Friday, 2 May 2014

We Three Kongs part three: The King of Diamonds

The beginning can be a good place to end, but will this film now seem as prehistoric as some of its ‘co-stars’?

The monochrome monarch, still looking good for an octogenarian.

 I’ve poured far too much rose-tinted, nostalgia-blinkered praise on the original King Kong in previous posts. If I’m going to fairly compare it to the two remakes already covered, then the 1933 film needs to be taken on its own merits, even if it is now an astonishing 81 years old.  But whereas the remakes owe their inspiration directly and exclusively to this film, the original was forged at a time when the world map really did hold vast unexplored regions where only imagination could fill in the gaps.

The art department's early concept painting of an unnaturally massive ape
influenced the eventual direction of the story.

Ever hear of Kong?
A Malay superstition isn’t it?  Some kind of spirit, or a god?

 King Kong ‘33 spends most of its first hour building the audience’s anticipation in a master class application of ominous portent and suspense. Early on, Robert Armstrong’s brash but likeable Carl Denham films Fay Wray on board the Venture, directing her to look up, higher, even higher before unleashing one of her mighty screams. Unnerved, First mate Jack Driscoll turns to Captain Englehorn and mutters “What does he think she’s going to see?”   
It’s a scene which makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, even now.

Immediately the audience is hooked: both afraid of, yet desperate to discover the secret of the Venture’s mysterious destination. The studio, RKO productions, pushed hard for an earlier reveal of the film’s title character, but creator Merian C Cooper wisely resisted.
And when we do eventually see what Denham somehow knows is in store for Wray’s poor Ann Darrow, the film abruptly changes gear and rattles along at break-neck speed, piling one fantastic vision atop another with astonishing courage and ambition.  Sequences which contemporary films might shy away from, with access to everything which CGI can conjure, are flung fearlessly onto the big screen.  Even Peter Jackson didn’t further inflate his remake’s running time with the cathedral–like cavern of Kong’s lair and the sinister, bubbling pool from which the elasmosaurus slithers to menace Ann Darrow.

The question of who would win in a fight between Nessie and Kong
is comprehensively resolved.
And yet this 1933 film preserved its pace by jettisoning other painstakingly-realised sequences for the greater good. A battle with a family of triceratops, the Venture crew’s pursuit by a styracosaurus (explaining why they don’t just abandon the chasm-spanning log when Kong appears), the notorious ensuing spider pit scene, and scenes of Kong scaling Skull Mountain were all sacrificed, helping pare down the running time by 20% to its final 100 minutes.
When RKO, still doubtful of the finished film’s ability to succeed in such economically desperate times refused the budget for an original film score, creator Merian C Cooper stumped up the considerable sum himself, allowing composer Max Steiner (a student of Mahler and Brahms) to realise what has become an enduring classic of film music.

Of the stars themselves, Kong is the undisputed ‘eighth wonder of the world’, then and forever more.  Knowing how he was brought to life somehow makes the achievements of modeller Marcel Delgado and legendary animator Willis O’Brien even more astonishing 80 year later. Admittedly, still photographs of any of the 18 inch and 24 inch models look somewhat crude in isolation – Kong is a bow-legged, tusked and pointed-headed guess at what a gorilla might look like. An embodiment of the mythical-as-a-unicorn ‘killer ape’.
The two 18 inch models wait to be brought to life by animator Willis O'Brien.
But once he is animated, true magic takes hold and Kong becomes a character who exudes personality with every gesture, large or small.  My favourite is his dangling foot while he awaits the doomed elevated subway train at the beginning of his New York rampage. Toes swinging idly beneath him as Kong is fascinating by the approaching lights of the engine; he is the picture of a child engrossed with a new toy.  Even the technical problem which O’Brien feared would ruin all his efforts – the Kong model’s rabbit-skin fur retaining the indentations of the animator’s fingertips - actually adds to Kong’s vitality. The subtle movement can suggest his coat either bristling with rage, or rippling with the movement of the mighty muscles beneath, at appropriate moments.

A fan of boxing and a bit of a scrapper himself, Willis O’Brien imbued Kong
with pugilistic inclinations when taking on the larger Tyrannosaurus in this epic stoush
(colourised cinema still).
If one thing has become clear in reviewing all the versions of this story, it is that King Kong is not merely a solo star vehicle for our hero, but a duet – the leading lady is as intrinsic to the story as Kong; the Beast has no soul without Beauty.  And that has never been more apparent than here – Fay Wray completely and utterly deserves her place in popular culture.  Beautiful, sweet-natured and brave, her Ann Darrow is a woman that a Kong of any age would fall in love with. A ‘classic hottie’ as a workmate of mine would say.

Ann and Jack’s wardrobes suffer in the escape from Kong…
Ms Wray lived a long and eventful life, out-growing her label as the ‘Scream Queen’ to become a true icon of cinema; finally passing through another famous set of gates just before she was able to perform a cameo in Peter Jackson’s remake.  A few nights later, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her honour.

The original King Kong has been restored and recovered throughout the years.  The scene where he peels off an unconscious Ann’s dress (which strikes me as more akin to the innocent plucking of petals from a flower than anything lascivious) was cut on release and missing for many years.  Being privileged to watch a lovingly cleaned-up print on DVD emphasizes how timeless this film is.  Certain social attitudes and the odd performance will always set this production in its own era, but it has dated far less obviously than some films made many decades later.  Throw-away lines still ‘pop’ (“Some kind of gorilla?  Gee don’t we have enough of that in New York?”), and the sense of wonder and emotional impact has lost little of its power.
One theory, which I subscribe to, is that King Kong ’33 has transcended its own admittedly outrageous storyline to become a monument to the magic of motion pictures.  At the very dawn of what we still understand cinema to be, a ‘monster movie’ managed to epitomise the scope, energy, beauty and potency which this burgeoning art form was capable of, and has rarely been bettered since.

So here ends my exhaustive (or exhausting, as someone remarked) look back at the three film versions of King Kong.  One sequel has very pleasantly surprised me with its freshness and integrity; deserving a far better reputation than ‘received wisdom’ has too-long dictated, while the other has lost much of its shine in less than ten years.  Unsurprisingly, the original remains “king of his world” and reigns supreme.
However, the 1933 and 1976 films both spawned official sequels, so later this year I’ll be revisiting ‘The Sons of Kong’.

One of the twentieth century's most famous images.


  1. I saw this a few years ago. People say things like "The effects were good for the time." Damn them, I say the effects still stand up today! Fantastic stuff!

  2. You're so right, Jamas. They really captured lightning in a bottle with this one.