IN APRIL 7, 1933, King Kong opened at New York's Roxy Theater: the movie's gorilla hero, Kong, became an instant pop culture hero, a standard reference in Hollywood's list of greats.
Now, for the first time in 35 years, the opportunity has come to experience this classic mixture of special effects and schmalz as it was intended--complete with originally censored footage. Who could grow up in America and deliberately pass up the chance?
Almost by cultural osmosis King Kong's story has seeped into our collective consciousness. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), movie director extraordinaire, goes to uncharted Skull Island to film a great beast deified by its natives. Before he departs, he meets destitute Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and convinces her to come and be his leading lady. He-man first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) doesn't like havin' a woman around at first, but he eventually kinds falls for her. So do the island natives, who think she'd make a swell offering to Kong. So does Kong, who carries the recently kidnapped Miss Darrow off to his prehistoric home.
Jack saves Ann from a fate worse than death; when Kong comes to reclaim his girl, Denham and crew knock him out with gas bombs. Denham takes a captive Kong back to civilization where he intends to exhibit the world's eighth wonder and make millions. His capitalist venture is cut short when Kong breaks loose and terrorizes New York in his search for his lost love. The great beast finds Ann and carries her to the top of the Empire State Building, but there is no shelter for Kong. Single-engine bi-planes attack him; riddled with bullets he plunges to his death. Surveying the corpse, Denham solemnly intones, "It was beauty killed the beast." The music swells. FINIS.
"When I am in New York, I look at the Empire State Building and feel as though it belongs to me." Fay Wray, N.Y. Times, 1969.
KING KONG's appeal runs deeper than its individual facets would seem to justify. The plot never transcends the ape-meets-girl, ape-gets-girl, ape-loses-girl framework. We have to assume the purity of Kong's love for Ann. Anything more carnal raises insuperable anatomical difficulties. Except for the deadpan delivery of a few antique cliches, the acting is entirely forgetable. Fay Wray screams very well, but the range of her talent ends at the top of her register. Special effects do retain much if not all of its wizardry. But the movie's charm comes from more than technical proficience. King Kong is camp--but it's more than that too. The film's magic is our irresistable sympathy for this improbable beast.
The new footage in this re-release adds a taste of horror and a heaping portion of the ridiculous. The plot goes unaltered, but Kong's cinematic character suffers some major blemishes. He eats people--chews on them, anyway--something he never did on daytime television. He chomps on a few native warriors and, during his New York stint, a businessman. He also steps on people. Most unfortunate of all is the woman living several flights down from Ann: Kong pulls her out through her bedroom window, but discovering she's not his girl, drops her--fifteen stories.
This latter scene, conveying a frightening sense of height, is the only technically effective addition. Hollywood hadn't mastered the art of mashing bodies, so the close-ups show the victims carefully placed between gaps in Kong's lower teeth. Kong's head looks like the mechanical mock-up it was: the result is foolish and distracting. This new set of close-ups weakens the film's attempted verisimilitude and should quietly be returned to the censor's vault.
ON THE OTHER HAND, seeing King Kong in a darkened theater on a screen larger than a cafeteria tray makes a lot of difference. Gone is the aloof disinterest of the late, late show mentality. You just can't stay uninvolved when the commercials don't come and you can't change channels. Movie theaters, even more than suburban livingrooms, were built for the suspension of disbelief. So the great ape really is larger than life: his image on the screen overwhelms you.
The big screen does have its drawbacks. The lousy quality of the t.v. picture turns out to be fuzzy photography. Kong looks suspiciously furless: unbelievers might have trouble forgetting he's a clay model. But even incorrigible cynics will find their reward in the newly visible detail, e.g. the black extras who can't keep straight faces during the village crisis.
Ever since King Kong aged enough to be a "classic," aficionados have argued over its implicit motifs. Kong's fall from the world's largest phallic symbol has led some to term the film a parable of unfulfilled sexuality. Others, noting his blackness and her whiteness, have damned the movie as racist. (Aside from its more abstruse symbolism, the film has a Chinese ship's cook named--you guessed it--Charlie. And Kong's New York is devoid of blacks, and his Asian island natives are Africans.) Not to mention the symbolic revolt of the worker, as played by exploited Kong.
King Kong is essence of nostalgia, hokey and naive. It's also adventure and excitement and fantasy. When Kong finally totters, he's somehow all of us whom civilization has overwhelmed and exploited. Even if he does eat people when he's angry, he has more dignity than the humans who abuse him. He earns our sympathy within the aura of legend and adventure that the film creates.
Lord knows how a Harvard Square audience will react. If it gives King Kong a chance, it may become like the pre-teen who sat behind me muttering "Jeez, Jeezus, Jeezus" through the whole movie: embarrassed to be caught up in such corn, but drawn into the world of fantasy nevertheless.
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