Thursday 9 March 2017
Kong At Heart
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
RKO Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B
(FOPP Records Exclusive)
I must have been five or six years old, back in the early 1970s, when my father announced that a film he’d been telling me about all through my infancy, King Kong, was getting a rare transmission on TV by the BBC very late one night at the weekend (in those days, you had to wait several years for a film to be repeated on TV again). The deal was this: If I promised to go to sleep, my dad would bring the small, portable, black & white TV we had up to my parents bedroom and he would wake me just before it started. Then I could clamber into the bed between my parents and watch the movie... and that’s what happened. My parents did this and promptly went to sleep again, either side of me, with my bleary eyed dad telling me to shake him awake when Kong started climbing the Empire State Building. Which, of course, I did... and it’s long been remembered in my family, that enthusiastic cry in the middle of the night of “Quick! Wake up! He’s climbing the..” etc.
King Kong was a film which stuck with me all my life. I even went to the cinema at the Angel, Edmonton, a few years later, for the Dino De Laurentis remake. My parents and I all left the cinema scratching our heads as to why there were no jet planes in that version like the posters depicted (and as seen clutched in my hand in the form of a tie-in, rubber King Kong). The De Laurentis version, though, is for another review sometime... and it wasn’t all that good anyhow. However, the 1933 original was, and still is, a classic... and I try and watch it every few years to remind myself how great it is. Something I’ve been neglecting to do over the last 7 years as I write this blog. But with the exclusive Fopp Records UK Blu Ray just released, presumably to tie in with the arrival of Kong: Skull Island in cinemas today (see my review next week), it seemed like it was time to revisit it again.
I could probably write half a book on this picture but, since there are already several books out there on the subject, I won’t go into too much detail in this review and just treat it like I would any other movie... with a certain amount of brevity.
The 1933 King Kong, if you’ve really never seen it before, is a truly great movie. It stars Bruce Cabot as Driscoll - the romantic male lead (of sorts), Robert Armstrong as the enthusiastic and foolhardy wildlife director Carl Denham (based, I believe, on uncredited director Meriam C. Cooper himself) and, billed above them both, Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, destined to be the ‘bride of Kong’, as Denham would have it. Over a year in the making and ahead of its time, it is also thought to be responsible for saving RKO pictures from bankruptcy, such was the box office take on this thing.
The story sets Driscoll, Denham and the lovely Ann Darrow on a voyage of mystery to Skull Island, following a “funny little map” Denham got from a Norwegian seaman depicting uncharted territory, so he can make the greatest natural history documentary ever... once he’s discovered the secret of the legend of ‘Kong’. When they arrive and blonde haired Ann is kidnapped by the natives to be a sacrificial offering for Kong, they soon discover that the secret is he’s a 50ft giant ape (actually, the height varies throughout the film depending on the models used and trying to pin down a specific size is... problematic at best). Kong snatches Ann so Driscoll, Denham and a group of highly expendable sailors go after them, fighting off the prehistoric wildlife which somehow still lives and prospers on the island. Then, when Driscoll rescues Ann and inadvertently lures Kong back with them, Denham knocks him out with gas bombs and they take Kong back to New York to be a money spinning attraction. Fans of Doc Savage may like to pause and remember that, according to Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, Doc actually invented those gas bombs (And if you want to read about another, more personal encounter between The Man Of Bronze and Kong then you might like this review here).
Of course, once Kong is returned to New York the flashbulbs from the cameras of the press cause him to break his bonds and chaos ensues. I won’t elaborate on the ending, just in case you’ve not seen it, but there’s always a lot of sympathy for Kong and audiences have been feeling sorry for the poor creature ever since the first previews. Actually, in an attempt to make the character even more sympathetic, once the studios realised just how upset the paying public were about what happens to Kong in the last reel, the subsequent cinema re-releases had the scenes of Kong eating and trampling people, for the most part, removed from the cut (from about 1934 onwards, is my understanding) until they were finally restored to the prints sometime in the 1980s or 90s (I forget which, sorry).
I remember watching it around 15 or so years ago and noticing something about one of the shots of the sailors running through the jungle. And this is a warning to all of you kids who fear getting old because... I can’t quite remember what it was exactly I spotted, even though I only watched it again the other day and couldn’t catch it this time around on the new Warner Blu Ray. However, I’m pretty sure there’s evidence actually within the film itself to prove the existence of a scene which was famously, if you believe the stories, excised from the movie after the very first premiere screening. I’m sure there’s a place where the continuity doesn’t quite make sense and, also, there is a bit of a linger on an empty composition... as if the shot has been deliberately truncated before something specific happened in it.
Of course, the scene I’m talking about is the legendary, some would say fabled, lost spider pit scene. The story goes that, in the film up until and including the preview/premier screening, there is a scene somewhere on Skull Island where some of the sailors fall into a pit (possibly at the aftermath of the log sequence but I’m not so convinced of that) and they are eaten by giant spiders. Apparently the scene was so horrifying that it was all the audience were talking about from that point on and it stopped the movie dead (in some accounts the story goes that the audience were laughing at it because the bulging eyes of the spiders looked so ridiculous but... take your pick, the result is the same). The footage was removed (if you believe from all the circumstantial evidence, like me, that it did, indeed, exist) and has never been seen again.
Will it ever turn up? Well if you’d have asked me 8 years ago then I would have said there’s no way we’ll ever see it. Then something wonderful happened and somebody found the rest of the footage, more or less, of the long lost, complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis... something I never expected to hear of in my lifetime (and you can read that review here). So, unlikely as it is that we will ever get to see the lost Spider Pit sequence (other than in Peter Jackson’s reconstruction he attempted for a special feature on a previous DVD of this thing... which I believe is ported on this new version somewhere), I’m not ruling it out completely. Movie miracles do happen and I even hear there’s rumour a print of London After Midnight might have turned up somewhere (which, again, I’ll take with a pinch of salt until I actually see it).
One of the things which is really good about Kong is the special effects work supervised by Willis O’ Brien. I believe famous stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen was an apprentice to this man at some point in his life but, even though I love Harryhausen’s work dearly, I feel the stuff achieved in this 1933 version of King Kong is far greater, at least in terms of model work. The way the animators looked at how an ape would behave is quite amazing and this was all built into Kong’s personality. For example, when he fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex and breaks it’s jaw, he plays with the broken jaw until he’s satisfied it’s dead... some good ape behaviour observation there. The dinosaurs in this, however, are not quite as good, to my mind, as the ones in Willis O’ Brien’s work on the 1925 silent film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyles first Professor Challenger story, The Lost World. In that one, you can actually see the saliva dripping from the jaws of the giant reptiles and they seem, just a little bit more realistic than the ones seen eight years later in Kong. Although, that being said, the ones in Kong are still pretty great.
One of the things the animators couldn’t get away from was leaving their mark on the model Kong. That is to say, often you will see his fur moving all over the place as if the wind is ruffling it from several directions all at once. This is because as each frame was shot, the animators had to grab the model somewhere and left their finger marks in the soft fur. Personally, I think this is great because it really shows the personal touch on the thing. You're not going to mistake this stuff for CGI anytime soon.
There’s not quite as much rear projection work or superimposed opticals in this movie as you might think either... although for the longest time I’d always assumed most of it was done this way. However, some of the stuff where the models and live action match up is so good and, now I know how it’s done it all makes perfect sense why it seems so, well, seamless. What it is for some of the time is that the live action stuff is seen in what appears to be a little, cordoned off area away from the rest of the screen, like in the entrance of a cave or under vegetation etc. However, rather than try to superimpose the live action over the top of it, the animators did something very clever. They processed the film out as prints the right size to go against the models, however many sheets per frame, to get the right speed against the models. And then the paper was placed on as part of the model shoot and the print changed every time the models were moved. So the live footage is a hard copy in front of the camera being used in exactly the same way that a child may draw a stick figure in the corner pages of a sketch book and then use it as a flick book. It’s clever stuff and it completely fooled me, I have to say. Of course, you also have the tell tale moments where a live action person will crawl behind a foreground object like a rock or a tree and then emerge from the other side as a puppet so Kong can grab them or, you know, a dinosaur could eat them... but this kind of spotting game is also a fun way to pass the film.
The other great technical accomplishment and, if movie legend is correct, a bit of a game changer... is Max Steiner’s original score, which has been credited many times with returning film score music to film. Silent movies had many scores especially composed for them and sent to theatres as an accompaniment but, when talkies came out from 1927 and onwards, film music died a death because directors assumed that the music would seem too unnatural to accompany films that had speech and sound effects. Any music from that point on in talkies, up until this movie (and a couple of others, I'll get there in a minute), had to be seen as an on-screen source, like a radio, grammophone or band playing in a room, to justify its presence. However, Steiners score to King Kong, which uses lots of 'Mickey Mousing' in its genetic make-up (that’s where the musical expression is emphasised to 'ape' the actions and incidents on screen, in various ways), not to mention also scoring atmosphere and making musical metaphors when required, is a phenomenal piece of work and its the reason why many/all film studios started using a musical score in their films... once it had been proved it could be done.
Of course, saying that, Steiner also wrote a score for a film which both Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong were simultaneously shooting on the same sets as Kong during the evenings, The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds Of Zaroff) and, presumably because Kong took over a year to finish - and no wonder with all those effects shots - The Most Dangerous Game hit cinemas the year before. So I’ve always wondered why it’s King Kong that has always been the one which people took note of in this regard. Although... well I guess it’s because it was such a big picture to make the point on. I’m pretty sure, if I recall correctly, that the 1932 Universal movie The Mummy had a little bit of underscore at the opening of the film too but, like I said, it’s Kong that seemed to do the trick in regards to music. Johnny Williams even puts a little homage to Steiner’s score to this in a scene in his score for the second Jurassic Park film, The Lost World, although that dinosaur book and film bears no relationship to the original dinosaur book and film (although I’m absolutely certain writer Michael Crichton named his novel in homage to Conan Doyle’s literary work).
Regarding this new release. I was hoping to paraphrase Carl Denham and say “They’ll have to think of a lot of new adjectives when I get back” from watching this new Blu Ray transfer but the film still seems a little grainy to me and I don’t think it has any new extras which weren’t on the previous DVD release of the movie. This makes me wonder if Warner Bros, a studio which is not exactly known for spending any money on anything, have maybe just gone and ported over their previous transfer from DVD rather than shell out for a brand new remaster. I have no idea to be honest. That being said, I could certainly tell that the leading actress wasn’t wearing a bra in a lot of her shots from this edition so... yeah, it’s not a bad job at all.
And there you have it. I’m not going to rattle on about this release anymore because... well, I’d be here all day. I’m pretty sure that if you are in any way a fan of cinema then you would have almost certainly seen the original 1933 movie. If not... you really should rectify that immediately. There’s a reason why this movie is so worshipped in the film community and there’s a reason why various film makers try to either periodically remake it or use the central character to their own ends in a spin off project. Take a trip to Skull Island and give the original 1933 version of King Kong a look. It’s a journey you won’t regret.