Thursday, March 14, 2013

The King of Skull Island

The famed explorer and filmmaker stood before a theater of First Nighters and New York sophisticates and said, Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here tonight to tell you a very strange story — a story so strange that no one will believe it — but, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we — my partners and I — have brought back the living proof of our adventure, an adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible death. 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.

March marks the 80th Anniversary of one of the greatest American films ever made, King Kong.  Though that comment might drive more elitist cineastes up the wall (where they belong), it is an incontrovertible fact.  Indeed, Kong is not only a great American film, but perhaps one of the most iconic, with a closing sequence that has entered into myth and has become part of our folklore.

For readers who have never had the privilege of seeing Kong, the story is simply this: world explorer and filmmaker Carl Denham sails to an uncharted island in the Dutch East Indies to make a film about whatever he finds there. With him are Ann Darrow, a down-on-her-luck actress, and Jack Driscoll, the tough first mate of Capt. Englehorn.  What they find is a primitive tribe, separated from the rest of the island by a gigantic wall.  The natives kidnap Ann to sacrifice her to their god – Kong, a 50 foot ape.  Denham, Driscoll and others breach the wall to rescue her, finding a lost world of dinosaurs.  Capturing Kong, they bring him back to New York, where he escapes.  Recapturing Ann once again, the great ape climbs the newly finished Empire State Building, where it fights for life against a squadron of biplanes.  Once the great Kong lies dead in a Manhattan street, Denham stands over the body and says, “Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the beast!”

Though set in a then-contemporary 1933, Kong is a portal into a lost world in more ways than one.  Much of it takes place in a now vanished Manhattan peopled by wisecracking operators who speak in a particularly 30s American patios.  The dialog, by James Ashmore Creelman (1894-1941), who would commit suicide by jumping from a building, and Ruth Rose (1891-1978), crackled with an electrical energy often found in Depression-era films.  Its signature note is a combination of sentiment and cynicism and is a delight to hear.

The middle third of the film takes place on the remote Skull Island, home of the last of the dinosaurs.  The world of 1933 was a much larger place than it is today; there were many uncharted islands, and great portions of many continents were still unknown (or largely unknown) by the western world.  The notion in 1933 that one could head out into a wide-world full of the unknown and adventure was not beyond the realm of possibility.  (By the end of World War II, most of the world would not only be successfully mapped, but also closed off for various political reasons.)

To create King Kong, the filmmakers turned to Willis O’Brien (1886-1952), who created Kong and the dinosaurs through a process called stop motion animation.  Kong was, in reality, a puppet about 18 inches tall.  It was a metal, articulated skeleton that could be posed in different positions, covered in rubber, and the rubber covered in rabbit fur.  O’Brien would then position Kong, shoot one frame, re-position him, shoot one frame, and on and on and on.  The final result is that Kong would move with a lifelike grace.  The special effects for Kong are very special indeed, and 80 years later they have not lost their ability to enchant.  (In fact, I much prefer stop motion to the current CGI type of effect; stop motion always seemed to have a touch of the fantastic, and what would Kong be without that?)

For me, one of the most fascinating things about King Kong is how much of it is based on the experiences of the two men who co-directed the film: Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (1893–1979).  Both were globetrotting adventurers with enough exotic experiences to put Indiana Jones to shame, tramping through Siam, Persia, Abyssinia, and the Malaysian Archipelago.  The film’s two protagonists – filmmaker Carl Denham and sailor Jack Driscoll – are actually stand-ins for the real-life filmmakers; Robert Armstrong (1890-1973), who played Denham, looked remarkably like Cooper, and Bruce Cabot (1904-1972), who played Driscoll, resembled Schoedsack.  Cooper stayed active in aviation (and was one of the founders of Pan Am) and motion pictures, working to develop the process known as Cinerama.  Sadly, he spent his declining years a rabid McCarthyite, looking for Reds in every corner of American life.  Oddly, Cooper and Armstrong would die within 16 hours of each other.  Schoedsack continued to direct, but recurring vision problems curtailed his career.  (Screenwriter Ruth Rose was also Mrs. Schoedsack.)

The genius of Kong is not just in its conception, but in its execution.  The first line in the film sets the action and starts racing to its conclusion.  It is exciting and spectacular without ever being flabby or self-indulgent; it is mythic and larger than life without ever losing the sentiment at its core.  In addition to Armstrong and Cabot, the film is wonderfully embellished by a touching and vulnerable performance by Fay Wray as Ann Darrow (1907-2004); when she died at age 96, the Empire State Building dimmed its lights for 15 minutes.

Kong would be remade twice: once disastrously in 1976 and again, with mixed results, in 2005 by director Peter Jackson.  Neither is a patch on the original.  (It had long been my dream that animator William Joyce would remake the film; perhaps some day...)

King Kong is everything to which today’s blockbusters aspire, but seldom achieve.  It’s spectacular, filled with stunning special effects, great performances, smart, funny, mythic, exciting and heartbreaking.  It is, in short, everything a movie should be.

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