Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A History of Kong

Peter Jackson's King Kong topped the box office this weekend. It is little wonder why. Beyond being the product of the Oscar winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong is the remake of the classic 1933 movie that long ago became a part of Anglo-American pop culture. I don't think it would be exaggerating to say that Kong is one of the pivotal characters in cinematic history.

Indeed, today we take the original 1933 King Kong for granted. Most people do not realise that it was the Star Wars of its day. It was easily the biggest box office winner of 1933. People would literally stand in line to see it. The movie originated in the mind of Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was quite a character--he was an adventurer, aviator, documentary filmmaker, and movie producer. Indeed, the character of Carl Denham was in a large part based on himself! The roots of King Kong go back to Cooper's childhood, when he became fascinated by gorillas when reading a book on exploration.

Of course, to bring his giant ape to life, Cooper would need to find a way of creating a 25 foot gorilla. He found the way in the form of special effects technician Willis O'Brien. O'Brien had provided the stop motion effects for The Lost World, one of the biggest movies of the silent era. At the time O'Brien was working on a project called Creation, another movie about dinosaurs. Cooper persuaded O'Brien to give up on Creation to work on King Kong instead. For the time King Kong's effects were mind blowing. It made many innovations in stop motion animation and rear projection.

It would seem to be the movie's plot, however, that made it a classic. Contrary to popular belief, King Kong was not the first "giant monster on the loose" movie, although it is arguably the most influential. I rather suspect the first "giant monster on the loose" movie was The Lost World, in the climax of which a dinosaur rages through London. But Kong was not a mere mindless beast intent on destroying New York City. Kong was a thinking, feeling creature who had fallen for beautiful actress Ann Darrow. Finding himself in a strange atmosphere, Kong naturally acts out of fear and seeks out the one thing that means anything to him--Ann. Like the Frankenstein monster of Universal's classic films, Kong is not so much a monster as an intelligent, emotional creature who has no place in modern, human society.

One little known bit of Kong history is that there exists a novelization of the original movie. The novel King Kong was published in December 1932, shortly before the movie's release, and is credited to Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, although it appears to have been ghost written by Delos W. Lovelace. The novel follows the movie closely, although it includes the spider pit sequence in tact (the sequence was cut from the movie because Cooper thought it was too frightening) and it does not include the scene in which Kong destroys a subway train (reportedly added because Cooper did not want the movie to run 13 reels).

The success of King Kong virtually created the genre of "giant monster on the loose" movies and inspired many imitators, among them Cooper's own Mighty Joe Young. The success of King Kong immediately spawned a sequel. Made in a rush and released the same year, Son of Kong has always suffered in comparison to the original movie. This having been said, it is a fine movie that stands quite well on its own. It realistically portrays the aftermath of Kong's rampage through New York, in which Denham must flee the city and finds himself back on Skull Island. And while the original was a horror/adventure movie, Son of Kong plays as a comedy/adventure. O'Brien's stop motion effects are still impressive. Although I am not sure I would call it a classic, it is a very good movie on its own.

Kong would not be seen on screen again until the Japanese Toho Studios decided to pit the most famous American giant against the most famous Japanese giant. Released in 1962 Kingukongu tai Gojira or King Kong vs. Godzilla pitted the giant ape against the giant lizard. Contrary to popular belief, the movie did not feature an American ending in which Kong wins and a Japanese ending in which Godzilla wins. Instead, the movie ends in a draw between the two. It must be said that the Japanese Kong is very different from the Kong we know and love. He is bigger and not hardly as lovable. Although quite rightly famous, King Kong vs. Godzilla is not a particularly good movie. Indeed, Kong looks like a man in an ape suit(which he was).

Kong's fame made him a natural for Saturday morning cartoons and in 1966 the animated series King Kong made its bow on ABC. The cartoon featured Professor Bond and his two children befriending the big ape on Mondo Island (he apparently did not die atop the Empire State Building). Kong would battle such villains as Dr. Who and the hunter Ulrich von Kramer, not to mention various giant beasties. This cartoon is historic in that it marks the first time that Japanese animators worked on an American cartoon. It is also historic in being the first Saturday morning cartoon to debut in prime time. It had an hour long special on September 6, 1966 on ABC. I really don't remember much about the animated series, so I have no idea if it was any good or not. It has been released on DVD, so I might soon have the chance to find out.

Kong appeared in another Japanese movie from Toho Studios, in this case Kingukongu no gyakushu or King Kong Escapes as it is know to English speakers. The plot has a group of explorers who encounter Kong, who then takes a liking to a member of the expedition, Lt. Susan Miller. Unfortunately, Kong is captured by the evil Dr. Who and must later battle Mecha-Kong, a robotic version of the great ape. Naturally, Kong rampages through Tokyo, as would be expected. Unfortunately, King Kong Escapes is bad even by Japanese monster movie standards and is probably best avoided. Beyond King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, Toho had intended to do another Kong film. Fortunately, the movie became the Godzilla movie Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster instead.

Through the years there were attempts at other projects centred on Kong. At one point Hammer Films, famous for their horor movies, had wanted to remake the film. They dropped the project after they failed to get the rights from RKO. Some of the test footage they shot did find its way into a Volkswagen commercial. In the Seventies Universal wanted to make a big budget version of the classic, set in the Thirties. Sadly, they backed out of the project when producer Dino De Laurentiis announced his plans to remake the film.

Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 remake of King Kong is one of the most notorious remakes of all time. Originally, De Laurentiis has intended to use a giant, life sized robot of Kong throughout the movie. As it turned out, the robot proved not to be functional and appears in less than a minute of the film. What we see instead is Rick Baker in an ape suit. And sadly, that is what it looks like--Rick Baker in an ape suit. Indeed, when Kong walks, he walks more like a line backer than a gorilla! The film's shortcomings don't stop there. Skull Island boasts no dinosaurs and even looks downright pleasant (hardly the terrifying place of the 1933 and 2005 versions). In fact, the only other beastie is a rather fake looking giant snake. While the script boasts some humour and a few great observations (such as Jack Prescott's observations about the fate of the natives of Skull Island), it is ultimately very poor in quality. Indeed, the climax atop the World Trade Center (not the legendary Empire State Building--a decision which actually caused protests), is about as anticlimatic as possible. The great ape is brought down not by planes, but by helicopters! Jessica Lange, although unarguably beautiful, had yet to hone her acting skills. Her performance is uneven at best. Given how bad the film is, it is easy to forget that it was one of the most anticipated movies of 1976. There was a lot of buzz around the movie. Indeed, it made $7,023,921 in its opening weekend. That might not sound like much now, but in the Seventies, that was a lot of money.

Amazingly enough, there was a sequel to this turkey made. King Kong Lives was released in 1988 and has Kong given an artifical heart transplant and paired with a giant, female gorilla. And, yes, the movie is as bad as it sounds.

In 1998 an animated musical version of the classic story, titled The Mighty Kong, was released straight to video. It featured Dudley Moore as the voice of Carl Denham. While set in the 1930s, the animated movie does take some liberties with the plot. Basically a kid's film, it is not highly regarded.

That brings us to Peter Jackson's 2005 remake. I have already reviewed the film, but I think it is safe to say that it is the first film since the original to capture Kong as he was first envisioned. Indeed, the film is a masterpiece. I know many purists will howl at this, but I honestly think it surpasses the original in quality.

Kong is one of the characters who have found found a place in Anglo-American pop culture. He has appeared in numerous commercials and even in a Beatles movie (behind one of the many doors in The Beatles film Yellow Submarine is Kong reaching for Fay Wray in a New York skyscraper). Like the Frankenstein monster and Superman, he has become part of the collective unconscious of modern society. Kids who have never seen the original movie even recognise him. I think it is safe to say that he will continue to fascinate people for many years to come.

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