February 15, 2006
One of the most sought after DVDs for classic movie buffs has been the 1933 version of King Kong, one of the most famous monster movies ever made. On the eve of Peter Jackson’s remake, Warner Brothers has released a beautifully restored print on DVD. The good news is that Kong has never looked or sounded better and now a whole new generation can enjoy and be inspired by a movie that influenced countless ones before it.
Carl Denham (Armstrong) is a fearless adventurer/filmmaker who travels all over the world looking for dangerous animals to capture on film. On his latest excursion he has not disclosed to the crew of the Venture where they are going or for how long. He aims to make the greatest movie anyone has ever seen (the James Cameron of his day if you will). This time around, however, he has to have a woman in his movie because the public wants romance.
He finds his leading lady, Ann Darrow (Wray) on the street, caught trying to steal a piece of fruit, and is struck by her beauty. She is just desperate enough to accept Denham’s vague yet persuasive pitch. Pretty soon, everyone is on board for a long cruise to a distant and exotic land. Once the ship reaches a certain point, Denham reveals his mission to the Captain and the first mate, Jack Driscoll (Cabot): he plans to find an island not located on any map. Its denizens are far removed from civilization and worship a god known only as Kong.
They find the island and it is revealed in an atmospheric sequence that begins with a memorable shot of the Venture enshrouded in fog. The closer they get, the faint sound of tribal drumming can be heard which effectively establishes a foreboding mood. Once Denham and his crew land on the island they run afoul of the natives who offer Darrow as a sacrifice to Kong, a giant ape. From this point, King Kong becomes an exciting action/adventure movie as Denham and company go on a dangerous journey through an island filled with all sorts of fantastic creatures like dinosaurs to rescue Darrow.
Kong is certainly a stinging indictment against the hubris of American culture imposing itself on foreign civilizations. Denham and his landing party interrupt an important ritual thereby offending the natives and they don’t expect any kind of reprisals? And then they capture Kong and exploit him like some kind of freak show for the rich and privileged to gawk at in amazement. No wonder Kong gets mad, breaks free and trashes New York City in an attempt to be alone with Darrow, the woman he has fallen in love with.
What makes Kong such a compelling monster that still beats all the CGI creations of today is that his creators were able to impart a personality by giving him such an expressive face that is able to convey a wide range of emotions – anger, curiousity, pain and even love.
It is really a shame that most people who were raised on CGI effects laden movies probably won’t appreciate the artistry that went into making Kong (although, the in-depth documentary certainly makes a convincing argument) and laugh at the dated effects. But for those of us who grew up in the pre-CGI days, weaned on glorious Ray Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Kong still thrills. It is also one of the best action/adventure films ever made.
On the first disc is an audio commentary by visual effects artists Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston with archival interview soundbites from Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. Harryhausen and Ralston touch upon the effectiveness of the film’s score and how it was used sparingly until our heroes get to the island. Ralston picks Harryhausen’s brain for historical factoids like where scenes were shot, what was almost cut out and so on. There is little analysis and Ralston spends most of the time praising what we’re watching instead of providing useful insights. There are also quite a few lulls between comments in this so-so track.
Also included are trailers for eight of Cooper’s movies.
The second disc features “I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper,” a documentary narrated by Alec Baldwin that runs almost an hour in length and chronicles the life and career of this larger than life figure. Cooper loved adventure much like the Carl Denham character in Kong. Cooper was an innovator who helped usher in Technicolor. He lived through some truly harrowing and exciting experiences that would be ripe for numerous films. This is quite an insightful look at this often forgotten yet fascinating cinematic pioneer.
“RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World” is an in-depth, two and half hour retrospective documentary. The driving force behind Kong was adventurers turned filmmakers Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the inspiration for Denham and Driscoll in the movie). This doc examines how many elements of the film were, oddly enough, autobiographical. Willis O’Brien was the third, crucial collaborator, animating Kong and an innovator in stop-motion animation. Biographers, historians and filmmakers like Harryhausen, Frank Darabont and Kong super fan Peter Jackson take us through the film’s production in great detail.
“The Lost Spider Pit Sequence” meticulously restores an unfinished sequence from Kong by Peter Jackson and his team. In this sequence, Denham and his crew are attacked by a giant spider and other nasty creatures while trying to rescue Darrow on the island.
Finally, there is “Creation Test Footage” with commentary by Harryhausen. The only footage that exists of O’Brien’s ambitious yet costly epic, Creation, is presented here. The effects he utilized in it would later be used to even greater effect in Kong.