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King Kong: 1933 and 2005 – What Each Movie Reveals About the Era They Were Made In

Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray in publicity photo - Notice that Wray is actually a brunette, she wore a wig for the film

Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray in publicity photo – Fay Wray was actually a brunette; she wore a wig for the film

When I first watched King Kong I wasn’t at all sure I could take it seriously, let alone like it, and I was somewhat reserved in my review several weeks ago in stating unequivocally how much I liked it. I had a similar reaction to James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. But something about those two movies really clicked for me: I couldn’t get them out of my mind or stop thinking about them or re-watching them and trying to learn about how they were made and the people involved.

And after watching Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (he was the co-producer, co-director and originator of the story) I had to see Peter Jackson’s King Kong. There is also a 1976 remake, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy, yet.

The 2005 movie is a fairly true-to-the-original remake, but a remake can’t help betraying the differing attitudes and preoccupations of the era it’s made in and it is interesting to compare the two movies. One of the best examples of these differing attitudes occurs at the beginning of the film, when Carl Denham (director in search of Kong so he can film a movie) is looking for a leading lady. In both versions, he finds her at a food stand, hungry and attempting to steal an apple. He pays the apple-seller, buys her a meal and talks her into coming on his movie-making expedition. Both movies are set in 1933, when the depression was at its worst, making the original film contemporary and the new one a work of historical fiction.

In the original movie – after Denham (Robert Armstrong) has bought Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) a meal – he asks her how she got into this position of stealing apples and she tells him, simply, without any self-pity. She’s done many different jobs, even worked as an extra at a movie studio that closed and when Denham offers her a job you can see that she desperately wants the work. She is just wary about his motivations.

There is a sense of collective suffering, especially in how Ann doesn’t personalize her own experience. She says there are lots of girls in her position, which is a very 1930’s outlook; looking at her experience as part of a collective phenomenon in the country. She does not feel sorry for herself in the least, feeling she has no right because her situation is not unique.

Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong talk to the apple-seller

Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong talk to the apple-seller

After watching the film I was talking to my grandmother, who remembers her dad talking about his experiences during the depression and she agreed with me that it was a very 1930’s and ’40’s attitude (WWII was also a collective experience – every family felt the affects and either had someone fighting or knew someone who was). The depression, my great-grandfather told her, was so unsettling because he had always been able to find work his whole life, even as a child, and now he couldn’t. But this was happening to everyone. 25% unemployment in ’33, which is staggering: one in four people.

Going on Denham’s expedition is not just a job for Ann, though; it is also an escape. It was an escape for the movie audiences in ’33 who saw King Kong and for Ann Darrow, who left unemployment and struggle behind her for excitement and exotic locales. It is clear she is having a tremendous time while on the voyage, enjoying all the new experiences, finds the crew charming, loves the monkey on board, chats with the cook, sees through the cranky exterior of first-mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), falls in love, enjoys wearing the costumes while making test shots, anticipates the excitement to come, has no particular fear of the natives and generally has a good time…right up until she meets Kong.

The new movie presents a modern sensibility, the focus on the individual. There is more backstory for Ann (Naomi Watts); we watch her working as a vaudevillian, expressing a desire to act in plays and losing her job. It seems she does feel a little sorry for herself, with Denham (Jack Black) remarking that she is the saddest girl he’s ever seen.This is very modern, the personalization and internalization of suffering. In modern times, there is much more interest in personal feelings (my grandmother was telling me that when she was growing up it was never “how do you feel?” but always “what do you think?”).

We are also very interested in self-determination today. Ann makes it much tougher for Denham to convince her to come on the trip. She is not quite as desperate for work and much more focused on achieving her dream job (she refuses to work in burlesque and nearly refuses to work for Denham, whereas hardcore pre-code Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck or Marlene Dietrich wouldn’t have hesitated to go into burlesque if they were really hungry or thought it would get them where they wanted). It is only when she discovers that her idol, the playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is writing the script for Denham’s movie that she relents.

Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts

There are other examples in the two movies that demonstrate this general difference between collective and personal experience. In the original film, it is Charlie, the Asian cook, who finds the native necklace that tips him off that Ann has been kidnapped. And at the end, Denham and Jack Driscoll work together with city authorities to kill Kong and rescue Ann. In ’05, Jack seems to do everything by himself, which is typical of the modern hero. He finds the necklace, he searches the boat for Ann and he ignores the authorities at the end of the film (who don’t seem interested in saving Ann), working to save Ann on his own.

The 2005 film is also generally less about escape (though still adventure) and is relationship heavy. There is the mentor-relationship between the first-mate and the young man who was found as a stowaway on the ship, there is Ann and Jack, Denham and his sidekick. And there is Kong and Ann. He has a tantrum like a misunderstood adolescent when Ann doesn’t behave according to his expectations, they admire the beautiful sunset together, go ice-skating together, and spend a remarkable amount of time gazing into each other’s eyes.

And also, as befits a modern leading lady, Ann gets more to do, standing up to Kong at one point (he is more human in his emotions in this one – albeit an adolescent one). It is obvious the screenwriters wanted her to have more to do than merely scream fetchingly (Merian C. Cooper’s main directive to Fay Wray during the making of his movie seems to have been: “Scream! Scream for your life, Fay.”). However, in their attempts to give her more initiative (she climbs up ladders, slaps his paw, does cartwheels to get his attention) her physical emancipation brings some mental incapacitation. Besides the obvious case of Stockholm Syndrome (identifying with your captor because you owe your safety to them), she spends much of her time attempting to prevent people from killing Kong. Since Kong is often in the process of killing other people, one can’t help wondering what her plan is, exactly. She’s so busy identifying with Kong that she doesn’t seem to mind if anyone else dies. The ’33 Ann Darrow does scream a lot, but in regards to maintaining emotional distance between herself and Kong (something they teach you in classes on how to deal with hostage situations) she at least possesses great mental clarity.

Although the new King Kong is horribly long (over three hours!) it is a surprisingly faithful adaptation; you can tell that Peter Jackson loves this story. He has said it was the movie that made him want to be a director in the first place. But the relative closeness is what makes the differences all the more fascinating. I would be extremely interested in seeing what the 1976 King Kong is like.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2014 in Fantasy, Horror, Movie Thoughts

 

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King Kong (1933) – My Childhood Impressions and Adult Reactions

untitledI saw King Kong first when I was a child and through the years I always retained a foggy, general idea of how the story went, but there were four things that I always remembered distinctly: the moment when Fay Wray first sees Kong and screams her head off, Kong stepping on a man and squishing him into the ground, Fay Wray being filmed while on the boat and being told to look into the sky and scream for her life, and Fay Wray screaming while Kong carries her off. The screaming made a big impression on me. And I remember that I watched the film with a number of other children roughly my age and that there were some tears shed at the end.

I don’t remember being sorry when Kong died, but I think it was because he had squished that man into the ground.

Years later, I saw Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. 2005 is now almost ten years ago and though my memories of the recent film are much clearer, through the years the two movies increasingly merged together in my mind and it was with great interest that last weekend I re-watched the 1933 King Kong and tried to untangle my memories.

My first reaction, unfortunately, was disappointment. Kong looked far more fake than I had ever realized, though I was not mistaken about the amount of screaming. However, once I got over that, I was able to settle in and enjoy the film. And while watching the film, I had a revelation. If a giant mega-gorilla came roaring at me, I’d scream my head off, too. And if that giant mega-gorilla carried me off, swung me high off the ground, put me on a very high tree, put me on a ledge in a cave, took me to various locations were various monsters tried to eat me and then chased me through the streets of New York and finally carried me to the top of a 1,454 ft. building, I might even faint dead away. If you scream on roller coasters, then you would definitely scream with Kong.

The moment when Kong is smitten and Fay Wray is not

King Kong is smitten – though Fay Wray is less so

It’s really a unique film, at least as far as I have ever seen. It draws you in and makes you sympathize with Kong. It is amazing how much sympathy they can generate for a character that is really just a puppet; a puppet in a mostly live action film.

Most people are familiar with the plot of King Kong. Movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has a map and is looking for a legendary creature, the great Kong, who is supposed to be on an island where no European has ever been. He needs a leading lady and picks up hungry Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from the street and he and his crew go off to Skull Island to shoot his film. Once there, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and sacrificed to Kong.

Kong is smitten, Ann is later rescued and then Kong is captured by Denham and his crew and brought back to New York as a great attraction, billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But of course Kong escapes and goes after Ann and climbs up to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is shot down by airplanes.

20141028_king-kong-1933_33When he is dead, Denham comments that it was not planes, but beauty that killed the beast. Denham rides this theme for all it’s worth through out the movie. In that respect, King Kong is a monster/adventure retelling of a classic fairytale. Although Kong’s affection does not appear to be reciprocated and he is not changed into anything other than he is. But that’s because there are other themes going on in the film, such as the beast being destroyed by civilization, a sort of high powered, collective, mechanized beast.

And of course the moment when Kong is shot down by the pilot with machine guns is quite a sad one. Here is this powerful, mighty creature being taken down by machines that he can’t possibly understand. I was watching the documentary that came with the second disc of the restored edition of the film, and the commentators (all men) were almost lyrical about the death of Kong. I have to admit, however, that my reaction as an adult was still somewhat similar to what it was when I was a child. I still didn’t quite feel the tragic pathos of his death. It was sad, but he had just killed dozens of people who we are never given time to feel bad for and that always makes me feel more bad for them than for the creature getting killed (I have this problem with all disaster and monster movies – those unnamed, random people dying in droves).

Kong pulling up Fay Wray and her other love interest, Bruce Cabot

Kong pulling up Fay Wray and her other love interest, Bruce Cabot

My theory is that empathizing with Kong to that extent is more of a guy thing. It seems to resonate with them more. One commentator said that Kong had a soul, which is true that he’s more than just a large gorilla, but if that’s the case, than he is morally culpable for all those deaths (perhaps I am over-analyzing the moral aspect of this film). So, though I felt for him, I was not quite rooting for him.

What was really cruel was to capture Kong and bring him to New York, though if you really think about it, by taking him away from the island, they saved the lives of the remaining islanders, who now have no barrier between them and Kong (since he breaks through the gate). But then the Islander’s shouldn’t have kidnapped Ann. Of course, perhaps Denham shouldn’t have been arrogantly barging in in the first place.

Still, part fairy tale, part adventure, part romance, part monster movie – King Kong seems to combine so much that resonates with people in many different ways and I found it oddly compelling. It was a huge hit when it was released in 1933 -which was the height of the American depression when unemployment was 25% – though Kong had stiff competition from top grossing films by Greta Garbo, Mae West and the musical 42nd Street. King Kong must have really stood out, however, in a year that produced Little Women and musicals with Mae West and Ruby Keeler, and Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina.

I think to really appreciate it, you have to watch RKO Production 601: The Making of ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World’, the two and half hour documentary that was produced by Peter Jackson and is included on the second disc of the two disc DVD release of King Kong. The documentary is in eight parts and includes everything from a biography of Merian C. Cooper, the producer and originator of the King Kong story who led an out-sized life, to the development and invention of stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien that made King Kong, and all future movies reliant on special effects, possible.

Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Anyone who has ever watched the copious how-they-made-it discs on Peter Jackson’s extended editions of his Lord of the Rings films knows that he never does anything by halves. There is a discussion of how Max Steiner (composer for movies like Gone With the Wind) revolutionized movie score composition. In fact, if you think about most movies from 1933 and before, there are hardly any original scores and often not even music, except for diegetic music (music that comes from within the movie, a record or a band playing). Steiner’s score for King Kong is almost like a modern score: thematic music for characters, using music to tell the story. In the documentary they argue – and I think it is true – that half the sympathy the film generates for Kong is because of the music. There is also a discussion about how Murray Spivak essentially founded modern sound recording for these kind of films. He was the first to think to combine various animal noises to create new and unique roars and growls.

What I especially enjoyed was the detailed discussion of how stop-motion animation is done and Peter Jackson and a team from WETA go into great detail as they attempt to imagine and film a missing scene from King Kong involving spiders so that it could fit seamlessly into the film, using the same kind of equipment. These guys are obviously major King Kong fanatics, but it was extremely illuminating just how complicated it was to make the film; suddenly Kong didn’t look so cheesy to me when I realized what a staggering achievement it was.

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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Fantasy, Horror

 

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