(United States, 1933)
King Kong is one of the first movies I recall having seen on TV. That was when I was about six or seven years old, and heavily "into" monster movies. I'll never forget the thrill of the experience, sitting on the floor of my family's living room on a Saturday afternoon, enraptured for two hours by what was taking place on the screen in front of me. The fact that it was all in black and white never bothered me (nor have I ever seen, or desired to see, the colorized version). The special effects were amazing, although, at the time, I wasn't aware of the painstaking effort that went into them. Watching King Kong as an adult is as much an excursion into the past as it is a simple movie-viewing experience. Yes, King Kong is still an engaging adventure tale after all these years, but it also offers a window into an era of filmmaking that has been eclipsed by modern special effects. I don't lament the passing of the era (as some do), but marvel at what it was - at the inventiveness and creativity necessary to overcome boundaries and make something like King Kong. The technique utilized for the monster scenes was something called "stop motion", and it required the filmmakers to pose clay models in position, shoot a frame, move them ever-so-slightly, shoot another frame, and so on. The "muscle ripple" effect along Kong's back is a direct result of this process, as fingers inadvertently moved the fake hair while re-positioning the model. Happy accidents like that wouldn't occur in today's movies. King Kong should be enjoyed for what it is - a modern-day fable about a beauty and a very large beast, and trip down memory lane.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
A film crew headed by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) arrives at the mysterious Skull Island to do some location shooting for a new picture. However, the dark-skinned natives take a liking to Denham's leading lady, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, in the role that immortalized her scream), and kidnap her as an offering to their god, Kong. Just as the cavalry, led by Denham and a hunky sailor named Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), rushes in to save Ann, Kong - a 25-foot high ape (actually, his size varies throughout the film) - makes his appearance, snatching his prize from the altar and heading off into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and a search party set off in pursuit. Various encounters with Kong and a series of prehistoric relics decimate the group. In the meantime, we get to see battles between the giant ape and several dinosaurs. Eventually, Driscoll sneaks Ann away from Kong and, when the beast arrives at the natives' village to retrieve her, Denham uses sleeping gas to capture him. Weeks later, a live show opens in New York City's Radio City Music Hall, with a chained Kong as the main attraction. He is, as the marquee proclaims, "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Despite Denham's best precautions, Kong breaks free on opening night, grabs Ann, wreaks havoc in the city, then climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. There, high atop New York, in one of cinema's most unforgettable moments, Kong fights a duel to the death with a group of biplanes.
When released in 1933, King Kong was greeted with unprecedented amazement. State-of-the-art visual effects, an entertaining story, and a touching ending combined to bequeath upon this film the coveted label of a "classic." It its era -- and, indeed, for decades after -- no monster movie (whether made in the U.S., Japan, or elsewhere) approached the lofty perch of this one. The title character, the creation of stop-motion effects wizard Willis O'Brien (mentor to Ray Harryhausen), captivated audiences and started a world-wide love affair with a giant ape. Now, King Kong remains not only a milestone of movie-making, but a magical experience. Ultimately, the mystique of the film lies not so much in what it offers today, but what it has contributed during the course of the last seven decades. Watching King Kong reminds us of what movies once were and what they have the potential to be, and that's something that today's monster movies will never be able to do.
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