Saturday, March 2, 2013

KING KONG (1933)

(March 1933, U.S.)

Pay strict attention to the date of this post, people! It's important because I've spent the better part of the last two months timing my film viewings and postings just right so that I would be prepared to write these words to you on this very date. You see, it was exactly EIGHTY years ago on this very date that the immortal classic, the one and only KING KONG premiered at Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy in New York City. Yes, the big guy is eighty years-old today! Needless to day, the film was a gigantic box office success, even during the worst part of the Great Depression when money for movies, even at a mere ten cents a ticket, was scarce. But the need for pure escapism was never more crucial than during that time in American history, so it's no wonder that movies flourished. Over the past eighty years, KING KONG, both the film and the character, have become one of the most, if not THE most iconic figure in the history of cinema.

This is one of those rare films that I hardly need describe to all those reading me now. This black and white monster/adventure film's story, it's photography, its effects and it's world famous climax atop the Empire State Building and Fay Wray's ongoing ear-piercing screams are legendary with all movie-loving generations who have seen it (or even just heard about it) and seen its remakes in 1976 and 2005. KING KONG is distinguished for its stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien and its musical score by Max Steiner. These are all indisputable film facts. What interests me a great deal more, however, are the little facts and the personal stories and opinions that I can share with you now for this film.

Let's start with effects. Think of literally any monster, fantasy or science fiction film that you know and love for it's (so-called) ground-breaking special effects and I guarantee you, one way or another, the origins of those effect can be inevitably traced back to KING KONG. Never fully appreciated during his time, Willis O'Brien's inventive techniques of stop-motion was the birth of fantastic movie making that would ultimately inspire men like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. What still intuiges me, though, after all these decades is that the effects don't seem all too old, outdated or boring to watch. Today's younger generation raised on nothing but computer generated imagery (the poor little bastards don't know any better!) would likely disagree with me, but when you get right down to it, there is, in my opinion, a vast and significant difference between EFFECT and ACHIEVEMENT. A spectacular movie effect, by today's standards, is wonderous to watch, but honestly, where is the true achievement in something that is strictly being created with a keyboard and a monitor?? For true achievement, one has to think back to the year 1932 when the effects of KING KONG were being created, perfected and ultimately brought to the screen for a viewing public that had never seen the likes of such things before. As much as I love films like JURASSIC PARK, AVATAR and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, none of those modern technical effects will ever impress or enthrall me as much as the technical achievements of the past like KING KONG. Does that make me old or outdated? Hardly. It simply means that I'm far more impressed with effects that are much harder and require a lot more work to achieve. Perhaps you've heard expressions that go something like, "They did it better back then" or "They don't make 'em like they used to". All true!

You see what I mean? Effect versus achievement!

As a film of the pre-code era, KING KONG also stands out as a film that (unfortunately) suffered a great deal of cutting and editing as a result of censorship rules of strict decency for the time. Each instance when the film was re-released in theaters throughout the decades since 1933, it was censored further, with several scenes being either trimmed or excised altogether. These scenes included:

- A Brontosaurus eating crewmen in the water, chasing one up a tree and eating him.
- Kong undressing Ann Darrow and sniffing his fingers.
- Kong biting and stepping on natives when he attacks the village.
- Kong biting a reporter in New York.
- Kong mistaking a sleeping woman for Ann Darrow and dropping her to her death after realizing his mistake.

Thankfully, though, those scenes were re-instituted back into the film long ago and can be enjoyed as they were supposed to be. But perhaps the most famous scene to be cut from the theatrical release version is the infamous "Spider Pit" sequence, following the scene where Kong shakes his human pursuers off the log bridge and the men fall into the ravine below. In that deleted sequence, the men survive the fall, only to be set upon and devoured alive by giant spiders and other giant-sized vermin. The scene was originally included in the first test screening, but was deleted right afterwards. On the original 2-disc DVD set of KING KONG, Peter Jackson attempts to pay homage to this be re-creating a black and white sequence to honor the original visions of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. I'll spare you my disparaging opinions of such a pointless effort, but let's just say that some things in cinema history should be left well enough alone.

After it's final theatrical re-release in 1956, KING KONG was sold to television and was the premiere airing for New Jersey's WOR-TV Channel 9 "Million Dollar Movie". That being mentioned, here's where my real personal story comes in for this film. As a child who grew up in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s (and anyone who grew up in the tri-stare area of the eastern United States will remember this, too), the annual holiday of Thanksgiving and KING KONG were synonymous with each other. For Thanksgiving was the time of the annual holiday TV festivals of monster movies on WOR-TV Channel 9! Thursday was traditionally "ape day" with an afternoon of KING KONG, SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Friday was traditionally GODZILLA day, with any number of poorly-dubbed Japanese monster movies, including KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Sure, turkey, gravy, stuffing and pumpkin pie were all fine and good, but when you're a young kid and the VCR hasn't been invented yet, two days of no school and monster movies are what you truly look forward to! Today, even as a mature grown-up (sort of), I still make it an annual movie ritual to watch KING KONG on Thanksgiving Day, just as if I were watching HALLOWEEN on Halloween, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE on Christmas Eve or JAWS on July 4th. There are some important childhood movie memories that are worth maintaining in your adulthood and this is one of them.

And so, after eighty long years of a film that has come to perfectly symbolize thrills, fear, fantasy, effects and achievement, I can only say one last thing...HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BIG GUY!!!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Female Theater Patron: "Say, what is it, anyhow?"
Male Theater Patron: "I hear it's a kind of a gorilla."
Femaile: "Gee, ain't we got enough of them in NEW YORK??"

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