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King Kong (1933)
In 1933, the bold and successful filmmaker Carl Denham travels by ship with a large crew, his friend Jack Driscoll and the starlet Ann Darrow to an unknown island to shoot a movie. The local natives worship a huge gorilla called Kong and they abduct Ann to offer her in a sacrifice to Kong. Jack Driscoll, who is in love with her, Carl Denham, who aims to capture the animal for an exhibition in New York and part of the crew hike into the jungle, where dinosaurs live, trying to rescue Ann. King Kong falls in love for Ann and protects her against the dangers. But the gorilla is captured and brought to New York. In the middle of a show in Broadway, King Kong escapes, bringing panic to the Apple city.
Fay Wray ... Ann Darrow
Robert Armstrong ... Carl Denham
Bruce Cabot ... John 'Jack' Driscoll
Frank Reicher ... Capt. Englehorn
Sam Hardy ... Charles Weston
Noble Johnson ... Skull Island nation leader
Steve Clemente ... Witch King (as Steve Clemento)
James Flavin ... Second Mate Briggs
Director: Merian C. Cooper / Ernest B. Schoedsack
Codecs: DivX 3 / MP3
King Kong is still one of the greatest fantasy films. It has inspired generations of filmmakers, writers, and other artists, all of whom have been awed and thrilled by the level of craftsmanship involved in its creation. The film haunted my nightmares as a child; there was something absolutely frightening about Kong's glaring eyes looming in the windows of the wrecked elevated train. Thanks to television and repeated showings every Thanksgiving for years (thanks WOR) I became smitten with this film. Nearly 30 years later- post the 1976 remake, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, etc, I still sit down every few months to watch Kong. EVERY time, I see something new. The detail they put into this film is phenomenal, considering it was released long before television or VCRs could give viewers a chance to watch it enough to notice the more subtle details. Volumes have been written about this movie's production, but one effect still has me puzzled. When Kong is in his cave, just before he sets Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in a small opening in the rocks, the head of the elasmosaurus can be seen surfacing and submerging in the pool behind him. If it was done in stop motion, it's the smoothest work in the film; even the pool's water actually appears to ripple around the head.
Willis O'Brien is the man primarily credited with bringing King Kong to the screen, but in truth, Kong was the brainchild of Merian Cooper, a truly larger-than-life film producer, on whom the character of Carl Denham was modeled. Cooper had been a fighter pilot in World War I, a POW after he was shot down behind enemy lines, and- with his partner Ernest Schoedsack- had traveled to the wilds of Asia and Africa to film documentaries. Cooper imagined King Kong as the logical extension of his true life exploits; exaggerated but a recognizable caricature of his experiences. Originally he had wanted a real gorilla to portray Kong, and even wanted to have it fight a Komodo dragon! (Call the Humane Society!) We can all be grateful he encountered Willis O'Brien (who was working on his own dinosaur film- Creation) and decided to produce Kong and the monsters of Skull Island using stop-motion. I doubt anyone in 1933 could have tolerated the spectacle of a live gorilla in real combat with a Komodo dragon. I suspect the film would have either been banned outright or been little more than a grisly footnote in motion picture history. The idea was Cooper's, but the majesty and spectacle of the film belong to O'Brien. The miniature jungle settings created by O'Brien's crew with multiple glass paintings created an otherworldly quality to Skull Island that could not be duplicated by shooting on location- as Cooper had originally envisioned.
To be sure, the film is very much a product of a simpler time. However, if the acting in Kong is compared to its early 1930's contemporaries in the horror/fantasy genre, it holds up quite well. Cooper and Schoedsack understood the necessity of establishing the characters before Kong's entrance, but kept dialog to a minimum. The story is told visually, with camera-work furthering plot points that may have seemed didactic otherwise. The film is carried by not only its visual imagery, but by one of the first feature length music scores. This was an innovation that put King Kong ahead its sound contemporaries, which relied quite heavily on the spoken word and direction alone. There is a ten minute sequence in the center of the film- after the death of the tyrannosaurus until the escape of Ann and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) from Kong's lair- that is told entirely with visuals, music, and sound effects. It is in large part due to the score that much of Kong's emotional impact is conveyed, particularly in its finale atop the Empire State Building. Steiner was able to suggest Kong's emotional state, assisting O'Brien in providing empathy to a creature who in reality was only an 18 inch high puppet.
It is a mistake to compare Kong technically or artistically with films from later decades. Consider the cultural context in which King Kong was produced. America was in the darkest days of the Depression. World War II was seven years away, and nobody outside of a few physicists knew what 'atomic bomb' meant. Kong truly was the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' just as the Empire State Building was at the time considered the greatest technological marvel. As Cooper envisioned it, Kong was an adventure escapist film, offering Depression-Era audiences something that at the time would be considered the 'ultimate in adventure.' Whether or not Peter Jackson's proposed remake of Kong can maintain these qualities of showmanship and adventure is a matter of wait and see: to today's audiences Kong no longer represents something 'all powerful' or able to 'lick the world' as Carl Denham described him back in 1933. Even setting the remake in 1933 will have its difficulties, since the film will then be a period piece rather than a contemporary story, as both the original film and the 1976 remake were, and audience involvement may be more limited.
Like Star Wars, King Kong was a made for the movies myth, not based directly on any previous source other than Cooper and O'Brien's imagination. It spawned one of the first monster movie sequels, one remake, (so far) and countless imitations, parodies, and merchandise. Among fantasy films, only the Wizard of Oz can rival King Kong for the sheer longevity of popularity, but while Oz provided escapist entertainment, it did so in a lighter fashion. Kong provided escapism but of a more disturbing and haunting kind.
How many films can truly be said to be definitive? The answer is probably "not many", but the original 1933 version of King Kong is certainly one of them. For its time, every aspect is innovative. First-of-their-kind special effects, first-of-its-kind plot, famous performances and a final sequence that remains unequalled as an eye-popping cinematic experience. The quality of cinematography and visual trickery has progressed a long way since 1933 - so the special effects obviously look rather primitive to 21st Century eyes - but anyone with a shred of common sense will still be astounded by what they see. This is movie history in the making. Had this never been made, the whole history of films may have taken a different course.
Ace film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hires an unemployed, attractive New York woman Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his new picture. He takes her by boat to remote Skull Island where, according to legend, there lives an awesome god-like beast named Kong. Denham's plan is to shoot a variation of the Beauty and the Beast story, using Ann as his beauty and Kong as his beast. Everyone involved gets more than they bargained for when Ann is kidnapped by the island natives and offered as a sacrifice to Kong. She is kidnapped by a gigantic prehistoric ape and saved only by the courage of ship's mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). But Denham has one more trick up his sleeve when he captures Kong and takes the beast back to New York. You don't really think those chains will hold him, do you?
Virtually every monster movie ever made owes something to King Kong - even colossal modern hits like Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Godzilla (not to mention thousands of small scale homages such as The Land Unknown and Gorgo). It is arguably the most influential film of all-time. I genuinely envy people who were lucky enough to experience this film during its 1933 opening week - what must they have thought? Did they realize they were witnessing something utterly extraordinary? I could go on all day giving reasons why you should see it, but it would be pointless. It can all be summed up in one sentence: if you have even the slightest interest in movies SEE THIS FILM!
* The models of King Kong built for the island scenes were only 18 inches high, when Merian C. Cooper decided he needed to look bigger while in New York a new 24 inch armature was constructed thus changing his in film height from 18 feet on the island to 24 feet while in New York.
* Body count: 40.
* Willis H. O'Brien created several models for an earlier production called "Creation". Because of the Depression, this production was abandoned. Not one to waste all that work, O'Brien went on to use many of the models made for "Creation" in "King Kong", not the least among these were the T-Rex and the pteranodon. Merian C. Cooper decided the best way to sell the idea for "King Kong" to RKO was to shoot a stop-motion sequence. O'Brien shot the battle between Kong and the T-Rex. The executives of RKO were stunned at the results, having never seen anything like it.
* The project went through numerous title changes during production, including "The Beast", "The Ape", "King Ape" and "Kong".
* Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had been wrestlers, and they acted out the fighting moves for the battle between the T-Rex and Kong in the effects studio, before the animators shot the scene.
* Originally, there was supposed to be an overhead shot of Kong falling from the Empire State Building. This was accomplished by adding Kong in post-production, falling towards the ground. Real footage of the building was used, but when the producers watched the scene they realized that viewers could see through Kong, especially as he passed the darker ledges, so it was cut. This clip has made its way into documentaries on the film but, more commonly, can be found in stills of the scene.
* The trees and plants in the background on the stop-motion animation sets were a combination of metal models and real plants. One day during filming, a flower on the miniature set bloomed without anyone noticing. The error in continuity was not noticed until the film was developed and shown. While Kong moved, a time-lapse effect showed the flower coming into full bloom, and an entire day of animation was lost.
* King Kong's roar was a lion's and a tiger's roar combined and run backwards.
* Close-ups of the pilots and gunners of the planes that attack Kong were shot in the studio with mock-up planes. The flight commander is director Merian C. Cooper and his observer is producer Ernest B. Schoedsack. They decided to play the parts after Cooper said that "we should kill the sonofabitch ourselves".
* This original version was released four times between 1933 and 1952, and each release saw the cutting of additional scenes. Though many of the outtakes (including the censored sequence in which Kong peels off Fay Wray's clothes) were restored in 1971, one cut scene has never been found. It is the clip in which Kong shakes four sailors off a log bridge, causing them to fall into a ravine where they are eaten alive by giant spiders. When the movie (with spider sequence intact) was previewed in San Bernardino, California, in late January 1933, members of the audience screamed and either left the theatre or talked about the grisly sequence throughout the remainder of the film. Said the film's producer, Merian C. Cooper, "It stopped the picture cold, so the next day back at the studio, I took it out myself."
* Scenes cut over the years of release and re-release: Kong chewing on the natives of Skull Island; two scenes with Kong squashing one native each with his giant foot; the brontosaurus biting and throwing the men in the water; Kong putting a New Yorker in his mouth then throwing him down to the ground; a scene where Kong climbs a building, pulls out a sleeping woman with his giant hand, examines her, and when he finds it's not Ann Darrow, tosses her down to the sidewalk below; and, of course, Fay Wray's clothing being peeled off. The censor committee once stated that this was at least six minutes of editing. These scenes were all restored to the actual film in 1971. Of course, we still have yet to see the famous spider pit sequence, although in the 2005 remake, we get an idea of what it was like. Also, the 2005 DVD release of the 1933 film has Peter Jackson's recreation of that scene.
* Grossed $90,000 its opening weekend, the biggest opening ever at the time.
* For the shots of the airplanes taking off from the strip, the pilots were paid US$10 each.
* The Great Wall was originally constructed for the Cecil B. DeMille silent Biblical epic, The King of Kings (1927) and ultimately burned during filming of Gone with the Wind (1939).
* The success of this film is often credited for saving RKO from bankruptcy.
* Kong's "official" height (from the posters) is 50 feet. He was closer to 19 feet tall in the jungle and close to 25 feet when in New York City.
* The whole idea allegedly originated when co-director/co-producer Merian C. Cooper had a dream about a massive gorilla attacking New York City.
* Was voted the 47th Greatest Film of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
* Edgar Wallace died in Hollywood in February 1932 while working on the story for this film.
* There was more than one model of Kong used in the film. There are considerable differences between the Kong on Skull Island and the Kong in New York. For instance, the Skull Island Kong has a longer face, which the filmmakers thought made the ape look "too human".
* In his review in The New York Times (3 March 1933), film critic Mordaunt Hall incorrectly refers to Fay Wray's character as "Ann Redman".
* Jean Harlow refused the lead part.
* The laserdisc edition of the film includes the first ever audio commentary.
* Merian C. Cooper was partially inspired by W. Douglas Burden, who brought the world's first captive Komodo dragons to the Bronx Zoo in 1926. Cooper was intrigued how the once mythic, massive predators quickly perished once caged and displayed for the public.
* As a child, Merian C. Cooper lived close to an elevated train which kept him awake at night when it clattered across the tracks. This was the inspiration for the scene where Kong destroys an elevated train.
* The two-legged lizard that attacks Jack Driscoll was actually meant to be an aetosaur, a reptile from the Triassic Period. However, because of the high price of armatures (the metal skeletons for the puppets), RKO cut costs by not having hind legs made for it. As a result, the aetosaur has two forearms, no hind legs and a snakelike appearance.
* Fay Wray claimed that she personally insisted that her character be a blond, and personally chose her wig at the Max Factor shop in Los Angeles.
* Sensing a huge hit from industry buzz, MGM offered to buy the film outright from RKO for $1.072m (some $400,000 over its negative cost), figuring the little studio was reeling from losing $10+m in 1932. RKO was smart to decline the offer. The film smashed attendance records nationwide and ended up grossing $1.761m during its initial release. RKO would periodically, and extremely profitably, re-release the movie through the 1950s.
* Jungle scenes were filmed on the same set as the jungle scenes in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), which also happened to star Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.
* To keep in line with the use of most of the cast from The Most Dangerous Game (1932) the role of Jack Driscoll was intended for Joel McCrea. According to Fay Wray however, McCrea's agents demanded more money so the role was given to Bruce Cabot.
* Art drawn for the press book associated for the original release of the film was contributed to by actor Keye Luke, who was a highly regarded illustrator before he became an actor and whose works have appeared in films themselves, such as The Shanghai Gesture (1941).
* The 2005 DVD restoration further details the risque' liberties of a 1933 pre-code film release in 2 scenes: the 1st when Ann is on the ship's deck while Charlie is peeling potatoes; the 2nd where Denham is shooting some test footage of Ann ("Scream for your life, Ann, Scream!!"). The thin material used for Ann's dress and gown in both scenes makes it obvious that Fay Wray is not wearing a bra; a wardrobe decision that may not have made it past the Breen Code the following year.
* The movie's line "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast." was voted as the #84 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).
* In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #41 Greatest Movie of All Time.