One great aspect of Peter Jackson's grandiose remake of King Kong is the fact that we finally get a DVD release of the original 1933 classic--one that restores some frequently censored sequences and generously shares special features about the landmark film's creation. Although modern audiences find certain scenes and the stop-action central figure "dated," the charming fantasy continues to hold up and is a treasure trove of special effects that continue to inspire. Filmmakers from Ray Harryhausen to Peter Jackson cite King Kong as a turning point in their lives for awakening them to creative possibilities in the medium. This is the granddaddy of Spielberg's Jurassic Park and a myriad other science fiction/fantasy/horror films that rely on special effects; thus, it makes the short list of required films to see.
Film students are likely to study this film numerous times to discover how this simple "beauty and the beast" fable rose from the ashes of the Great Depression to become such an icon. Inevitably that leads primarily to Willis O'Brien's special effects work. While relying on the work he had done on the dinosaurs of The Lost World, O'Brien elevates his stop-motion camera techniques to new levels of sophistication by giving his beast a sympathetic human soul to cry over when he finally topples off the Empire State Building. While difficult to conceive that a small "puppet" in the gigantic title role could carry the movie, that's what O'Brien achieves.
Credit Merian C. Cooper's adventurous spirit and narrative abilities (along with Ruth Rose and others) for setting up Kong with a build up that rivals Harry Lime's in The Third Man. If you want that first entry to be memorable, it requires suspense, and that's exactly what the film achieves after a relatively uneventful first 30 minutes. Initially fictional filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong in a role much like Cooper in real life) sets sail for an uncharted island that is home to terrifying legends. Just why do the natives on Skull Island build such high walls, and what is this tribal dance, what is this "Kong" they keep chanting, why have the natives kidnapped Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), and why have they tied her up for Kong?
A brief silence. Footsteps. Trees rustling. Breaking.
Kong makes his grand entry. Darrow screams and screams and SCREAMS her way into cinematic history. No one will ever forget that scream; it's a definitive moment. But Wray's landmark moment would never have been possible had Cooper failed to build suspense.
From this moment, King Kong picks up the pace and becomes a thrill ride with a special effects extravaganza--techniques and visuals that had never appeared before on film. Of course the miniatures with stop-motion animation create unforgettable clashes between Kong and a plethora of prehistoric dinosaurs, but it doesn't stop there. Included among the cornucopia of effects and techniques are: matte paintings combined with live action, rear screen photography, and multi-layered miniature backgrounds. At times a single frame contains a combination of 5-6 effects alone!
Seen with modern eyes, the film is far from perfect. Especially ludicrous are the scenes with the island natives that are terribly stereotyped and unintentionally funny. It's broad daylight as the natives perform a ceremonial dance (with one woman burnishing a coconut brassiere), yet Denham seems surprised that his crew are discovered when they are filming the affair right in the open! But this is one of the few misfires, and the over the top stereotyping actually forces the audience to pay attention to the often overlooked musical contributions of Max Steiner. For the rest of the movie Steiner creates a tremendous score that is historically groundbreaking in its own right; it's the first real film score. Previously all we ever had was background music, but Steiner specially composed the music to accompany the action on the screen--thus, serving as THE model for modern movie music.
Thankfully, the DVD restores Kong's censored moments with his captive beauty. Clearly touched, he tears off her blouse and sniffs it. Shame on the censors for thinking symbolic rape when it could have been interpreted as natural curiosity. On the other hand, one scene cannot be restored since it was Cooper himself who did the deed. This is the famous "snake pit sequence" that occurs immediately after Kong shakes the adventurers off the log. Although Cooper claims that he cut this sequence for pacing, it's suspected that he had other motives after witnessing audience reaction during the first screening. Supposedly the variety of man-eating crabs, insect creatures, and arachnids caused some audience members to vomit and caused many more to continue talking about that scene during the rest of the movie. One of the special features shows Peter Jackson and his buddies energetically re-creating that missing sequence with 1930's movie technology.
Long before computer generated animation, the original King Kong stands as a colossus for modern filmmaking. Billed as the "8th wonder of the world," Merian C. Cooper wasn't using too much hyperbole since his film pioneered previously unexplored territory. King Kong has finally received its due with an excellently preserved DVD edition complete with rich background material from filmmakers who truly appreciate it. Despite some melodramatic hokiness and some racial stereotyping, the film stands up and will find a prime spot in every film buff's library. You owe yourself to see Jackson's source material before seeing the re-make (and the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis travesty doesn't count). From the DVD special features, it's evident that Jackson loves the original and is striving to remain true to its spirit. If so, we're in for a real treat.