Friday, December 19, 2014

Classic Movie Review: King Kong

One of the great pleasures of revisiting the really old classics is to see how concise Hollywood storytelling used to be. Watching the original King Kong from 1933, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and written by James Creelaman and Ruth Rose, I was amazed by how much adventure is packed into such a tight timeframe. It’s a little more than half the running time of Peter Jackson’s bloated remake from 2005, but their stories are virtually identical and most of the set pieces have the same basis.


Cooper’s and Schoedsack’s film is pure joyous simplicity. The premise is established early and briskly: a film director named Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), known for bringing the world’s mysteries to public knowledge, has commissioned a ship to take him and his crew to an island that may or may not exist. He’s heard rumors of some creature there. He wants to make a buck and so he cons a beautiful young woman named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who’s been living on the street and stealing food, to be his female lead.

Before you know it they’re off to the races and we’re introduced to the rough crew of the ship. Once on Skull Island, they meet the natives (rather unfortunately-depicted group of dark-skinned savages who behave like animals). You know how it goes from here: they off up Ann as a sacrifice to Kong, the giant ape who takes a shine to her. The ship’s crew save her and render Kong unconscious, transport him back to New York, and put him on display in a public theater. He escapes, terrorizes the city, climbs the Empire State Building (at the time recently built and a marvel as the world’s tallest building), and gets shot dead, falling to the street.

In 1933 this was throwaway pap, an entertainment for the masses without even the serious themes of Frankenstein. Somehow, impossibly, it has remained a cinema classic. There are some very good special effects that had to be astounding in their day. Today I marvel at what they were able to achieve in those early days and stand in awe of the fact that some things look, at least in a certain respect, better than modern digital. Sure, Kong’s puppetry, done through stop-motion, is not always smooth, but it’s the adventure that’s surprising. The great centerpiece is a hand-to-hand fight on Skull Island between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s ferocious and dramatic and the one thing Jackson understood he needed to put real effort into for his remake.

King Kong doesn’t continue to impart any lessons for us. It’s not a study-piece for screenwriting or dialogue. It’s just good simple old school Hollywood fun that still enthralls. Trust me, I showed it to my four-year old, who was glued to the screen.

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