Sunday, October 9, 2011

KING KONG - 1933 (Review)

King Kong (1933)

Merian C. Cooper
Ernest B. Schoedsack    

RATING: 5 / 5

I cannot in good faith call this site a monster blog without a review of the most famous giant monster movie of them all: King Kong.

But what's left to say about Kong? Heralded as a classic of American cinema and a game-changing cinematic gamble on special effects and action-adventure storytelling, King Kong has been reviewed, debated, and critiqued for over 70 years. The most I can do is try to express my love for this film -- a film released 50 years before I was even born.
Hail to the King, baby.
See, I grew up in the shadow of the 1976 King Kong remake. I didn't see the original King Kong until I was well into High School. As a result I grew up knowing King Kong as a character and a cultural institution but not as the epic cinematic achievement it truly was. Most of my Kong education came from all the parodies and references in cartoons, commercials, and even other films that distilled the story to its basics: giant ape meets girl, giant ape takes girl, giant ape falls off of tall building. Even reading about the original film in monster books and magazines, it didn't sink in how different the original King Kong was from the version I knew. At the same time, the only Kong I saw on TV and with my own eyes was the man-in-suit version designed by Rick Baker. Hell, I even got up close and personal with that Kong when it was still a fixture of the Universal Studios tour.

Screw Jaws. Why didn't anyone want to propose where King Kong pops up?
True story: his breath smelt like bananas.

As you can imagine I still have a nostalgic soft spot for the 1976 King Kong, but once I discovered the original film, I came to see the 1976 remake as a thin re-telling lacking all the magic and wonder of the 1933 classic. In the remake, Kong fights a big snake, overturns a log, and lumbers through the jungle/city before falling to his death. The original King Kong, however, is filled with dinosaurs and prehistoric monsters, overgrown and misty fantasy jungles, and equal parts tribal and urban destruction. People get trampled, smashed into cliffs, gored and gouged by monsters, and chased through the jungle by giant creatures beyond belief. Watching the original King Kong was the only other movie I've ever seen that captured my imagination the same way Jurassic Park did in 1993 when I was 10 years old.

Monster Brawl!
This is a point that bears repeating. I was 10 when Jurassic Park ushered in a new generation of digital creature effects, but it wasn't until years later that I would see the original King Kong in its entirety for the first time. You might expect me to have balked at King Kong's black-and-white cinematography or jerky stop-motion in the face of Jurassic Park's groundbreaking blend of animatronics and digital effects, but no. I felt an instant kinship between these viewing experiences and between the films themselves. Undeniably, the effects in Jurassic Park are light years ahead of what Willis O'Brien could do on King Kong in 1933, but both films felt equally tangible and in-the-moment. They whisked your imagination away to a world of forgotten beasts and impossible monsters. Even if the creatures in both films weren't exactly realistic, they carried themselves with their own sense of materiality that rose above their flaws. You didn't doubt them. You cheered for them or hid your eyes from their terrible, primal fury. Despite King Kong's outdated effects, the craftsmanship was so clear and the attention to detail was so obvious that I would forget that it was released in 1933. I would simply immerse myself in its epic adventure. I am just as captivated today by King Kong's epic, sweeping fantasy narrative.

Willis O'Brien convinced me a boy could make a living playing with toys
The only thing that mars my current enjoyment of King Kong is the racism and sexism that pervade the film. It degrades women as bothersome, immature children and victims. The romance between Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabbot) is predicated on derision. In fact, the first time they meet, Driscoll socks her in the mouth by accident, and he only manages a half-hearted apology. Meanwhile, anyone who's not white is presented as an over-the-top racist caricature. King Kong -- neither man nor beast -- is deeply rooted in a long tradition of narratives that malign people of African descent for being "ape-like" (not-quite-human jungle dwellers) and out to do sexualized harm to white women. Looking back, it's nasty stuff. However, King Kong has managed to achieve such longevity and multicultural appeal because it is, in reality, more complex than its simple racist undertones.

Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was urban cruelty that killed the beast.

Certain elements of King Kong can be read as counteract its racist elements. Most importantly, Kong isn't just a monster. In fact, he's more than a sympathetic monster. He's a character with which the audience identifies and invests emotions. Since its release, subsequent generations have seen Kong not as a threat from a foreign land (the monstrous "other") but a mistreated creature unfairly imprisoned and destroyed for the pleasure of white people. In this way, he has been championed by many as an anti-slavery parable. At the same time that Kong breaks down the distinction between the urban and the uncivilized. His rampage on Skull Island, where he pummels a snake, fends off a pterodactyl on his mountaintop perch, and stomps and eats some villagers is mirrored during his rampage in New York. He pummels a train, fends off biplanes from his perch atop the Empire State Building, and stomps and eats some New Yorkers. In this way, the distinction between the "civilized" and the "uncivilized" becomes blurred. New York isn't much different than Skull Island, it's an equally savage land. The difference is that the people on Skull Island respect Kong. They sacrifice their own people to him. In New York, Kong is brought forth as a sacrifice of entertainment for the wealthy and elite. This ends up killing Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. So, who's really the monster? Kong, the tribal people of Skull Island, or the people of the "civilized" Western world?

"He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive"

On the surface, King Kong is a swift tale of action, adventure, and giant monsters. Seen in the context of its time, King Kong is a technical achievement of special effects and creature animation that refined and invented new techniques that would be used in films well into the early 1980s. Below the surface, if you consider the film's conflicting themes and narrative, King Kong is a rich movie that has stood the test of time. Yes, I have no problem holding up both King Kong and Jurassic Park side by side. Even though one was released 60 years before the other, they are both equally captivating and thrilling adventures into the world of monsters and human folly.

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