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.
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.
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.