King Kong (1933): Collector's Edition Review

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World..."

-- Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)

It sounds like overblown hyperbole, but King Kong really was the “Eighth Wonder of the World” in 1933. For modern audiences, it is difficult to imagine the impact Kong had on both cinema and pop-culture - it continues to reverberate throughout Hollywood’s modern adventure films; a milestone in terms of special effects, and a classic for its inedible story. It has been copied, lampooned, dissected and remade more times than I care to remember, making this review rather superfluous. But it has stood the test of time. At age 72, the picture has become a cinematic institution. Ask anyone, and they would gladly tell you the ending of Kong. They might even quote that famous last line. Like the shower scene in Psycho, or Citizen Kane’s surprising coda, Kong is a pure example of iconic cinema; making it a victim of its own success. It’s impossible to view it with fresh eyes.

After watching the film, one question sprung to mind: if you put King Kong’s reputation aside, and treated it as mere entertainment, does it work as well today? I believe it does.

Recounting the plot almost seems pointless, but I digress. It’s quintessential fantasy fare, rooted deeply in popular literature. The most obvious influence would be Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which Kong apes frequently (pardon the pun). Famous filmmaker Carl Denham is preparing to set sail to an uncharted island, where he’ll film his next masterpiece. Before he can leave, he needs to find a leading lady. After scouring the streets of New York, he discovers the beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who agrees to star in his project.

With his trustworthy partner-in-crime Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), Denham leads his motley crew to the mysterious Skull Island. In no time at all, the group falls afoul of the natives, who kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice for the legendary “Kong”. The giant simian takes a liking to Ann, who carries her deep into the jungle; fending off everything from dinosaurs to oversized snakes. After much derring-do, Driscoll manages to save Ann, leading Kong into an ambush. After capturing the creature, Denham takes him back to Manhattan to show the world. But Kong doesn’t stay in captivity for long, fleeing into the city to reclaim Ann. After causing widespread chaos, Kong climbs to the tip of the Empire State Building; as the fighter planes arrive to destroy him. But, it wasn’t the planes that killed him - it was beauty killed the beast…

It’s amazing that King Kong ever saw the light of day, considering the challenges it took to reach the screen. Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had gained a reputation in Hollywood for their adventurous nature; jet-setting around the world in search of the wonderful and peculiar. Prior to Kong, they had made two silent features that explored other walks of life - Grass (1925), a documentary about the nomadic journey of an Iranian tribe, and Chang (1927), a story about elephants in Thailand. Kong would bring all of their interests into the same melting pot, after Cooper and his friend Edgar Wallace conceived the basic idea for the film. It wouldn’t be easy though, since Cooper and Schoedsack had limited resources, and the daunting task of creating a creature from primitive technology.

The film was produced at the height of The Great Depression, which saw a surge in fantasy films. The “lost world” sub-genre was considered as the thematic flipside of civilisation at the time - a vision of utopia that gave people hope. They were films to get engrossed in, and cinema has always thrived on escapism. Cooper and Schoedsack knew this, and proceeded to light-up the screen with their outlandish concepts. Want to see a giant gorilla duke it out with a T-Rex? King Kong delivers on that wish - the kind of high concept idea that had schoolboys salivating. Indeed, the oddly atmospheric Skull Island (odd, because the entire film was shot on a Hollywood back lot) is the perfect place for this story to play out - the fictional setting allows for a great deal of creative license, and the audience is just waiting for the next monster to leap out of the foliage. It’s a living, breathing world, and although the production design looks very rickety now, Cooper and Schoedsack filmed the whole affair with a documentary-style immediacy; giving the fictional locations character. The rough, black and white film stock also awards the film a timeless quality, despite the many elements that seem to date it.

On a technical level, there isn’t much to set Kong apart from the rut of SF/fantasy films that flooded theatres during the period. But it had one masterstroke up its sleeve - the behemoth of the title. The King was designed and created by Willis O’Brien, who had a long history with stop-motion animation. He pushed the process to its limits with Kong, and created what is arguably cinemas most famous monster. Perhaps the term “monster” isn’t appropriate for O’Brien’s beast, however. Most creatures in film are never developed as characters in their own right, and prefer to remain as one-dimensional scaremongers. Despite the restrictions of stop-motion, O’Brien was able to bring a great deal of humanity to Kong - no mean feat, considering the creature is so ferocious. His every mannerism and emotion is portrayed with aplomb by the artist, particularly in the various close-up shots, that project a surprising amount of range. When the poor beast falls from Empire State during that frantic denouement, he takes us with him. Kong isn’t just a special effect. He’s a character.

Of course, the special effects do reveal the films obscene old age. The advent of CGI has made anything possible, and the latest incarnation has allowed Kong to appear more realistic, more fluid, and more believable. The flaws in stop-motion are always apparent while you watch the original film, but it never once effected my enjoyment - there’s something much more interesting about a real-life creation on the screen, rather than an image made on a computer. The wizardry in King Kong has soul. In my opinion, it’s other areas of the film that play poorly today. The stagy nature of the production is obvious, particularly the early scenes aboard Denham’s ship; with the filmmakers making no attempts to show that the characters are out to sea. The ship doesn’t rock from side-to-side once throughout the entire journey. Cooper and Schoedsack’s direction is also rather simplistic, with straightforward point-and-shoot photography, with little in the way of camera movement; providing further proof of their documentary background. However, it is the acting from the leads that might deter modern audiences.

The cast for Kong was typical of 30’s B-movies, with few recognisable names. “Talkies” had just sprung to prominence, and few stars had made the transition. As you’d expect, the dialogue delivery in Kong is rather stiff to say the least, but this was a sign of the times rather than a black mark against the film. In fact, the cast had a fantastic script at their disposal, since it allowed each of them to flesh-out their roles. Armstrong is good value as the excitable Denham, all grand gestures and booming voice. He feels like a director, which is perhaps the greatest compliment one could pay. Cabot is like a plank of wood as Driscoll - the typical hero cliché, which we’ve seen countless times. That said, Kong invented most of the clichés we take for granted, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh.

Which leaves us with Wray, who sadly died last year. Wray shrieked her way into the history books as Miss. Darrow, and became instantly connected to the role. As with the rest of the cast, she largely went through the motions, but it was her innate beauty that made her perfect for the role. Kong’s odd fixation with the nimble blonde was almost believable - after all, Kong hasn’t seen anything so beautiful in his life. Why wouldn’t he fight to protect her? And it also helps that Wray could scream with the best of them (something the directors made her do a lot!). She helps to give the ending much of its resonance, and what a conclusion it is! Kong’s extended attack on New York is brilliantly executed by the filmmakers, providing the template for many films since. The final sequence with Kong’s lifeless corpse in the streets of Manhattan, is one filled with genuine pathos. It was clearly Cooper and Schoedsack’s intention to make you feel sympathy for the creature, and they certainly achieved that.

Seven decades later, King Kong still deserves its classic status - it’s a highly enjoyable slice of fantasy filmmaking, that still rouses despite its age. Its influence on cinema has never been in doubt, and after all this time, the stop-motion Kong still demands the audience’s attention. Full of famous moments, and one of the greatest conclusions in Hollywood’s history, the original Kong is indispensable entertainment…

The Discs

It only took the imminent release of Peter Jackson’s remake for Warner Brothers to get their act together, but it’s finally here - a full-blown “Special Edition” of Kong, which gets my vote for 2005’s best DVD package. As you’d expect from such an eagerly-awaited disc, it doesn’t disappoint, and fans are in for a treat!

Not content with releasing a standard two-disc release, Warner has made Kong available in several flavours. One is the regular issue in a standard amarray case; another has the SE as a part of a box set, "The King Kong Collection," which throws-in Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young; and the final “Collector’s Edition”, which is the option I chose. The latter is certainly a doozie for die-hard followers of Kong, which comes in an embossed aluminium case, with some excellent inserts - an assortment of postcards, a coupon to claim a free poster, and a reproduction of the original program booklet, from the film's première in 1933. Such attention to detail makes the “Collector’s Edition” of Kong a must-have.

The DVD isn’t bad either…

The Look and Sound

Due to the age of the materials, and the cheap nature of the production, King Kong has always looked a little rough on home video and television. Naturally, Warner has taken the opportunity to clean-up the transfer, and present it in the best way possible. It has been restored fairly well, with the 35mm black and white footage looking the best it ever has. The transfer preserves the original 1.37:1 screen ratio, and reveals the telltale signs of age - scratches, dirt, blemishes and speckles. There’s also a constant vale of grain, but this was to be expected. It does, however, give the image a depth and clarity that has been missing for some time. Blacks are deep and look great - particularly in the night-time scenes, which have looked horribly washed-out in the past. Contrasts are good, and the level of detail is pleasing; with the expressions on Kong’s face looking better than ever. The picture will never look brand new, but it’s definitely the finest release to date.

Kong was produced following the death of silent cinema, and was one of the first “blockbusters” to really make use of a soundtrack; so it’s hardly surprising to hear it sounding so low-key on DVD. The Mono track is flat and hardly dynamic, but it’s presented in a crystal-clear manner by the studio. Despite the ravages of age, the soundtrack is in good condition. Dialogue is transferred very well indeed, and the score has real resonance (just listen to the full overture at the start of the feature). I had no problems hearing the characters, and the sound effects are just as robust. All things considered, King Kong sounds fantastic for a film made in the 30’s…

Warner also provides English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Bonus Materials

A comprehensive package, this two-disc release provides a fascinating look at one of cinemas most important films. It was hard not to be entertained by these features - it’s a true historical document, and the studio deserve a great deal of praise for providing as much archival material as possible.

Disc One

Audio Commentary by Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston, Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray

This is one of those yack-tracks that you’ll want to listen to again - stuffed to the gills with facts and recollections, it’s an entertaining piece that offers plenty for the viewer to absorb. Effects legend Harryhausen and artist Ralston were both recorded together for the DVD, and offer their technical know-how on the wonder of Kong. Their insight into stop-motion animation is great, and they possess a great deal of love for the film. My favourite moment, is when Harryhausen discusses watching the film as a child - his passion is evident, and it obviously had a major influence on his career. The comments from Wray and Cooper are obviously archival pieces, which are integrated into the commentary well. Plenty of background detail is dredged up, from the idea that gave birth to the film, to RKO, to the filming and eventual release of the picture. The track is consistently interesting and enjoyable, making it an ideal source of trivia for film buffs…

The first disc rounds-up with a Merian C. Cooper trailer gallery, for King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933), Flying Down to Rio (1933), Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), Mighty Joe Young (1949), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956).

Disc Two

You’d be forgiven for thinking the extras on disc two are pretty sparse, after glancing over the list, but the materials here are pretty extensive, beginning with:

“I'm King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper”

This is an intriguing 56-minute documentary, that outlines Cooper’s amazing career. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, it’s a fun account of the filmmaker, who provided the inspiration for Carl Denham - he went across the globe with Schoedsack, searching for strange stories to tell. The anecdotes raised are pretty thrilling, truth be told, with Cooper coming across as a real-life Indiana Jones. While his work on Kong takes the spotlight, his other work is discussed too. A great documentary.

“RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World”

Whoa! Now this is what you call an epic documentary! Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, it leaves no stone unturned; covering practically every area of King Kong’s production. Mixing archival footage with talking head material, the piece boasts many contributions from the world of filmmaking, including Peter Jackson and Fay Wray, shortly before she died. The history of this film has always been interesting, and the documentary certainly does it justice, covering all the areas you’ve come to expect. The doc is broken down into several key areas: "The Origins of King Kong," "Willis O'Brien and Creation," "Cameras Roll on Kong, the Eighth Wonder," "A Milestone in Visual Effects," "Passion, Sound and Fury," "The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence," and "King Kong's Legacy." Naturally, you can play all of the vignettes at once; amounting to a highly rewarding history lesson.

"The Lost Spider Pit Sequence"

Cut from the original film due to budgetary restraints and technical limitations, this wonderful sequence is recreated by Peter Jackson and his dedicated crew. They have used stop-motion techniques to faithfully present the sequence as it would have appeared in 1933; including technical imperfections to make it resemble the old stock footage as much as possible. I don’t want to say more, as it would spoil the scene for interested viewers, but this is a unique DVD extra, and another reminder that Jackson has nothing but love for this film; boding well for the remake.

The final extra, is some old footage from Willis O' Brien's Creation - an abandoned project, that featured the same stop-motion techniques as Kong. It is accompanied by commentary from Harryhausen. A stellar collection of supplements, overall.

The Bottom Line

How do you sum-up a film as influential as King Kong?

No matter what you might think of the movie, it's still an important piece of filmmaking, that paved the way for todays effects-driven blockbusters. It also remains an entertaining adventure yarn, that puts some modern alternatives to shame. Warner's "Collector's Edition" is a must-have for die hard fans of the film; presenting the picture in a beautiful package, with some outstanding extras.

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Last updated: 04/05/2018 17:40:19

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