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[personal profile] krpalmer
During my Christmas vacation, I happened to wander into a music and video store and notice, in its bin of DVDs discounted in advance of getting them out of the store, a copy of the two-disc release of the 1933 King Kong. Taking advantage of the discount at hand by passing up any chance to search out a greater one, I bought the movie. I had seen the original King Kong before, but years ago, and in rewatching it I found the movie immensely entertaining. It's endlessly repeated nowadays that the movie's classic status comes in large part from the eponymous giant ape himself, brought to galvanic life through Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation, and I wouldn't disagree with that. (We can probably all be glad that he saved producer Merian C. Cooper from having to develop his idea of a movie about a giant ape using his first idea, by taking gorillas from Africa and sending them east to fight Komodo dragons.) One thought I did have, though, was that there's been smoother stop-motion animation since: the snippets of footage in the extras of Mighty Joe Young, produced about fifteen years after King Kong by some of the same people who made the original movie, were illustrative that way. (This may, of course, just be my way of sidestepping that familiar snobbery about modern special effects methods.) Still, the effects do the most that might be said of any movie, and transcend their limitations.

Beyond Kong, though, I found myself intrigued by one of the human characters. It's easy enough to conclude that any modern filmmaker would try to change the character of Ann Darrow as played by Fay Wray, whose first and major reaction to peril is to scream her head off, and the gruff, tough, alpha-male nature of first mate Jack Driscoll as played by Bruce Cabot may well make him a trifle uninteresting nowadays as the romantic lead, especially given all the modern nudging and winking about how he's somehow in competition with "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." However, while I can contemplate in some abstract way that the filmmaker Carl Denham could be reinterpreted as the villian of the piece (he's the one who mounts the expedition that discovers Kong, and he's the one who gets the bright idea of bringing Kong back to civilisation), I found something about Robert Armstrong's enthusiasm in the role infectious. For all I know, that does indeed spring from the explanation in the extras that Denham is based on one of the movie's producer-directors, Merian C. Cooper. From the way Cooper's globe-trotting careers as World War I pilot and documentary filmmaker were described, the resemblance most definitely doesn't strike me as being in a mere "wish fulfilment" way.

The extras as a whole did leave me with the wistful hope that it would be nice if some of the things I've let myself become interested in would be remembered as fondly and as well over seventy years after they were made, too. One particular thing about them stood out to me in the end. In a documentary on the second disc produced by Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films (Jackson is among those people talking in it, who also include Ben Burtt and Phil Tippet), it's lamented that no behind-the-scenes footage exists of Willis O'Brian at work on the original King Kong. (What's more, whether to preserve the illusion for audiences or hide trade secrets from other filmmakers, all of the "making of" information released at the time to magazines and the like seems to have been completely fradulent.) To remedy that, Weta Workshops was tasked with creating and animating a replica stop-motion figure for Kong using 1930s technology. In addition to that, it and Peter Jackson set out with the same stop-motion animation to create a version of a scene famous for having been cut from the movie, where some sailors shaken off a log by Kong survive falling into a gorge (not that the effects left in the movie would quite seem to hint at that possibility to me if I hadn't already known about it) only to be eaten by a whole menagerie of monsters. It was all very impressive, but did set me thinking. As a short work inspired by an original, it seemed the very definition of "fan film" ...only produced by a big special-effects house, and that meant it cost money. I'm sure that Weta must have been expecting to be reimbursed through the DVD sales, but it did leave me thinking again of a possible sense of general excess to the 2005 remake, evidenced in short by making a long film not from a long novel but from a short film. To be fair, I didn't find the 2005 remake unbearably long, but with that said there is one point of comparison with the original I do still wonder about. As I said before, sources including the extras declare that the original is memorable because Kong, a seeming monster, becomes a sympathetic character. In the remake, though, such an emphasis seems placed on his presentation as sympathetic (including the airplanes not being scrambled after Jack Driscoll gets an idea, but just appearing out of nowhere to smite something greater than themselves while shooting up the top of the Empire State Building in the process) that I wound up just a little resistant to the idea. In some ways, mind you, the extras did convince me that Kong's nature in the original movie wasn't somehow an accidental byproduct, or even one snuck past the producers: everyone came across as too smart for that. Of course, I'm not always enthralled by the thought of "subversive readings."

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