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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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Waterloo Bridge (1931) – Waterloo Bridge Three Post Series #2

Waterloo_Bridge_(1931_film)_jpegMae Clarke and James Whale are both best remembered for the 1931 Frankenstein that introduced Boris Karloff to immortal fame as the Frankenstein monster. Mae Clarke was the fiancé of Dr. Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive), although she didn’t have much to do besides remonstrate earnestly with her fiancé and faint at the sight of Karloff. Frankenstein was also a turning point in the career of the director, James Whale. The movie was so successful that he was given a tremendous amount of artistic freedom for several years at Universal Studios and directed The Invisible Man (1933), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

However, before Frankenstein was released in 1931, another movie was released that same year and shows that both Whale and Clarke are much more than makers of monster movies. In fact, Mae Clarke gives a very moving performance as a chorus girl turned prostitute who falls in love with a young soldier during WWI. This movie is not as well known as the remake in 1940 at MGM with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, but is an excellent, concise, grittier look at a particular moment in time. The movie is based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, which in turn was based on his memories of a chance meeting with a prostitute on Waterloo Bridge during an air raid, and the movie captures that sense of random chance throughout.

Mae Clarke is Myra Deauville, who came from America to England in the chorus of a show. But when the show closes and she is out of work and cannot pay her landlady (a constant problem in this movie), she resorts to prostitution. Her method, employed by many other women, is to go to Waterloo Bridge to pick up men.

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It is at Waterloo Bridge where she meets Roy Cronin (Douglas Montgomery) during an air raid. I hadn’t realized it before, but London did endure bombings during WWI from zeppelins. Roy is a very young soldier, innocent and eager and a bit lonely during his leave in London. She sees him as a potential client and brings him back to her apartment, where they have dinner. He is so innocent, though, he doesn’t even realize that she is trying to pick him up and just thinks that she is being friendly, but he is smitten with her. He even offers to pay her landlady, who is demanding her rent and also assumes that Roy is there as a client. However, Myra quickly realizes that Roy just wants to talk and is touched by his innocence, and she refuses to let him pay the rent. Later that night, after he has gone, she goes out again in search of another man so she can pay the still looming rent.

Roy does not forget her so easily, however, and come back and meets Myra’s friend, Kitty, another lady of the night. Kitty can see that he is mad about Myra and tells Myra that she should marry him, but Myra feels that she would be using Roy and it would not be fair to him, who doesn’t  know what she does for a living. However, Roy manages finally to get Myra to visit his family, where she meets his father, mother and sister (Bette Davis in a tiny role). They are very welcoming, but the mother can see what her son evidently cannot or doesn’t care about, that there is a huge gulf between Myra and the Cronins. The Cronins are very wealthy people, upper class, while Myra is just a chorus girl from America who has had to make her own way all her life. Roy proposes, but that night Myra tells his mother the truth. His mother is appalled, though sympathetic and appreciative; however, she does not want Myra to marry her son and Myra leaves, with Roy going after her.

waterloobridgeIt is a heartbreaking story, in it’s own way. It is not lushly romantic like the 1940 movie, but is more gritty, more like a straight-forward narrative of what could a real story, more explicit about the life that Myra is living and how much she hates it, though she does it every time she wants something (like a new dress) or must pay bills. There is a tragic little moment when her landlady has demanded her rent. Myra sits down in front of her mirror and begins to get herself ready to go out, with an expressionless face that still expresses so much. She gets up and goes out the door and the scene ends.

Douglas Montgomery is a little on the awkward and inexperienced side as Roy Cronin, but since the character is supposed to be young and inexperienced, his acting is not a serious detraction from the movie. Roy is a completely naïve, romantic young man who doesn’t really care where she came from or what she does. His view of her is a purified version of the real woman. Myra comes across as much older than he is, though not necessarily in actual age. She is the one who is painfully aware of the class differences between them, let alone the fact that she is a prostitute, and knows there is no future for them.

MBDWABR EC013Mae Clarke really did lead a hard-scrabble life for a while, like she portrays in the movie, though without the streetwalking. She (her real name was Violet Mary Klotz) and Barbara Stanwyck (still Ruby Stevens) and one other girl all shared one shabby room in New York when they were in their teens, dancing at nightclubs, getting work in a chorus whenever they could, each washing out their one pair of stockings each night. She found some initial success, but her career never quite took off and almost all of her leading lady roles came in the pre-code era. The rest of her career was spent in bit parts. Ironically, she made her most famous movies in 1931. Along with Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein, she also appeared in another highly successful film, The Public Enemy, where she infamously gets a grapefruit shoved in her face by gangster James Cagney.

Waterloo Bridge was both a critical and financial success when it was released; however, owing to it’s frank portrayal, it was never released in theaters during the era of the production code and was overshadowed by MGM’s remake. The film was rediscovered in 1975, but because both Universal Studios and MGM owned the rights, they were not able to come to an agreement and it was not generally seen for another twenty years. It was not available for home-ownership until 2006, when Waterloo Bridge was released in the first of the TCM sets called Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 1. It was paired with Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman and Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face and is really a movie worth rediscovering.

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Posted by on September 29, 2014 in Movies

 

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Red Dust (1932) – Like David and Basthsheba in the Jungle

thI have wanted to see Red Dust for a long time. It is one of the quintessential pre-code films, and I had a very definite idea what the movie would be about before I saw it. It was going to be all about the wise-cracking chemistry between Jean Harlow and Clark Gable (with one steamy kiss between Gable and Mary Astor) and about the difference between Harlow’s Vantine – the hooker with a heart of gold – and Astor’s Barbara – the lady who acts more like a prostitute than the prostitute. And there was going to be a definite class element to the story, the difference between the purposelessness of Astor’s and her husband’s New York life and the vibrancy of the Indochina rubber plantation that Gable runs.

So I was a little taken aback when I finished the movie with a different impression. It struck me as a retelling of David and Bathsheba and a story about four remarkably immature and emotionally stunted people, trying to play at love and ruining each other’s lives in the charged and closed atmosphere of the steamy, hot, and rainy rubber plantation. And at the center of the story was Clark Gable’s Dennis Carson, a modern King David.

Harlow and Gable

Harlow and Gable

Clark Gable is Denny, a manager (or owner; not sure which) of a rubber plantation. He says he hates it, but his overseer, Mac (Tully Marshall) says it’s in his blood. His father did it and he’ll always do it. Soon the prostitute, Vantine (Jean Harlow), arrives on the boat and although his men nudge him and wink, Denny says that he’s known her type of woman before. However, she soon cajoles him and kids him into a better humor and the two of them enjoy her stay very much. She resumes her journey, however, and when he tries to pay her, she is hurt and says she had hoped it wasn’t like that.

Soon, an engineer, Gary Willis, (Gene Raymond) and his wife, Barbara (Mary Astor), arrive at the plantation and Denny is instantly struck by the wife (literally; she slaps him), who he regards as a lady. When Gary falls ill, he helps nurse him through and Barbara is almost uncontrollably attracted to him as well. Meanwhile, the boat Vantine was suppose to take has broken down, so now she is back at the plantation and watching with jealous eyes as Denny arranges so that the husband is away on difficult work so he can seduce Barbara.

It’s all a very entertaining, wise-crack exchanging, super-charged, compact, gritty, steamy little film. However, as I mentioned, I wound up with an unexpected impression. In fact, despite how the movie was advertised as being about Gable and Harlow (understandable, since she and he were the stars at MGM), I was a little surprised at how little Harlow’s character really further’s the central plot. The center is Gable, and the triangle between Astor and Raymond. Without that, there is no story.

Mary-Astor-and-Clark-Gable-in-Red-Dust1932

Astor and Gable

What I am curious about is what the writers of the screenplay intended. Did they mean to draw parallels to King David or was that merely coincidental? In the remake of Red DustMogambo, it is clear from the start that Clark Gable and the Jean Harlow character (played by Ava Gardiner), are meant to be together. The romance between him and the society lady is poignant, but you know it’s never going to work. Red Dust is intriguingly ambiguous. No character particularly seems to belong with anyone.

Denny’s character is an interesting one, which has shades of King David. He is the king of his manor. He treats his Asian workers (the ‘coolies’) little better than slaves, he treats his white workers only a step or two up. He even treats Vantine like just somebody for him to use. He’s never had a normal relationship of equals in his whole life and there appears to be nobody he respects or who he can have empathy for. When he’s with Vantine, all they do is wisecrack and wrestle like kids. Then Barbara and Gary arrive.

At first, he treats her and her husband brusquely, believing they are just society people who will not be tough enough to take the life. However, when a frustrated and overwhelmed Barbara slaps him, that is when he really looks at her and begins his pursuit. I was a little puzzled by this, but I think it makes sense. Denny clearly has a thing about women who are supposedly ladies. He mentions it several times, dismissing women like Vantine. He makes sure everyone treats Barbara like a lady, and he treats her like one by trying to make sure she is comfortable. At one point, he tells Barbara that his mother died on the plantation, which is why he doesn’t usually allow women on the plantation (Vantine doesn’t seem to count in his mind). One wonders if his mother was also a lady, not tough like his father, and that this idea of being a lady came from her. The reason the slap got his attention is because, whether she meant to or not, Barbara was signaling that she expected to be treated differently than his coolies, workers and prostitutes. He is turned on by that, but also respects her for it.

tumblr_me616dcsa11rxeqpao1_500And interestingly enough, it is only to Barbara that he actually talks as if she were an equal and not somebody below him, mentioning personal things like the death of his mother. And like King David, he sends her husband off on an awful and nearly impossible work site so that he can be alone with her, although Vantine is still around and has to watch what is going on.

But because he’s so emotionally stunted, he doesn’t realize the consequences. He sees Barbara, he wants Barbara and even believes that he’s fallen in love. And it is only when he spends a little time with Gary and realizes that he’s a decent young man, eager to work hard and never complaining about the working conditions (it’s pouring rain most of the time), who loves his wife, it’s only then that Denny really considers that his actions affect others.

And this is where the tragedy comes in, because it’s really too late to fix anything, but he doesn’t realize that, either. He decides that he cannot run away with Barbara and that she will be better off with her husband. So he does his best to make her hate him by telling her he never loved her and implying that she’s just a tramp. She responds by becoming hysterical and, happening to have a gun in her hand that he had given her earlier for protection, she shoots him in the side. Gary comes in and Denny and Vantine tell him that Denny had tried to assault Barbara and she had fired in self-defense. Gary and Barbara leave and Denny is left with Vantine, who nurses him back to health. And the movie ends.

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

But the damage has already been done. He may think he’s fixed it simply by taking himself out of the running, but the marriage is broken now. It’s hard to imagine that Barbara – who struggled with guilt about Gary, who she regards as a trusting child – won’t confess what happened when she is no longer hysterical or if she doesn’t, there will always be that barrier between them and Gary may never be sure what happened. It is also hard to imagine that she will simply get over what she felt for Denny or how he tossed her aside (he’s trying to be noble, but no woman wants to be told they were used like a tramp; they would rather hear that their love mattered, even if the affair must end). Near the end of the movie, when Vantine and Denny are both playing their parts to convince Gary and Barbara that everything was Denny’s fault, they have the slightly pleased expressions of children who think they have put a toy back together and don’t realize just how broken it is.

Barbara’s character actually reminded me a lot of the character Anna Karenina. Like Anna, Barbara is in an unequal marriage, only her husband seems much younger than her rather than older. And like Anna, she flings herself headlong into the affair – knowing it’s wrong, feeling guilty, but not stopping to really think about it. I still can’t figure out how she and Gary were married in the first place. My theory is that they knew each other all their lives and married because it was expected of them by their parents (I imagine them as having mothers who are also bridge partners).

Astor and Raymond

Astor and Raymond

Gary speaks wistfully to Denny of his dream to go to South America, which he gave up when he got married. He’s also like a kid, enjoying playing at shooting tigers, completely oblivious to what is going on between his wife and Denny, and it is Barbara, not Gary, who makes the decisions and who mothers him when he doesn’t feel well. Gary speaks about wanting a home in New York and a family, but neither Barbara or Gary act as if they do. It is not clear what Barbara wants, but she seems to want to travel, since she came with Gary on the trip in the first place, and because she is willing to run away with Denny and see the world.There is no evidence that she wants that home and children that Gary talks about. It sounds more like parroting an idea somebody put in his head about what he and Barbara really feel, even if they don’t. Denny seems to be Barbara’s first real passion and she abandons herself to it completely.Denny thinks he’s found his ideal of a lady, not realizing the emotional vulnerability beneath the red hot passion.

Vantine is another interesting character who, unlike Barbara, does not expect to be treated well, since she probably never has been before. She doesn’t really mind that Denny doesn’t love her, if she even knows it, because she too is emotionally stunted. All she really knows or cares about is that she has him. She is delighted when Denny decides to be “noble” and never even thinks about whether or not his heart was really engaged (or Barbara’s). In some respects, it is like her character is in the movie to provide titilation for the audience…like her notorious bath in the water barrel scene.

MV5BNzE2ODQ0Mzk4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDkzNTI2__V1_SY317_CR13,0,214,317_But I do not believe that Denny loves Vantine. If she had really left the first time, I don’t think he would even have missed her. The only time he pays attention to her is when he is upset by something. At the beginning of the movie, he is upset generally about working on the plantation, later he kisses her when he is trying to get drunk and is sulking about how he is now not going to run away with Barbara, and at the end they kiss when he is upset after having been reminded of Barbara and Gary, who have sailed back to New York. When Vantine reads him the article, he has a brief expression of regret on his face, then he kisses her. It’s actually kind of sad, because, however fun the scene is with Vantine reading him a children’s bedtime story (because she’s read everything else in the paper multiple times) and their grins and playfulness, it is the playfulness of children (underscored by the children’s story she is reading) and not of adults engaging in an adult relationship and he seems to be trying to console himself, using her rather than really seeing her as a person or respecting her.

I have to say, the movie is far more entertaining that I just made it sound, but Red Dust somehow managed to inspire my interest. It’s a very taut film and there’s no moral to the story, nor is the ending really the end of the story for these characters. Perhaps that’s why I liked it; there was so much room to imagine these people’s past lives, their motivations, and their future.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2014 in Drama

 

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