Monday, March 20, 2006

King Kong (1933)

"Every time I'm in New York, I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there."
—Fay Wray (1907-2004)

To her memory, this review is respectfully dedicated.

Monster movies are nothing new. Movies like Them!, The Day of the Triffids, The Giant Gila Monster, and The Killer Shrews populated drive-in theaters and late-night creature feature shows throughout the '50s and '60s. And many of the most prolific monster movies have come from the Far East, as Japanese studio Toho Company gained fame for their long-running series of films starring Godzilla and his "kaiju" brethren.

But among all the monster movies that have been made, one of the most revered and beloved was a film produced by RKO Pictures in 1933. A spin on the classic "Beauty and the Beast" fable, King Kong has become a truly iconic motion picture in the seventy years since its first release. It has sparked the imaginations of innumerable people, and consistently turns up on the "Greatest Films Ever" lists of both critics and regular moviegoers. But has the King's crown lost any of its luster over the years? That's what we're here to find out.

Our story begins in Depression-era New York City, where we are immediately introduced to Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). A stubborn, fearless filmmaker who specializes in nature pseudo-documentaries and adventure movies, Denham is ready to set sail to destinations unknown to make his latest film, but there's a few snags. First off, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) informs him that they have to set sail immediately, lest the fire marshal discover his illegal cargo of firearms, explosives, and gas bombs. That wouldn't be such a big deal for Denham, but he's desperate to find a female lead for the movie because a "pretty face" would double his profits.

But the thing is, he can't find anyone for the role because of his recklessness as a director, not to mention his secretiveness in regards to where the film will be made. No agent wants to send an actress on a long sea voyage with an all-male crew, especially a voyage where not even the skipper and first mate know where they're going. When his agent voices his own concern over the idea, Denham wanders the streets in search for a suitable leading lady.

His search isn't a long one, as he stumbles upon Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a destitute young woman caught trying to steal an apple from a fruit stand. The stand's proprietor threatens to call the police, but Denham breaks up the ruckus and pays for the apple. The starving Ann swoons into Denham's arms, at which moment he's taken aback by her beauty. He takes her to a coffee shop and offers her a job, but Ann is hesitant at first. If some guy I didn't know came up to me on the street and wanted me to star in a movie, I'd be nervous too. For all I know, that movie could be a snuff film, or porno. Maybe both, depending on how bad my luck is.

Denham chivalrously reassures her that there will be "no funny business," and she accepts. She needs the money, so why not? They leave port the following morning on the S.S. Venture, beginning their six-week cruise to the South Pacific. The idea of Ann tagging along doesn't sit well with first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who promptly labels her as "that girl Denham picked up." He comes across as a total chauvinistic pig at first, but soon starts warming up to her as time goes on. His affection for Ann is so obvious, Denham jokingly questions his toughness, declaring him the Beast to Ann's Beauty.

As the time goes by and the voyage continues, Denham finally gets around to telling Englehorn and Driscoll where they're going. He's acquired a rudimentary map to Skull Island, an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean that is home to a mythical creature named "Kong." It isn't long before they arrive at Skull Island, discovering a giant wall and a tribe preparing a girl as a ritual sacrifice. The native chief (Noble Johnson) and the village witch doctor (Steve Clemente) notice them and claim that the ceremony has been ruined by the film crew showing up. Luckily (and conveniently) for them, Englehorn is somewhat familiar with their language and tries to talk sense into them. At Denham's urging, Englehorn assures the natives that they don't mean any harm, but the chief is still upset over their interruption. He proposes to trade six of their women for Ann, an offer that Denham declines while gently leading the film crew back to the ship and assuring the chief through Englehorn that they will "be back tomorrow to make friends."

Back on the Venture, Jack and Ann openly declare their affection for one another, but their romance doesn't get a chance to last very long. When Jack is called away on business by Englehorn, a covert band of natives in a canoe sneak aboard and kidnap Ann, dragging her back to the island and presenting her to Kong in a reprisal of the ceremony from earlier. Tied up and alone, Ann is even more terrified as the giant ape named Kong arrives, as he snatches his quarry and disappears back into the jungle of which he is king. But just about that time, the Venture crew discovers Ann's absence, prompting them to return to the village and subdue the natives while a portion of them go behind the wall to search for Ann and Kong.

Unfortunately for them but fortunately for we the viewer, the island's jungle isn't exactly the happiest place on Earth. Most of the crew gets thinned out by a number of dinosaurs, while Kong himself fights of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, some snakes, and a pterodactyl in order to protect Ann. It is the distraction provided by the pterodactyl that gives Driscoll his opportunity to rescue Ann, and the two manage to escape unharmed. But the big ape doesn't give up that easily. He breaks through the village's wall and creates all kinds of havoc in search of Ann. He destroys the village and kills most of the natives, but is knocked unconscious by one of Englehorn's gas bombs. Ever the opportunist, Denham comes up with the idea to bring the unconscious Kong back to New York City and make millions exploiting him.

An unspecified amount of time later, we learn that Ann and Driscoll are engaged to be married, and Denham has earned fame as the man that captured a monster that he fully plans to make a huge box office attraction. Denham presents the chained-up Kong to a packed theater audience, declaring him the "eighth wonder of the world." But when he mistakes the irritating flashbulbs of photographers for an attack on his beloved Ann, the furious Kong breaks free from his restraints and charges into the streets of Manhattan.

Ann and Driscoll flee to her apartment, while Kong frantically searches for her. He stumbles upon her after climbing a skyscraper, reaching into her apartment window and snatching her out of bed. Kong marches through the city with Ann in tow, destroying a subway train in his path. The local law enforcement calls in airplanes to stop him and save Ann, and it all comes to a head in one of cinema's most legendary scenes, as Kong makes a climactic last stand atop the Empire State Building against the airplanes that seek to bring him down.

King Kong is a magical movie in spite of its disadvantages, which only exist due to how filmmaking and special effects have evolved since 1933. Though the movie's $670,000 budget looks meager, you have to remember that it was in 1933 money. When adjusted for inflation, it's right around nine million bucks in 2006 money. You could probably make a decent monster movie for that kind of money, right? They don't all have to be multimillion-dollar Speilberg-produced epics driven by computer graphics.

The special effects are primitive and outdated when compared to the standards set by the technological marvels of today's cinematic adventures, yet there is still something ageless about seeing Kong in action that makes everything work. In this age of animatronics and computer generated imagery, Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation projected behind choreographed actors almost seems anachronistic today. Over seventy years of advancements in he field have nearly rendered the effects obsolete, but its primeval nature is so charming that it makes you want to believe. And had a category honoring special effects existed in 1933, I'm sure King Kong would have won a very much deserved Oscar for it.

While the movie's basic plot is strong and effective in its simplicity, the script written by James Creelman and Ruth Rose doesn't really hold water. Upon discovering that Ann has been kidnapped, a character proclaims, "Crazy black man been here!" Yeah, that doesn't run the risk of being offensive. I guess it's just a sign of the times. Let's not forget the almost non-existent character development. Denham is ruthlessly money-hungry, Driscoll is a surly tough guy who's really a big softie on the inside, and Ann is the cute girl that screams a lot. And let's not forget the one-dimensional clichés that make up the supporting cast, from the Chinese cook who speaks broken English (played by the uncredited Victor Wong), to the natives on Skull Island. They're the kind of natives you'd expect to see in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. You know, those "unga bunga" jungle cannibals that had those big kettles full of boiling water.

I also have to point out something that I just didn't get. Why would the tribal natives build a wall to keep Kong away, yet install a door he could get through? Yeah, I know all about how the producers decided to recycle sets from other movies to pinch a few pennies, but come on now. If the natives really needed a door to the other side, why not just build a man-sized one and let that be that? I'm also curious about how much was known about dinosaurs while the movie was being produced. The crewmen are attacked and eaten by dinosaurs that are known herbivores. I understand that a movie about a gigantic ape climbing the Empire State Building requires a little suspension of disbelief, but as someone who loved dinosaurs in his youth, I just don't know who came up with the idea to turn the vegetarian dinosaurs into man-eaters. I guess it's one of those times I should just shut up and enjoy the movie for what it is.

Though not exactly the most noteworthy or outstanding by today's standards, the direction by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack is competent and I can't really complain. Meanwhile, Max Steiner's musical score is exciting, entertaining, and is perhaps one of the strongest parts of the movie. I believe that movies are dependent on music and sound design in order to set the proper mood for a scene, and Steiner's music is admirable. Unfortunately, I do have some complaints about the movie. Even by 1933 standards, the cast oftentimes seems wooden and flat, as if they were simply reading off cue cards. However, in their defense, I must say they weren't exactly given all that much to work with.

But I would be remiss if I didn't at least make mention of the cast's most well-known member. Many actors have at least one signature role that they will always remembered for. Anthony Hopkins has Hannibal Lecter, Robert Englund has Freddy Krueger, Christopher Reeve has Superman. And then there is Fay Wray, who has been forever immortalized as the woman that stole the heart of a savage beast. Wray's been dubbed one of Hollywood's earliest "Scream Queens" thanks to her appearances in thrillers such as The Most Dangerous Game and Mystery of the Wax Museum, but it is King Kong that made her a star. Sure, most of her scenes involve her either screaming her lungs out or standing around looking pretty, but Wray has a wonderful charisma that makes us the viewer want to follow her along for the ride. The image of Wray struggling to free herself from Kong's grasp has become one of Hollywood's most indelible moments, and it is perhaps that that has made her just as legendary as Kong himself.

King Kong resides upon a lofty perch, rivaled only by Godzilla as the greatest movie monster of all time. (In that regard, I guess it made sense when Toho produced King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962.) Despite its outward appearance as an antiquated, outdated movie, King Kong remains an invaluable piece of movie history. In the seventy-three years since its première, the movie has lost none of the charm and magic that makes it so special. King Kong is among such movies as The Wizard of Oz and A Christmas Story on the short list of timeless classics that can be enjoyed by moviegoers of all ages in any decade.

Final Rating: ****½