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King Kong (1933)

by on 2011/08/10

“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!”

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I have this . . . thing for posters. As a teen, I imagined my future, living in a home surrounded by them, corridors lined with vintage James Bond imagery. I’d comfort myself with every hanging I could find, papering the walls of my modest room with the Sandman, M.C. Escher, and Depeche Mode (101).

Now, having become an adult, my home is not far different from the way I’d hoped. Admittedly, the scope is wider than “just” James Bond (though I admit to having my fair share of those pieces). I’ve surrounded myself with the icons of my affections, including Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Fistful of Dollars, Forbidden Planet, The Great Escape, Metropolis, Rear Window, and today’s honourary guest, the original King Kong (1933).

This time wasn’t my first seeing the movie. I’d seen it before, and even wrote a brief review a while back. What struck me on this occasion was how mysterious it remained, despite my knowing each plot point yet to come. The sense of the unknown is palpable and alluring, the cinematic equivalent of exotica.

Exotica was a primitive forerunner of world music — perhaps world Muzak? — most common in the years post World War Two. Kong presents just such a world, one of dangerous ocean voyages, uncharted tropical islands, and hidden secrets left to discover . . . or at least a certain cultural naivety.

That sort of quaintness is common here, especially early on. No one said vintage didn’t have its downsides. Truly sexist perspectives are joined very soon by unfortunate stereotypes, with the Chinese and “crazy black man” as particular targets.

However, we’re not watching Kong for its vision of a culturally sensitive world. As with Birth of a Nation, we need to suffer the lesser to gather the better, the better being technical in either case.

A mixed range of acting conveys a staged and pedantic exposition. The “romance” shared by Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is far more labour than love. A sense of Kong’s innate pathos is inadequately explored. (There is something to be said for Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, in which the beauty has a more overt sympathy for the beast.)

If it’s unromantic, there’s a lustfulness at play. I assume it’s a Pre-Code freedom, given it was cut a fair bit later on. Original — and now reinstated — scenes illustrate a predator hunting, peeling, and sniffing his prey. Kong’s affection for Ann is obvious, but her feelings for him in return . . . not so much.

Yet, where the content is imperfect potential, the style functions differently. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does . . . usually. To speak in a cliche, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, especially for 1933. Yes, the “woman” in the creature’s hand looks nothing more than a doll (which, to be fair, it was). Yes, the division between back- and foreground is a tad obvious. And yes, the transparent effects in the swamp scenes are a little distracting.

Nonetheless, everything holds up incredibly well for being nearly eighty years old. In fact, the grainy black and white helps to disguise the artifice of some of the visuals. The score by Max Steiner is entertaining. And the stop motion craft is extremely impressive. A fight between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex is a boxing-wrestling hybrid which must have taken forever to create. Any fan of Ray Harryhausen will be in their element here.

Nowadays, CGI (computer generated imagery) has become a kind of black box in moviemaking, a catchphrase or crutch to explain away special effects; it’s all done with computers, as they say. With King Kong, the techniques are “primitive” enough to be easily accessible, leaving the audience suitably impressed. We’re treated to the best in brute force production. It’s reason enough to demand a required viewing.

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Please note: This article is an update of an earlier “stub” review.

Rated PG

104 minutes

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