Love Affair with a Giant Ape

December 10, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

I know where Peter Jackson is coming from, because I have walked down a similar road. Admittedly, King Kong hasn't become the lifelong obsession for me that it has been for him but, when it comes to love of a movie, King Kong was my first. And, as they say, you never forget your first. So, although I ultimately became unfaithful to Kong, jilting it for Star Wars and Star Trek and other things, it has always occupied a special place in my heart. So here's a trip down memory lane. (Those who don't like these self indulgent pieces can stop reading now.)

I can't say definitively how old I was when I first saw King Kong on television. At a guess, I was probably seven years old. I know it was in the spring, because I had just come home from Little League practice. That would most likely make it early 1975. This was during my monster movie phase, which lasted about three years. During that period, every Saturday afternoon, I would be glued to my television set, watching "Creature Double Feature." This offered everything from B-grade schlock to the classics of the genre. It was through "Creature Double Feature" that I was first exposed to Dracula, Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, and, of course, King Kong. Of all these movies, none struck me as forcefully as Merian C. Cooper's Beauty & the Beast tale. Before I saw it, I had read about it in various monster movie magazines and books, so my level of anticipation was high when I looked in the TV guide and noticed that, next Saturday, there would be a double-feature of King Kong and Son of Kong.

Children are, by their nature, less critical than adults. At the time, I couldn't think of a more perfect movie. King Kong did everything right. Even the fact that it was in black-and-white didn't bother me. By then, I had gotten used to the fact that most monster movies weren't in color. As soon as it was over, I wanted to watch King Kong again. But, in this pre-VCR era, I had no choice but to wait for the next time it aired on Channel 9.

The wait was approximately 18 months. Beginning on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, Channel 9 started a short-lived tradition of having "King Kong Afternoon." (I didn't realize it at the time, but the inaguration was designed to tie-in with the much-hyped release of the 1976 re-make, which arrived in theaters during mid-December.) That year, Channel 9 showed three Kong movies: the original King Kong, the Son of Kong sequel, and one I had somehow missed: King Kong Versus Godzilla. The latter is a movie only a child could love. I did, although at the time I wondered why Kong looked like he had been put through the washing machine and dryer.

Another thing I remember about Thanksgiving 1976 was that, as I lay on the floor in my grandparents' house from 2:00 until 8:00, it was the first time I became aware that a re-make was coming out. During "King Kong Afternoon," a preview must have been shown a dozen times. I had never before been to an indoor movie theater, but I became so enraptured by the images of this new Kong that I extracted a promise from my father that day that he would take me when the movie opened.

I saw the new King Kong on December 19, 1976, the third day of its opening. It was an early Christmas present. It was the first movie-day out for my family. My father took me to King Kong while my mother took my sisters to a Disney film. At nine years of age, I was a little on the old side to be attending my first movie, but that didn't bother me. King Kong was the first film I had wanted to see. Within the next year, it would be followed by Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And once I saw Star Wars, my allegience shifted from the big ape, although not entirely. I still watched "King Kong Afternoon" on Thanksgiving, and when the 1976 version debuted on TV as a two-part NBC mini-series in 1979, I stayed up late. (Part two, which was interrupted by a newsbreak to announce the signing of the Israel/Egypt peace treaty by Begin and Sadat, didn't end until after midnight.)

When I saw Dino De Laurentiis' vision of King Kong, I was enthralled. Viewing it in color on the big screen enraptured me in a way the original had never managed. (How is something on a 28" TV going to compare to something on a 40' screen?) I didn't notice all the camp at the time. I recognized that Jessica Lange wasn't the best actress in the world, but she was pretty, and that was all that mattered. She became my first movie-star crush. (Second, if you count Carol Wayne.) In retrospect, I suppose this version of King Kong was made for nine-year old boys, and I fell into the demographic. The movie was successful, grossing about $50 million (converted to today's movie ticket prices, that's about $200 million, which is blockbuster status) and earning a Special Effects Oscar.

Today, I own both versions of King Kong on DVD - a widescreen version of the 1976 edition from several years back and the new two-disc treatment of the 1933 original. I am a stout defender of the 1976 King Kong, arguing that it does what it sets out to do. It's silly and campy but, even 30 years later, I enjoy watching it (although Jessica Lange's first scene makes me cringe). A special edition of the De Laurentiis film is on my "wish list." I would love to see the 45 minutes of outtakes that were broadcast during the NBC two-parter. A few of them live on in my memory.

Now, Peter Jackson is about to add a third King Kong to the library. And, although it may be the best of the three, it will never replace either of them in the vault of my memories. The best it can do is stand alongside them.