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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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A Remake of Ben-Hur and Movie Remakes in General

MV5BMTQ3NzUzOTc1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzcwMDkxMTE@__V1_SX214_Waterloo_Bridge_(1931_film)_jpeg I didn’t use to think I was a fan of movie remakes, but it has come my attention that frequently I do like them. I just watched the movie Waterloo Bridge with Vivien Leigh and that was a remake of the 1931 movie starring Mae Clarke (of Frankenstein fame) and directed by James Whale (also of Frankenstein fame). Both movies are actually quite interesting and I liked both, though they are very different. One is a pre-code film (which means it is much more upfront about the main character’s job as a prostitute) and has a definite class element to the story and a bit more of an edge to it. The remake is far more gentle and sentimental (in a good way), more coy about prostitution, and fits the mood much more of 1940, when Europe was at war and people didn’t want the edges of the early ’30s.

I also actually like both movie versions of Sabrina. I saw the 1995 version with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormand first and then was enchanted by the original that was directed by Billy Wilder and stars Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. I also love both Ninotchka (with Greta Garbo) and the musical remake, with songs by Cole Porter, called Silk Stockings (Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse).

I guess I’m coming around to the idea that you cannot have too much of a good thing, if they really are a good thing. Since I love George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion;” I also love the movie (with Leslie Howard), the musical “My Fair Lady, multiple cast recordings, and also the movie version of My Fair Lady. I am even about to listen to a radio dramatization of the play.

And I cannot tell you how many different movie versions I have seen of Pride and Prejudice (at least five) and Great Expectations. Of course, there are an awful lot of awful remakes out there, but I am trying not to be judgmental.

But what put all this in my mind is that I just read online that Ben-Hur is going to be remade and will come out in 2016. And I also must confess that, despite all my enforced goodwill for remakes, my first thought was “Oh really? I wonder how that’ll work out.” Old habits of cynicism regarding remakes die hard.

220px-Ben-Hur-1925

1925

Ben_hur_1959_poster

1959

Actually, the book Ben-Hur has been remade many times and the famous 1959 movie with Charlton Heston was the third movie adaptation. Published in 1880, it was originally adapted as a play (that must have been fun to stage!) and was then made into an unauthorized movie in 1907. It was fifteen minutes long and Lou Wallace’s estate sued and from then on movie makers were much more careful about getting the copyrights of a book before making a movie. The next version was made in 1925 (still a silent movie) with Ramon Novarro and was a huge hit.

And of course, it was made in 1959, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston. It was nominated for twelve academy awards and won eleven of them, a record it shares with Titanic and Return of the King. There was also an animated Ben-Hur made in 2003, with Heston providing the voice of the main character. And there was a 2010 miniseries made in Britain with Joseph Morgan in the main role and a supporting cast that includes Ray Winstone and Hugh Bonneville (of Downton Abbey fame).

Apparently, Jack Huston has been cast as the eponymous Ben-Hur. He is best known for his role in the show Boardwalk Empire, which I have never seen so I cannot judge whether or not he is a good choice. The producers of The Bible miniseries, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, will be executive producers and it will be directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who has directed such movies as Wanted, Night Watch, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I will try and quash my doubts and wish them luck!

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2014 in Movie Thoughts

 

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