Friday, February 5, 2010

Film #8: King Kong (1933)

Directors: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

Times Previously Seen: 1 (about 10 - 12 years ago)

The Story (in which I blatantly spoil the hell out of the plot for you. Fair warning, though probably not necessary for this movie.):

In the early years of the depression, adventure film maker Carl Denham has grand plans of traveling to the mythical Skull Island in search of a legendary creature known only as "Kong." He also convinces a poor, young girl, Ann Darrow, to come along and be the main actress in the documentary movie he plans to make, though he neglects to tell her all of the details beforehand.

Denham, Darrow and a shipful of sailors travel to Skull Island and discover a primitive tribe of islanders who worship "Kong." After initial attempts to film the tribe are rebuffed, the American travelers are ushered back to their anchored ship. That night, the locals kidnap Darrow and offer her as a sacrifice to their deity, Kong, who turns out to be a 50-foot rampaging gorilla. Kong inhabits the island along with dinosaurs and other beasts thought to have been extinct for tens of millions of years. Denham and the American sailors, upon discovering Ann's abduction, gather a party and enter the jungles to rescue her. Most of them are killed, but Denham and first mate, Jack, manage to use stun gas to fell Kong and save Ann.

Rather than leave well enough alone, they decide to cart the massive ape back to New York to put on display. However, at the first show, Kong breaks loose, wreaks absolute havoc upon Manhattan, steals Ann again, and takes her to the top of the Empire State Building. In the end, airplanes arrive on the scene and riddle Kong with bullets, killing him.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing, before any research):

I had to force myself to pay attention to this one, for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are very obvious to me, others I can only guess at. Let me preface this by saying that I completely understand this movie's place in film history - there are certain elements that were so novel, exciting, and entertaining, that I wish I could have been there for its release in 1933. It's not hard to see why it has remained a legend in movie history. And yet...

The racism. Let me quickly get this out of the way. I don't know if Cooper meant it, and I understand that the prevailing attitudes of the 30s were different, but one can't help but ponder the potential metaphor of the whole thing: a large, black gorilla becomes infatuated with a blond white woman, is taken in chains to the U.S. and is put on display. Slavery, anyone? But these are vague suppositions on my part. Not too vague are the depictions of non-whites, including the native Skull Islanders, but especially the grossly exaggerated portrayal of the ship's Chinese cook, whose hokey, broken English made me cringe. Then again, I'm an English teacher who works with international students, so maybe I'm just sensitive.

When it came to casting the "natives" of Skull Island, as well as writing the dialogue for the Chinese cook, the script writers adhered to the 1930s standards of political correctness. In other words, none at all.

Even ignoring these things, I didn't overly enjoy watching this movie, just as I didn't enjoy it when I first saw it around a decade ago. When I put my mind to it, I think that the story itself is really cool - the movie director, the band of reluctant sailors, the shadowy island, the early cryptic references to "Kong," massive Cretaceous-era monsters, primitive power vs. modern civilization. These elements and others blend together for a great adventure tale. I think one reason they weren't enough for me is that I already know the story. A fair bit of the movie's power comes from the suspense that's built up in the first half of the film: What is Skull Island like? What is "Kong"?If you know the answers already, a bit of the air is let out of the balloon.

That's not to say that I can't enjoy a movie when I know what's coming (I mean, Jesus, if that were true, I wouldn't have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark 50-some-odd times). However, to enjoy a tale when you know the outcome, other strengths need to be present. King Kong lacks too many of them for me. One is that the special effects are hopelessly outdated. Again, I know the time period. For 1933, they were the Avatar of their day. Alas, it's not 1933 anymore, and all I see is a stop-motion puppet moving in a herky-jerky fashion. The animators showed their skill with this film, and I have to say that Kong's face in particular is still terrifying. Here's a quick pic that I think conveys the dark terror that the creature's face can inspire:

Honestly, if I had this picture on my wall, I'd have a lot of trouble sleeping at night. Terrifying at any size, really. Still, this is another case of film aesthetics evolving much too far for me not to notice. Effects, including stop-motion, have just gotten too much better in the last 77 years for this golden oldie to still suspend my disbelief.

The other thing that made the film a bit difficult for me to get into is the acting. I know this is debatable, but to me, there wasn't really a single strong actor in the whole bunch, which I imagine is why none of them, aside from Fay Wray, ever carved out much of a Hollywood career. Some of the acting is still rooted in the slightly-exaggerated, melodramatic theater style; the rest of it is simply weak. Wray, who I didn't find to be much of an actress, spends over half of the time screaming her lungs out anyway, which really just grated on my nerves by the last 15 minutes or so.

As stated, I think that story holds up really well as an adventure tale, which is obviously why Peter Jackson decided to give it a facelift and re-introduce it to modern audiences in 2005. I saw that one, too, but found it overlong and too concerned with extended, slow-motion action scenes. I actually think that a blending of the two would be perfect - if Jackson had been able to add the modern effects to the concise and highly skilled pacing of the original (only 100 minutes, compared to Jackson's 188-minute behemoth), I think it would have worked better.

All-in-all, I won't watch this one again, and I only recommend it to real fans of classic movies. Just be sure that you're not put off by relatively primitive special effects and sub-par acting. There really is a good yarn in here, told in a masterful way, if you can look past some of the archaic aesthetics. I couldn't.

Take 2; or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie" (done after some research):

The racism. By all accounts, the massive "slavery" metaphor was unintentional. I suppose one could argue that it may still have been a deeper, subconscious tapping into the American psyche, but I believe that never did Cooper & Schoedsack say, "Let's tell the story of the white America's fear of black male potency and power." They just wanted to tell an adventure tale.

As assumed, this movie brought a lot of things to the 1933 populace that they had literally never seen before. In addition to the massive scale and epic fantasy elements, King Kong introduced no less than eleven cinematographic innovations in order to cut, splice, and blend together all of the separate aspects. The filmmakers were, truly, brilliant. From the unprecedentedly large use of stop-motion animation, to the masterful camera angles, to the take-no-prisoners action pace of the last hour of the film, the production was, itself a 50-foot stomping ape. Never before seen, and never to be forgotten by those who saw it. Here's the original TIME Magazine review. The reviewer seemed to find it a tad ridiculous, but undeniably entertaining.

Key to it all was the co-director, Merian C. Cooper. This guy led an amazing life. Perhaps due to a potent case of Short Man Syndrome, he attacked life from an early age, sunk his teeth into it like a pit bull, and never let go. Before getting involved with film, he was a bomber pilot in WWI, where he was shot down and injured in a dogfight, then captured by the Germans. He made a daring escape and rejoined the war, offering ground aid to victims in Poland. He constantly sought out new places and new adventures after this, which led him to film.
When not making films about giant gorillas & dinosaurs, Cooper was a professional tough s.o.b.

Early on, he carved out his place in Hollywood as a documentarian of the Teddy Roosevelt spirit, going to Africa & the South Pacific to film native cultures. During these trips, he found a way to make dramatic ethnographies that were quite popular in their time. It was these things, along with his powerful lust for life, that he poured into King Kong, and made it such a powerful movie.

There's a ton more about Cooper that's impressive, especially after he made history with Kong. Honestly, when I watched the hour-long documentary on Cooper's life, I was far more impressed and attentive than I was during King Kong. I'd recommend that anyone take an hour to give a look.

And that about sums it up. Here in the year 2010, I'm more impressed by the director's life than by his movie. Of course, this isn't the movie's fault. It made a quantum leap as far as action/adventure movies go, and it doesn't take a genius to see how it fathered so many of the techniques and approaches still used today. And still, I'm not terribly entertained. I wish I could, but I just can't look past the outdated elements of the film, let myself go and simply enjoy it. Maybe you'll have better luck than I will.

That's a wrap. 8 shows down. 97 to go.

Coming Soon: Baby Face (1933):

I love the "Come hither" look on Stanwyck's face in this poster. I'm comin', Barbara. I'm comin'.

Please pick up all empties on the way out.