How Big Is He?

December 12, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Every time you turn around, King Kong is another height. In the 1933 version, he started out about 18 feet tall, then grew seven feet for the New York scenes. In the 1976 re-make, he was between 40 and 50 feet tall. The Japanese Kong movies elevated him to between 150 and 200 feet (I think), since he had to be big enough to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla. Finally, there was a cartoon that claimed he was "ten times as big as a man." I guess that means about 50 feet tall. According to published reports, Peter Jackson has placed him in the 25 to 30 foot range.

It all goes to show, there's no such thing as Kongtinuity.

But the main purpose of today's column is not to talk about how tall Kong is. Instead, it's to compare the two existing versions of King Kong and explain why both are enjoyable by an audience today. The general perception is that the 1933 version is dated and only of interest to film historians and those who like old movies. The 1976 version is viewed as a silly failure that no one in his/her right mind would expose himself/herself to. I would like to argue against those perceptions. After that, I'll move on from Kong to something else and let my review of Peter Jackson's latest version stand on its own. (Barring weather or other difficulties, that review should be available during the day tomorrow.) Considering my lasting affection for Kong, it will be interesting to see where I come down on the new film. Paradoxically, perhaps, I may be more critical and more accepting.

I suppose it's possible to view the original King Kong from the detached perspective of a film scholar, but every time I watch it, I find myself becoming involved. So I forget about the hammy acting, the cheesy sets, and the fact that the special effects are obviously special effects. (Although ground-breaking in their time, they seem clunky by today's standards.) It doesn't take much suspension of disbelief before you're there with the chracters on Skull Island or climbing the Empire State Building. The black-and-white is an asset, because it enhances the unreality of the situation. This is a fantasy, and it's presented as a fantasy. The over-the-top acting also works in this context (although it's more a result of Hollywood's uneven and uncertain change-over from silent movies to talkies). Like Kong's changing height, many of the film's flaws fall away if you allow the movie to work its magic. Who could imagine one would end up caring so much for a clay figurine?

Or a man in a monkey suit, when it comes to the 1976 version... There are three primary reasons why this film gets blasted in most reviews. (1) The screenplay is campy. (2) The acting is cheesy. (3) The special effects stink. There's merit to all three complaints, but each is overblown. Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s screenplay never takes itself seriously, but there's plenty of wit, satire, and social commentary to be found within. (Kong arriving in the guise of a giant gas pump - can the slam on big business get any more obvious?) Jessica Lange's performance surely has its hiccups, but she gets better as the movie goes on, and she's damn cute from start to finish. Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin are actually quite good. Finally, the effects work leaves something to be desired, but I'm not a detractor of Rick Baker's contributions. I think the man in the monkey suit approach is mostly effective. I feel for Kong, and I attribute that as much to Baker as to anything else.

There are two unique aspects of the 1976 King Kong that are worth noting. First, this film takes the unusual step of having the girl reciprocate a portion of the ape's feelings. In 1933, it was a one-way street. Kong was smitten with the blonde, but she hated him. He died unloved, mourned only by movie audiences. In 1976, Dwan is connected to Kong. She cares for him. She doesn't want him to die, and is horrified when he does. For her, Kong's death gives her stardom, but it also robs her of personal happiness. One can imagine the character ten years later as an alcoholic pill-popper appearing on Hollywood Squares.

Secondly, there's the World Trade Center aspect. The 1933 movie practically put the Empire State Building on the map. For his edition, Dino De Laurentiis wanted something bigger, so he chose the newly-minted Twin Towers. 30 years later, this choice has made King Kong a strange movie to watch. It's impossible not to view the movie and think of 9/11. The World Trade Center is wedded to that date. It subtly transforms the film's final 20 minutes. Instead of watching Kong's tragic last stand, our attention is captured by glimpses of a location that no longer exists. The ending of King Kong is now as much about the Trade Center as it is about the ape. I can't say whether that's good or bad, but it is unique.

So there we have it - defenses of a sort of both movies. Irrespective of how good Peter Jackson's is, I can't envision giving either of these up. Each conjures its own brand of movie magic, even if everyone doesn't see it.