This would be our last movie…forever? I had not really believed a lockdown would go into place, and further thought that it would not last more than a couple of weeks, but as we approach the end of month three, the motivations behind this become increasingly clear. And movie theaters seem unlikely to come out of this unscathed, or possibly alive at all.
But this is a remarkably fine movie. I used to (not joking) say that you could watch the entire King Kong before the great ape even shows up in the dreadful 2005 version—and that you could watch the original twice in the same span of time—but I don’t think that’s quite true. I had it in my head that the original was only 70 minutes long, but it’s actually closer to 100 (though I think that runtime is exaggerated) and Kong shows up in the 2005 remake around the 75-80 minute mark.
You can tell I prefer this version. Brevity is a powerful influence. I will watch a very long movie but you better sell me on it. And the nice thing about the 1933 story is that—well, it’s nice. It’s a plucky tale of can-do, with the brash Carl Denham audaciously planning—he doesn’t even really know what! but he’s going out to Skull Island to get a new killer act for the show! And he knows he needs a dame, and the beautiful, desperate, starving Ann Darrow is his girl. She’s only got eyes for the rugged John Driscoll, which is going to make for cinema’s weirdest love triangle when Kong shows up.
But before the great ape makes the scene, you already like the characters (flawed though they are), and you’re rooting for them, even if they are committing what today would be considered a grievous ecological crime.
I always like seeing “primitives” in these old Hollywood films. They’d grab anybody remotely swarthy for most jungle shoots. I noticed this time that the natives were heavily black—and looked to be actual black people—but also that Skull Island was apparently in the South Pacific. Heh.
The CGI…er, stop-motion, is still among the best ever made and it’s delightful to look at where they used composites, giant real props, and straight up full stop-motion scenes for a while. About the time it starts to drag, bam! we’re back in New York. Then, a quick rampage, climax and denouement.
It’s just pure. That’s what it is. It reminds me of the Korean movies: It just wants to tell a story, a little boy meets girl meets ape story, and probably their only concern is the Catholic Decency League. Fay Wray is more lovely than I remember, Bruce Cabot more likably macho, Robert Armstrong more charismatic. The monkey is the spectacle of the piece, and gets the attention, but the others are holding the whole thing afloat. Wray’s performance is both tough and vulnerable—plucky, you might call her.
They would all go on to long careers, though none of them would get near anything quite this iconic again. Producer/Director Ernest Schoedsack and his screenwriting wife Ruth Rose would close out their careers with Mighty Joe Young, the second best giant ape movie of all time. Co-Producer/Director/Writer Merian Cooper—apparently best friends with Ernest—would go on to do a lot of work with John Ford on classics like The Searchers, Fort Apache and The Quiet Man.
Special Effects pioneer Willis O’Brien turned down an Oscar on the basis that his whole crew should receive them, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined, and it is said this damaged his career. His assistant did most of the work on the cash-grab sequel Son of Kong and O’Brien worked fitfully thereafter. On Mighty Joe Young he mentored Ray Harryhausen, who would carry the stop-motion torch up to (and beyond) the end of its days. O’Brien would close out his career with the MST3K classics Black Scorpion and The Beast of Hollow Mountain, of which the latter would be based on his (essentially stolen) script.
The theaters are supposed to open again in a couple of weeks, but it remains to be seen what remains to be seen. I have not been supporting any exhibitors via streaming because while that’s been an option, they all seem to be “pay these guys and we get a cut and you get to…watch on your computer?” Much like the flailing comics industry, movie exhibition is a house of cards—but it’s not a charity. I suspect the dragging out of the pseudo-quarantine—which I suspect must at least go to November, and if a Republican wins in December, for another four years—will do a great many of them in, which will be unfortunate for me, but I also don’t think throwing money at an unhealthy industry does any good.
So, I guess we’ll see.