All of the great monster movies are tragedies. Though there doesn't seem to be any obvious reason for it, it's something essential to the genre. Perhaps because it forces a moral reckoning: we stand in awe of the mighty beast, yet what terrible power do we wield that destroys it? And, beyond the moral implications, that equivalency plays on anxieties about our own mortality. What should be a celebration of victory inevitably becomes a contemplation of the impermanence of all things. The King is dead. Long live the King.
Still, I'd forgotten how much this is true even of the original King Kong. I'd seen both remakes much more recently than the original, and of course they both heavily play up the idea of Kong as a sympathetic character; in contrast, I assumed, to the original. That's true to an extent - this Kong certainly spends a lot of time growling and eating innocent bystanders, and there isn't much in the script to suggest anything other than a vicious killer. But Willis O'Brien's outstanding animation adds an entirely new dimension. Faced with a character that can't speak (not even in silent film intertitles), O'Brien nevertheless provides Kong with arguably the best performance in the film. One shot in particular caught my attention, shortly after Kong has recaptured Ann from her high-rise bedroom: he glances over his shoulder, and the angle, up-turned brows, and bright eyes shining in the darkness of the concrete jungle betray - only for a moment - immense uncertainty and fear. The rather simple plot of King Kong tells us about the "old world" of myth, gods, and nature falling before the footsteps of modern civilization (both the planes and the Empire State Building represented the pinnacle of American technological dominance at the time). Kong's performance makes it clear this is a bad thing, or at least a sad thing. His sympathetic side is a lot more understated than in later versions, but I actually like that better. It means Kong's true nature is there to be discovered by those willing to look past the monster, forcing the audience to go through the moral math themselves rather than getting it spelled out. And the '33 Kong is really the most tragic of them all you know. At least later Kongs had Ann/Dwan on his side (for all the good it did), but here even she can't get over her terror. He is utterly alone. That's another trait all the great monsters share. Come to think of it, underneath the social messages about technical advancement ('33), masculinity in the modern age ('76), and, uh.. something about Heart of Darkness ('05), the essential story of Kong is pretty much a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Technically, the film holds up quite well (we watched the Blu-ray, which looks terrific for its age, though not as crisp as The General). Only five years after The Jazz Singer the art of sound design has matured dramatically. The soundtrack was lush and well-balanced; didn't notice any dead spots. As is frequently mentioned, the airplane sequence was especially impressive. The humming and swooping of the plane engines was tempered so well it was almost musical. As for the visuals, well, the direction was by-the-book, but the effects... wow. Last time I saw the movie I was too young to appreciate what went into them. And it's not just the animation itself. The stop-motion was imaginative and clever, but definitely a bit unrefined compared to what Harryhausen and others did with it in later years. Some shots were better than others. But the amount of integration between the animated models and live environment consistently blew me away. This is a similar case to what I said about the camerawork in Sunrise, in that they just went to way more work than they had to.
They could have shot the actors, and then shot reverse angles of miniature sets, but instead dinosaurs and live actors are jammed into the same frame, preferably overlapping, as often as possible. They could have shot everybody standing still as they look at the fallen stegosaurus, or just passing by the frame, but instead they choreographed some crazy tracking shot to follow them as they walk in front of a stop-motion miniature (and the movement lines up perfectly). They could have cut back and forth when animated Kong throws something, and then it lands on a live action set, but they did it in one shot. Repeatedly. They could have changed the script so Kong doesn't have to pick up and put down Ann so often, or they could have done it off-screen, or behind an obscurement, but instead they do constant on-screen transitions between puppet-Ann and real-Ann just to sell the illusion over and over. And it doesn't quite work, to my modern, educated eye. But it's surprisingly close, and I love that they went to the effort. Over and over. And finally the best part is the airplane finale. Everything comes together there - the best sound, music, and visuals of the entire movie. The swooping point-of-view shots from the planes add a lot of energy, while the editing and sound shape the tension perfectly. The pacing of the scene is top notch, and holds its own against any movie made since.
So, that's a lot of praise. What can I say... I'm a sucker for dinosaurs. But there are a couple rough edges. Kong gets in about one fight too many, dragging down the momentum somewhat in the middle. Jack Driscoll is a fairly unlikable drip, and his, "Say; I guess I love you," ranks as one of the all-time silliest romantic lines ever (perhaps up there with the non-sandiness of Padme). And Fay Wray's Ann Darrow is believable enough and not too off-putting, but so useless one almost suspects that the movie's theme - "it was Beauty killed the Beast" - really means women are a nuisance after all and shouldn't be allowed on boats. The remakes clearly recognized these issues, and did their best to attack them head-on, to varying success. But on the whole I think the original version has now become my clear favorite. Peter Jackson's film is pretty, if a bit vapid and meandering, and Dino De Laurentiis'... well... gets points for trying (Jessica Lange's performance is completely underrated, btw - critics of the time just didn't understand what she was doing). This one, however, is the total package.
Hail to the King, baby.
NEXT WEEK: Doug Flyn- I mean, Errol Fairba- I mean.... Captain Blood.