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King Kong

King Kong (1933)

Whoever thought that a movie starring a giant ape would inspire countless imitations? But King Kong (1933) turned out to be a major blockbuster for its era and still remains the "king" of this peculiar genre. For those who need to brush up on their gorilla classics, here's the set-up: Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), an arrogant documentary filmmaker, organizes a trek into unchartered territory in the hopes of discovering a unique animal that he can capture, bring back to civilization, and exploit for profit. After hiring Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), an attractive blonde, to help him on his mission, Denham leads his crew to mysterious, fog-enshrouded Skull Island where they encounter something tall, dark, and very hairy.

Working with a modest budget, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the producers of King Kong, had to make do with limited resources in terms of sets. Most of the budget was allocated to special effects and musical scoring. The jungle, overgrown with gigantic flora, was actually recycled from Schoedsack's previous film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). He actually began shooting jungle locations for King Kong before The Most Dangerous Game had wrapped and between setups the crew would rush in to shoot their own jungle scenes. What made the schedule even more hectic was the fact that Fay Wray also starred in The Most Dangerous Game and had to race back and forth between the two films; Not surprisingly, her outfit for the jungle sequences in each film is suspiciously familiar!

Originally co-director Merian Cooper envisioned using a real gorilla for Kong, but once having screened Willis O'Brien's animation for a now-lost film called Creation, he knew that the special effects technician could bring his beast to life. Although in the film, Kong appears to be 40 feet tall; he was actually only an 18-inch model. The great ape was a skillful combination of a metal mesh skeleton, a mixture of rubber and foam for the muscle structure and rabbit fur for his hair. With trick photography, rear projection and an array of glass plates, Cooper and Schoedsack helped their three cinematographers blend O'Brien's stop-motion-animated sequences with real actors to create a realistic beast. O'Brien, of course, had built his reputation as Hollywood's top motion-control animator with his first feature-length film, The Lost World (1925), starring Wallace Beery.

As wildly popular and profitable as King Kong was on its first release in 1933, the censors sharpened their scissors on the big gorilla for its 1938 re-release and demanded that 29 scenes from the original version be cut before the film could be granted a seal of approval. For example, the bloody carcasses of five men dying in the jaws of the Brontosaurus were edited so that the beast only claimed three victims. Three lives were more acceptable to the Hays Office. The scene in which Kong holds an unconscious Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) captive in his massive palm while gently peeling off her dress like a linen banana was completely unacceptable to the new morality. This scene was completely eliminated for the 1938 release. Other scenes that were deleted included Kong chomping down on a New Yorker and dropping a woman from the Empire State Building. Despite these crucial cuts, most of the edited scenes were eventually restored to King Kong and seem rather tame by today's standards. However, O'Brien's title creation is still impressive, particularly in his first appearance, and Fay Wray still has the best scream in Hollywood history; it's one that has chilled audiences in such classic horror flicks as Doctor X (1932) and The Vampire Bat (1933).

Director: Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack
Producer: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace (story), James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose
Cinematography: Edward Linden, Kenneth Peach, J. O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker
Music: Max Steiner
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Alfred Herman, Van Nest Polglase
Special Effects: Willis O'Brien, Harry Redmond Jr.
Cast: Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Native chief), James Flavin (Briggs).
BW-105m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Vicky Lee, Mike Tandecki, & Jeremy Geltzer



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