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King Kong (DVD)
In the classic adventure that made her a star, Fay Wray plays the beautiful woman who conquers the savage heart of a giant ape. Traveling to an uncharted South Pacific island with an adventurer following tales of a God-Ape, Ann Darrow (Wray) is captured by the island's natives to serve as a human sacrifice to Kong. But when Kong, a giant ape, sees Darrow, it is overcome with love--and eventually captured by the adventurers. Taken to New York and put on display, Kong breaks free and pursues Darrow through New York in one of the most famous scenes ever filmed.]]>
- Original 1933 film classic in glorious black and white, newly restored and digitally mastered
- Merian C. Cooper movies trailer gallery
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Released in 1933, just five years into the sound era, King Kong was the first of the animal monster movies, and is considered today to be one of the fifty most influential films of all time. It was a big-budget film, with cutting-edge innovation in script, photography, special effects, musical score, sound effects and sound recording. The film crew was inventing new techniques throughout the production, creating something the like of which had never been seen before. Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings movies, states as an absolute fact that more people were inspired to seek a career in movies due to having seen King Kong than any other movie in history.
The musical score was written by Max Steiner, who six years later would create what many consider to be the best movie score ever written, that for Gone With The Wind. After the studio had told Steiner to cut costs by merely recycling old scores, producer/director Merian C. Cooper showed his typical devotion to a project by personally paying Steiner to compose and record a new score for King Kong.
When Cooper offered Fay Wray the role of Ann Darrow, he told her that she would have "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." She thought for a moment that Cooper might be referring to Cary Grant, but he motioned to a poster on the wall behind his desk, showing a blond woman in the grasp of a giant gorilla.
The Blu-ray of this epic film offers not only a beautiful copy of the movie, but 3½ hours of special features, plus a commentary with the film. Features include an excellent 2½ hour multi-part documentary on numerous aspects of King Kong, such as special effects, music, sound effects, a Peter Jackson re-creation of the lost Spider Pit scene, and more. Also included is a biography of Merian C. Cooper, whose life story has to be seen to be believed. Just a sample: forced to resign from the U.S. Naval Academy before World War I due to his saying air power would doom the battleship, Cooper fought as a combat pilot in WWI, and with the Polish air force against Russia after WWI. He was shot down and imprisoned twice, first by the Germans, then by the Russians, escaped from a Soviet prison camp and walked to Poland, was second in command to General Chennault with the Flying Tigers in China during WWII, and subsequently rose to the rank of Major General. He probably meant it when he said "I am King Kong."
Call it magic, call it lightning in a bottle, call it any commendable descriptive you want, KING KONG (RKO,1933), is one of those rare films that just gets better with age. This is because we watch it now as a 1930's fable that has transcended its own time and has become an American myth. The undiminished, primordial energy it continues to generate derives from all aspects of production; from Willis O'Brien's tour de force special effects and Murray Spivack's innovative early sound mix, to Max Steiner's brilliantly evocative music score.
The performances as well are in perfect sync with the larger than life premise of this adventure/fairy tale classic. Fay Wray's iconic portrayal of the beauty who kills the beast set the standard for every damsel in distress that followed, and her lusty screams are the female equivalent of Johnny Weismuller's celebrated Tarzan yell. Most impressive of all is Kong himself, who projects such a distinctive personality that we willingly dismiss the fact that he is only a visual effect. Who can forget those expressive, blinking eyes of his at the hotel window when he recognizes Fay Wray?
But even beyond all the indelible imagery, the film also rates high marks for Ruth Rose's wholly original screenplay, which has a subtext that's based on the real life exploits shared by co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack in making expeditionary films. This essential, autobiographical approach drives the first third of KING KONG and serves effectively as build-up to the wild fantasy that ultimately takes over. The film is as much a personal work as is anything by Erich von Stroheim or Charlie Chaplin, and this explains in part why the remakes fall far short of the original. Consider: The "Old Arabian Proverb" that follows the opening credits and has since become a part of popular folklore was written by Cooper, the intrepid filmmaker Carl Denham (played with 30's style, two fisted gusto by Robert Armstrong) was fashioned after Cooper, the girl shy first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot in a rare heroic turn) was based on Schoedsack, and the pilots machine gunning Kong in that famous, fantastic finale atop the newly built Empire State Building are actually Cooper and Schoedsack. KING KONG interweaves fact and fiction with such clever subtlety that audiences are, perhaps, still largely unappreciative of this unique aspect of a film that's quite unlike any other ever made. All the various filmmaking elements are perfectly balanced so that they accomplish exactly what they're supposed to, namely, to drive the story forward with clockwork precision. Dialog is tight, the characters aren't complicated, and shots and scenes don't run any longer than they should. While the narrative is ostensibly simple, there's a lot more under the surface that penetrates our subconscious, and a closer examination reveals some intriguing parallels and timeless themes.* It's a great, shrewdly conceived piece of escapist entertainment that endures, inviting us back for repeated viewings so that in the end we realize there will always be only one Kong.
Warner's Blu-ray Book Edition is unquestionably the most definitive presentation of KING KONG possible. The video/audio quality edges out the previous DVD, and for serious Kongphiles upgrading is a given. The 1080p resolution looks like film; deep blacks, rich grays and sparkling whites, so that whatever should be seen is seen in crisp detail. This is especially noticeable in the Skull Island scenes with their intricate, Gustave Dore inspired backgrounds, giving the film an engraved quality that leaps from the screen. The bold, mono soundtrack has an immediate presence that really comes across in this restoration, doing full justice to Max Steiner's awesome score. We can now savor better than ever before the magnificent craftsmanship that went into every frame of this truly amazing and influential cinematic landmark.
The extraordinary special features include an engaging commentary by stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen and effects artist Ken Ralston, a fascinating profile on Merian C. Cooper, a 7 part documentary that is one of the most thorough ever done on the making of a movie, the original test footage for Willis O'Brien's abandoned CREATION project, a re-construction of the famed Lost Spider Pit Sequence (the Holy Grail of all lost movie scenes), and a re-issue theatrical trailer. The profusely illustrated book with liner notes by historian Rudy Behlmer is the best one Warner has done to date, and should be stored in the cool collector's tin from the previous DVD release that has the souvenir program and poster reproductions. It all makes for a killer Kong collection indeed.
My all-time favorite movie, KING KONG had a profound impact on me when I first saw it as an 11 year old, and this glorious edition of "The Eighth Wonder of the World" gets my unreserved, highest recommendation.
Long live the King!
*Footnote: Here are some examples of KING KONG's intriguing concepts:
(1) The film presents an allegory on the destructive powers of both unrequited love and modern civilization.
(2) The motto of a Cooper/Schoedsack film was the three D's: "keep it distant, difficult and dangerous." This motto was stamped into the film by having the last names of the main characters begin with D: Ann Darrow, Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll.
(3) Like Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), KING KONG is a movie about movies and their ability to mirror life. Denham starts out to make an extraordinary film despite the misgivings of his backers. This echoes exactly what Cooper and Schoedsack did when embarking on KONG, which was both daring and innovative at the time. The plot of Denham's proposed film - a fearsome beast falls in love with an innocent beauty, causing him to let down his guard allowing his enemies to destroy him - becomes the actual premise of KING KONG itself. Denham never finished his movie, but through the course of Cooper and Schoedsack's film, Denham's spectacle gets played out in ways he never imagined. The curious New Yorkers flocking to see "Carl Denham's Giant Monster" could easily be stand-ins for Depression era audiences that packed theaters to witness KING KONG when it opened in 1933.
(4) The film revolves around the theme of sacrifice. Ann Darrow is sacrificed to Kong - Kong in turn is sacrificed to greedy profiteers - Kong ultimately sacrifices his own life for Ann through his single minded, misunderstood desire to protect her, thus bringing the theme full circle.
(5) There are a number of striking parallels and juxtaposed images:
(a) The aforementioned movie plot of Denham's that metamorphoses into actual occurence.
(b) Driscoll is Kong's rival; like Kong, Driscoll at first is tough, but he gradually softens by his attraction to Ann.
(c) Iggy, the monkey aboard ship who takes a liking to Ann, also foreshadows Kong.
(d) Skull Island, with its primordial jungles and high cliffs, corresponds with the civilized island of Manhattan and its modern "jungle" teeming with skyscrapers.
(e) Ann Darrow on the stone altar, tied to two pillars as a sacrifice for Kong, mirrors when Kong is shackled on a steel "altar" in New York, as a sacrifice for exploitation and greed. The physicality of the imagery is identical - in both cases their arms are raised and spread apart.
(f) The prehistoric creatures Kong fights in his native habitat are counterparts to the man-made trains and airplanes he later defies in New York. In both locales he's fighting for possession of his precious captive.
(g) Kong atop the Empire State Building is the ultimate, iconic image of primitive nature challenging modern civilization.
(6) There's also the theme of wanting something you can't or weren't meant to have. It starts with the apple - "the forbidden fruit"- that Ann Darrow tries to steal in the beginning. It's what triggers the chain of events: Ann herself is stolen by the natives and offered to Kong, who in turn isn't allowed to keep her. Even the leitmotif Max Steiner composed for Kong and Ann is appropriately called, "Stolen Love". Kong himself is stolen from his island and greedily exploited by a modern civilization that ultimately steals away his life.
All of these concepts work on a subconscious level, making KING KONG far more than simply some shallow excursion in special effects. It's a sophisticated, modern Greek tragedy that transcends social/cultural boundaries. A film that's the very embodiment of the term, classic.
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