Sunday, August 31, 2014

King Kong (1933)

Director: Ernest B. Shoedsack                      Writers: James A. Creelman & Ruth Rose
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Edward Linden
Starring: Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Frank Reicher

During the depression Universal Studios dominated the horror market, and while the other studios tried to cash in on the popularity Universal created, for the most part their efforts were marginal. But there were a few notable exceptions, The Mystery of the Wax Museum at Warner Brothers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Paramount, Freaks at MGM, and one of the most successful of all, RKO’s King Kong. Edgar Wallace wrote the first treatment of the story, but died shortly after. Then screenwriter James A. Creelman was brought in, a studio veteran who had also penned the film’s practice run The Most Dangerous Game a year earlier with Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, but the script was actually completed by Ernest B. Shoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose. It was a “Beauty and the Beast” story of epic proportion that would take the skills of special effects man Willis O’Brien to bring it to life on the screen. Shoedsack and fellow producer Merian C. Cooper were real life adventurers who had made a series of successful documentaries in Africa and, in search of more widespread popular appeal, decided to go into feature film production, combining their location action footage with studio stories that would also feature movie stars and higher quality production values. The result was greater than even they had imagined.

The film begins on the docks of New York, with Robert Armstrong getting together a crew for a secretive film shoot in the Pacific. He’s tried to hire an actress for the picture but is having no luck, and he needs to leave immediately. Desperate, Armstrong slips into the city at night and spots Fay Wray trying to steal an apple. After convincing her that his intentions are honorable, she agrees to star in his film and goes out of the voyage the next morning. First mate Bruce Cabot, a tough-talking seaman, is at first irritated by her presence on the ship but eventually falls for her and becomes her protector against Armstrong, who is a bit cavalier with the lives of the crew. One of the great scenes in the film is the camera test that Armstrong takes of Wray onboard the ship. He directs her to see something amazing and horrible and finally instructs her to throw her arm across her eyes and scream. Bruce Cabot, watching from above, says to the captain “What’s he think she’s really gonna see?” Once the ship is west of Sumatra, Armstrong shows the captain, Frank Reicher, his map of Skull Island. Not on any charts, Reicher begins to doubt of its existence until it suddenly emerges from the fog. The island is said to contain the legendary “Kong,” and when the crew comes ashore the natives are angered at the intrusion of their ceremony. Reicher tries to talk to them, but they want Wray as a bride for Kong, though the crew doesn’t even know what Kong is. The next day, however, they find out when Wray is kidnapped from the ship and they have to take a rescue party beyond the wall to save her.

The Skull Island sequence is the real high point of the film. Special effects man Willis O’Brien had made a name for himself nearly a decade earlier with the Arthur Conan Doyle classic The Lost World. In that film he had brought dinosaurs to life through the use of stop-motion photography and combined it with live actors to create a one of a kind film experience. At this time he had been working on a film at RKO called Creation, that was eventually shelved because of the excessive budgetary requirements, but was immediately put to work on Kong by Cooper. His work on the model of Kong was one of the major reasons for the film’s success. Not only did he imbue the character with some amazing human characteristics but his technical skill at moving the model, from the facial expressions to the rippling of the fur, is near perfect. But all of the special effects are extremely good, not just Kong. The animated sea birds on Skull Island are impressively drawn as they flit across the screen, and the jungle matte paintings are magnificent. Many of the jungle sets were also doing double duty on Kong after having been use on The Most Dangerous Game, and a second unit was dispatched to New York to provide background for the finale.

Fay Wray was a brilliant choice for the heroine of the film. It was her idea to go blonde so that she would stand out against her leading man. She had also done a couple of popular horror films at Warner Brothers the year before, two of the eleven films of hers that would be released that year. Robert Armstrong was already a Hollywood veteran and the role of the fearless filmmaker seems made for him. Frank Reicher is another actor who had been around since the days of the silents and was a great choice as the captain of the ship. Bruce Cabot, on the other hand, was in one of his first featured roles and is probably the weakest of the leads. But the other aspect of the film that has to be equally responsible for its enduring greatness is the score by Max Steiner. Cleverly, the music doesn’t begin until the ship approaches the island and from then on becomes a major part of the film. Distinctive melodies suffuse the score and as a result it stands on its own as some great music of cinema’s golden era. For decades after the film finally appeared on television it could only be seen in a truncated form that eliminated many of the deaths that Kong caused to villagers on the island as well as commuters in New York City. It’s only been recently that it has been completely restored on DVD. King Kong remains one of the most iconic supernatural films of the thirties and a part of the collective popular culture.

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