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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RUNNING TIME: 108 Minutes
• Commentary by Visual Effects Veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with Interpolated Interview Excerpts of Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray
• Merian C. Cooper Movies Trailer Gallery
• I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper – Profiles the Original King Kong’s Guiding Hand
• New 7-Part Documentary RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World
• Original Creation Test Footage with Ray Harryhausen Commentary
I’m amazed more and more each day when I discover someone I know that hasn’t seen the original 1933 King Kong film. Sure, they all know the name but they’ve never seen the true face of Kong. Some people I know have seen the laughable 1976 film; others have not seen any Kong related material whatsoever. Most of these friends are lovers of all things cinema, so that’s why I have found it to be so astonishing that they haven’t seen this wonderful piece of cinema and an interesting piece of special effects history.
As a kid, I’d only seen Kong once, but the memory of that experience always stuck with me. Kong himself rampaging through the streets of New York is what I remember the most, so it came to me as a delight when I got to relive the moments of Kong storming through the jungles of Skull Island. It was like I was a kid again, sitting in awe of the story unfolding in front of my eyes. Very few films have been able to allow for me to let go of my sense of reality in terms of special effects and I’d have to say that King Kong is probably on the top of that favorable list.
Spoilers abound! In case you’re on of the few people on this earth that don’t know the story yet…
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a man on a mission. When King Kong opens Denham is about to set sail on a voyage to discover (and film) something shrouded in myth and legend; Kong! But before he can do so he must find a leading lady. “Because the public – bless ‘em – must have a pretty face to look at.” Denham says. So, hours before the ship is to set sail, Denham roams the streets of New York and stumbles upon a young, frail girl suffering from the effects of the American Depression. The girl’s name is Ann Darrow (played by the stunningly beautiful Fay Wray). Over a hot cup of coffee and food Denham explains to Ann that he needs a lady to star in his next film and Ann is keen on joining him. From here we leave New York behind and set sail to learn just what Denham is eager to discover out in the ocean.
The build up to seeing Kong himself is interesting to watch unfold. The launching of Denham’s ship is a quick jaunt, making for the arrival at the island a good 20 minutes in. There’s a nice and slow buildup of suspense as the ship’s crew makes land and encounters a group of natives preparing for a tribal sacrifice to the mythical Kong. A quick interaction with the tribe’s sizeable leader sends the crew back to the ship where, in the middle of the night, Ann is captured by tribal members and taken to the podium to which Kong appears and steals her away to the thick of the jungle. The scale of this scene is monumental and the reveal of Kong is one of the most harrowing scenes to watch. The reveal is what sells (the animation of) Kong and every little sound injected in the scene is helpful with that; the sound of trees snapping in two, Kong’s roar, and Ann’s screams. The use of sound is very important in selling the horrific imagery and it’s this that helps us believe that Kong is a real being on film.
From here it’s a race to rescue Ann from Kong and let’s just say that many of the crewmembers that venture into the jungle don’t make it out. The excitement level is kicked up a notch as the crew encounters a number of different dinosaurs and various mythical creatures during their excursion to save the woman from the savage beast. It is at this moment in the film that we still believe Kong is a barbarous creature and that saving Ann from him is of the most importance. That’s what makes the next number of sequences with Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) so enjoyable to watch. There’s a real sense of fear that Kong will do something very harmful to Ann and we’re rooting for Jack to save the day.
As for Jack, there isn’t too much time spent with his character early on, but there’s enough there established for us to believe his love for Ann Darrow. Driscoll’s a dynamic leading man, even though his role (and pretty much everyone else’s) is diminished by Kong himself. After a majority of the crew is offed, Jack is on his own to save Ann from Kong. It’s probably better this way, as Jack will be able to sneak around better without having to worry about some jolly crewmember upsetting one of Skull Island’s mythical residents which in turn will cause Kong to send some more crewmembers on their way to the big Skull Island in the sky.
Jack’s chase to Ann leads him to a cave where Kong fights off a number of beasts before the two human characters manage to escape. From here it’s a race through the jungle to the tribal entrance where the remainder of the crew attempt to block Kong from breaking through the gate. Want to guess what happens next? That’s right, Kong escapes and thrashes through the tribal village, tossing, smashing, and stomping his way past members on the island. There are a number of harrowing scenes, two including Kong stomping down on tribal members and then fusing them into the ground underneath his feet. The version of Kong that I saw as a kid omitted much of the destruction of the village so these scenes were quite a doozy to watch unfold for the first time. As Kong approaches the beach, the ship’s crew gains the upper hand when they use a gas-bomb to immobilize Kong and store him on their ship for their trip back to New York. Before departing Denham exclaims, “We’re millionaires. I’ll share with all of you. Listen, boys a few months from now it’ll be in lights on Broadway — Kong, the Eight Wonder.”
So it’s back to New York where a mass of citizens gather to witness what Carl Denham has brought back from his adventure to Skull Island. The ape aspect of Kong is rumored and the press is allowed an early look at the beast. After a quick introduction, Kong is revealed, much to the dismay and delight of the audience. Flash photography by the press sets Kong off and he escapes from his chains and smashes through the theatre’s wall. The quick editing of these scenes gives a great sense of panic as Kong searches for Ann. Once he finds Ann, Kong takes her atop the Empire State Building where a number of biplanes shoot at Kong and an epic battle takes place atop.
Kong’s rampage through the streets of New York is still one of cinema’s most well known sequences and I must say that it still lives up with the hype that most people associate with it. I’ve heard people say that they’ve cried as Kong struggled to hold on atop the Empire State Building before falling to his doom and I can see why. The 1976 production did something I expected to be in the 1933 version which was to witness Kong breathe his last breath. In many ways I’m glad it wasn’t that way, but the 1933 film ends on such a quick note that I find it hard to sympathize with the beast. There are times on reflecting back to the film where I see it from both sides, usually siding with Kong but I don’t think it was intentionally meant to be that way. There is still plenty of emotion packed within Kong, and I think a lot of that has to do with the sense of disbelief one must place in the stop-motion photography. The creators have done such a wonderful job injecting emotion into a puppet covered in rabbit hair that it’s hard not to recognize this film as one of the best characters for its time. Kong lives as one of cinema’s most recognizable characters and that’s where he should stay.
King Kong remains a great outing to this day.
9.5 out of 10
To be honest, I expected a little more improvement in this area. I figured the film would be cleared of any noise and scratches, much like Gone With the Wind, Ben Hur and The Wizard of Oz were cleared of any imperfections. Warner Brothers has been on top of its game in terms of cleaning up the pictures in its vault and I didn’t expect anything less with this film.
There’s a nice dark contrast to the images which helps hide much of the noise on the picture itself, but again, I expected a little more for a great film like this.
8.0 out of 10
The soundtrack is by far one of the best things in the film. The tribal beats and orchestral score accompanying much of the action unfolding onscreen is a part of what makes this film so great. The mixing of the sound effects is what helps make King Kong such a delight to watch. In many ways Kong was ahead of its time and the leaps and bounds the creators took to inject realism into the story really pay off here. The quality of the sound isn’t as good as I expected, but the sense of disbelief it conveys is enough to score this one highly.
8.5 out of 10
Disc one includes a commentary by visual effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston. The commentary track is a nice inclusion much due to the fact that you can tell how much this film influenced both of these men’s careers. The two seem to speak in awe at times and are very eager to express their appreciation for many elements included within King Kong. At times Ken Ralston sounds, to a large extent, like a kid in a candy store and much of Ray Harryhausen’s speak appears to stem from his experiences on one of the films inspired by King Kong, Mighty Joe Young. The excerpts from Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray are few and far between and the quality of those excerpts is so poor that it’s hard to distinguish what they are saying at times. The commentary is wall to wall coverage; there is hardly any downtime in terms of someone talking about the film.
Also included on disc one is a Merian C. Cooper movies trailer gallery, a nice quick look at the career of the man that invented Kong.
Disc two is where things get interesting. The first inclusion is a documentary piece titled, I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. The main focus on the documentary is on the relationship between Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack throughout their lives leading up and leading through the making of King Kong. It’s a wonderful piece that goes inside the story behind the idea and creation of the beast and the documentary moves at a pretty decent pace.
The second brand new for this disc documentary titled RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World comes from the hands of the recent remake’s director and huge King Kong fanatic, Peter Jackson. The documentary is broken up in many different sections, each section looking into specific part of the production of the original 1933 film. One of the most interesting sections in the documentary is the recreation of a Kong puppet and set, giving us some insight on how painstakingly grueling the stop motion photography and other special effects were to pull off in that period of film history. It really helps give you an appreciation for what the original creators managed to pull of in that space of time. There is also a creation of the “Lost Spider Pit Sequence” which allowed for Jackson and his crew to have some fun reliving what it was like to create the special effects of the time when the original film was manifested.
9.0 out of 10
The Collector’s Edition of King Kong comes in a beautiful tin case that has the DVD’s box art pressed into the front of the box. On the back is a wonderful sketch of Kong on top of the Empire State Building that is also pressed into the tin packaging.
The set also includes a reproduction of the original 1933 Grauman’s Chinese Theatre Souvenir Program. Four wonderful King Kong postcards are also thrown in for good measure and I only wish they weren’t perforated. I’ll probably end up cutting the edges with a utility knife to jazz them up a bit.
Simply stunning packaging, I must say.
10 out of 10
If you’re on the fence about purchasing this set, jump off. This set is truly worthy of any film collector’s collection. Surprise your loved one with this set under the tree this Christmas.