Sunday, March 31, 2013

King Kong (1933) (Movie Review)


     Throughout the whole month, I’ve reviewed every single theatrical movie that revolved around the giant ape King Kong. It should come as no surprise that I chose to close things out with the original masterpiece that started it all. To refer the 1933 “King Kong” classic as the greatest entry in his cinematic franchise would be a gross understatement … because “King Kong” truly is was of the great motion picture classics ever made. Back in the early 1930’s, film in general was still in its infancy, and even sound movies were very rare. This was the achievement that pioneered the whole special effects industry, and proved that cinema is a medium best suited for fantasy, adventure, imagination, and escapist thrills. I always viewed movies as a means to see things that could never exist in real life, and this right here was the film that kicked down the door, and inspired generations of filmmakers. Now, I’ve truthfully never looked back on “King Kong” as one of my personal favorite movies or anything like that, but it is a movie that I’ve always respected, and have certainly enjoyed on repeat viewings. Actually, for a guy that loves big summer blockbusters, big special effects and big action, I’m always surprised that 1933’s “King Kong” remains just as entertaining an experience as it is. There’s never a boring moment, as the buildup in the opening is strong, and everything else is just an exciting adventure that never once lets down.


     The excitement begins with an ambitious filmmaker named Carl Denham, who’s dead set on delivering out-of-this-world excitement to viewers. Once he comes into position of a map to an uncharted island, he decides it would be the perfect spot to shoot a winning motion picture. Into his midst walks a penniless young woman named Ann Darrow, who’s just looking for a direction in life. Taken by her beauty, Carl encourages her to be an actress, and subsequently take the lead role of his movie. The journey is soon underway, but the mysterious Skull Island might be more dangerous then they realized. It’s the home of carnivorous dinosaurs, aggressive natives, and a giant gorilla named King Kong, who’s viewed as the lord of the land. The natives see the beautiful Ann as a perfect sacrifice for their figurative ape God, and thus she’s captured and presented as an offering. Upon their first meeting, Kong takes a curious liking to her, and takes Ann as some sort of prize. The remaining team set out to rescue her, and battle waves of ferocious dinosaurs along the way. To make matters worse, Carl Denham now realizes that his picture is in ruins, and looks to Kong as a new means of making a big hit attraction.


     On the surface, this may seem like a basic set-up for an adventure movie on a mysterious island, but it’s also, in its own right … a tragic romance. 

In fact, “King Kong” could be viewed as one of the first classic film versions of “Beauty and the Beast”, which is sited all throughout the movie. We have a beautiful woman taken away by a monster, not because it’s evil, but because it’s longing for a companion in a lonely and savage world. The girl in return can sympathize with the monster, but she can’t give him her love in return. In the end, it’s the beast’s desperation to have this girl that leads him to his unfortunate, yet inescapable demise. Further remakes of “King Kong” would deepen the connection between woman and beast, and in my view, they were far goofier as a result. This movie keeps it very simple, and truthfully, I think it works better when I can just sympathies with a monster acting on some kind of internal instinct, rather than a cringe romantic connecting between a woman and a giant gorilla. Fay Wray is all around very likable as our female lead Ann, and she’s a key component to why the film works. She’s nothing deeper than a pretty damsel, but brings the role to life in a way that makes us care for her. There’s also subtlety in the performance, where through certain looks, she knows Kong has feelings, and she regrets that she can’t convey anything back to him. Robert Armstrong is also very charismatic as Carl Denham, and personally is my favorite character in the movie. He so easily could have been the one-note greedy business man, and while his actions are obviously questionable, you can tell there’s still a good man underneath the thrill obsessed filmmaker.    


       While King Kong in general will always be regarded as one of the all-time greatest giant movie monsters, there’s a lot more to him than just another giant monster. From the technical side, King Kong is brought to life masterfully through stop motion effects, as well as full scale animatronic hands, feet and a giant robotic face for close-up shots. While he’s never exactly looked real, Kong always felt very alive, largely thanks to select facial expressions, and an animalistic behavior. You can tell Kong is a creature motivated by feelings, but he lacks the intellect to know right from wrong, which in turn makes him all the more unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. It also makes us feel more sympathetic toured him whenever he gets himself into trouble. Thematically, this version of King Kong remains the darkest, as it’s mostly focused on the situation of being either trapped or pursued by a relentless creature that can’t control its emotions.


      Actually, the whole tone of the movie is a delicate balance between exciting adventure and grim horror. While it’s easy to brand this movie under the category of adventure-fantasy, lets also acknowledge its status as a horror movie, and one of the best of the whole decade. Sure, it doesn’t have the same Gothic look and tone that’s typically associated with the horror genera, but it still fits the category in other respects. For instance, Kong in this film is far more savage, and violent. The scene in which he terrorizes the native’s village was considered very disturbing for its time, especially the close-up shots of him putting people in his mouth. There’s also a scene in which Kong kills at least twenty team members crossing over a gorge on a log, which was considered a gruesomely high body count for the time. 
Even the effects were so new, and intense that warning signs were placed outside the theater stating that if you have any kind of heart condition, you shouldn’t watch this movie. While this movie obviously won’t be scaring any modern-day viewers, it was never the less an intense experience for an early decade of movie goers. Also, this movie contains more screaming then most typical slasher films. This especially applies to Fay Wray’s bloodcurdling screams, which are some of the most famous of the whole genera. It’s also worth noting that giant movie monsters didn’t become common place until the 1950’s. Thus, King Kong was frequently roped in with the only other popular monsters of the time … namely “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”.


     The black and white look also helps give the jungle setting a very ominous and foreboding atmosphere. On that note, for an old B&W movie, it still looks gorgeous to this day. The map painted backgrounds are epic spectacles, and the jungle setting is very submersive. 

Part of the appeal comes from knowing that most of the environment was built by hand, and the detail on display is stunning. The whole film is shot with a sense of awe and wonder, and even select camera movements were quite innovative for the time. Now, back in 1925, there was a silent picture titled “The Lost World”, which featured stop motion Dinosaurs that were created by one Willis O’ Brien. The creature effects in that film were extraordinary accomplishments, but it’s here in “King Kong” where Willis O’ Brien's creature effects really shine. Just like Kong, all the Dinosaurs featured in the film are stop-motion, and every encounter with them is down-right thrilling. My favorite scene of all is Kong’s battle with the T-Rex. This was the first truly classic monster battle ever captured on film, and it still holds up as an exciting sequence, with a memorable finishing movie of Kong breaking its jaw. Now, ever sense the very first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton was found and assembled, it’s had a distinguished reputation as one of the most famous carnivores of all time. So to see the legendary T-Rex back in his prime of fame, get bested by this giant ape, it really helped put the spot light on Kong as a force to be reckoned with. 
        


      Once we segue into the third act, the movie takes on a new identity as we switch from an island adventure, to monster on the loose in a big city. Once again, the details on display are outstanding. For instance, when Kong attacks the train, you can look closely and see stop-motion people crawling out the windows. It’s still an exciting spectacle all these years later, with detailed models, and an elevated sense of urgency that never lets down. This is also when all the most effective horror moments come into play, most notably the scenes with Kong’s big hands reaching into apartment rooms, and grabbing helpless female victims. The iconic climax on the roof of the Empire State Building needs no comment. It’s one of the most influential, and imitated action sequences in film history. Looking back, it’s really cool to see all the camera tricks and versatile energy on display. It’s also quite tragic seeing Kong get gunned down by the plains, and it closes the film on a high note.  


      In more ways than one, “King Kong” was ahead of its time, especially considering that giant monster movies weren’t common place yet, and horror was just coming into form with the more Gothic creatures. 
There’s also one noticeable difference between Kong and his two compatriots … while “Dracula” was an important starting point for sound horror, it’s also been surpassed by the arguably superior 1958 remake. The same applies for “Frankenstein”, which despite being another big stepping stone for the genera, was also upstaged by its superior 1935 sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein”. “King Kong” however remains the unsurpassed masterpiece that none of its follow-up films could measure up to. In my view, if you have a burning desire to pursue film-making, then do yourself a favor and watch this movie. Even if it doesn’t fit into your wheelhouse of monster movies, it’s such an important technical marvel to look back on and admire. It’s also an important achievement in original imagination, as there was no real source material to base this on. With a timeless story of beauty and beast, ground breaking visuals, and innovative filming … “King Kong” maybe nearing 100 years, but it’s still an engaging experience, and one of the great motion picture classics.


I give the 1933 classic “King Kong” ... a strong 4 ½ stars out of 5.        


The End

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