him?
By that point in the movie, however, most of the interpersonal moments have already passed. Once the heroes have reached Monster Island, we've now reached a classic jungle adventure movie. "King Kong", even though it largely created the giant monster genre, was originally envisioned as an adventure movie, similar to dozens of movies that came out during the time, most of which are completely forgotten. The "King Kong" village sets were actually being used twice, with day filming going to this movie, and night filming going to a different jungle adventure movie called "The Most Dangerous Game" that also starred Fay Wray and another actor in this movie, Robert Armstrong. Today that kind of duel-use for props would only be scene in the most pathetically cheap of B-movies, but back then it was simply good sense and good business. As you would expect from a jungle adventure movie, there's some extremely unenlightened filming of the island natives, coming off as islander cliches, speaking obvious gibberish, all of which are played rather obviously by African American extras**.
The real stars of the movie eventually move over to the stop motion creatures. These are the creation of Willis O'Brien, the first great wizard of giant monster special effects. O'Brien had been working on films since 1915, and personally worked with Thomas Edison in that decade on short stop motion films. Willis O'Brien may not be the first stop motion animator, but he was the first to be able to create full monsters for feature-length movies with the technology. He's also served as the mentor to Ray Harryhausen, the true master of B-movie stop motion. O'Brien and Harryhausen are names that we're going to use again as we move forward into the world of giant monsters.
"King Kong" was innovative in its use of mixing stop-motion with the living actors in the very shot. These days the transitions between live action and animation are terribly obvious blue screen effects, but at the time blue screen was state of the art film technology. The animations on the monsters are somewhat jerky and unbelievable, looking all the more like clay once they're compared to Fay Wray's natural form. But there's a lot of charm in these old effects, even at their most laughably bad. Stop motion, though once cutting edge, today looks like horrifically bad cheese-ball effects. (Just you watch though, the CG that filmmakers take for granted today is going to look terribly aged in a few decades.) Still, a lot of personality manages to come out of the King Kong effect, who seems to have been made purposefully cartoony in order to give him a character. It would have been easy for the directors to simply make King Kong a vile villain trampling on the virgin maidenhead of Fay Wray, but instead he comes off as tragic figure lost in the human world. Kong is sympathetic enough that you root for him in battles against a T-Rex and a giant snake.
The human characters themselves, rushing out in the jungle to save Anne Darrow, have their own moments of questionable morality. The first dinosaur they find is a stegosaurus***, and they brutally kill it before it can ever really show itself to be a threat. I figure there's a great deal of cultural shifts between now and 1933, so I can understand the Chinese guy and the natives, but damn... these humans are dicks. Good thing most of them get eaten by a brontosaurus and then crushed by King Kong.
We all know how "King Kong" ends, so there's no point hiding spoilers. Kong carried Anne Darrow up to the top of the Empire State Building, at the time the largest building in the world. The contrast between the mythic monster and modernity is further brought about when Kong is defeated by biplane fighters, some of the most advanced weapons on the time****. Its such an unfair fight, and Kong really has not done anything knowingly malicious to the humans. King Kong's death is still powerfully sad to this very day. The "King Kong" remakes really milk the tragedy here, but yet even the Thirties version, its still horribly sad. Its an oddly morally gray moment for what you'd think would be a simple black and white adventure movie. I'm sure children and adults for decades now have wept over Kong's death, because he really did not deserve what he got. I think its that air of final tragic defeat that really makes "King Kong" the memorable classic that it is to this day.
Classics are classics for a reason, and "King Kong" definitely fits that definition by every standard you could judge it. "King Kong" is still very much entertaining to this day, and is probably going to be one of the better movies we cover in this series. The effects look pretty bad in modern eyes, but if you can get past that cultural bias, you'll find this might still be the best "King Kong" movie of them all. The original is the best.
On the next episode of All-Out Giant Monster Attack!: the sequel, "The Son of Kong".
* Maybe I'll consider covering that movie later, but silent movies are kinda... unwatchable. I'll think about it.
** Oddly, I think the Monster Island natives in this version are somewhat more benevolently portrayed than they are in the Peter Jackson version. In this one they're merely poor people desperately afraid of a giant monster that's terrified them for decades, but in the 2006 version they turn into gray-skinned semi-human savages slaughtering the crew for no particular reason.
*** Stephen Spielberg would homage this scene with his own stegosaurus scene in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park". I'm wondering if I should include the Jurassic Park movies in series.
**** Though at 1933 biplanes were on the verge of being made obsolete by the new generation of aircraft that would take part in the early stages of WWII. By the middle Thirties, biplanes were to go the way of the horse and buggy.