RETROSPECTIVE: KING KONG (1933)

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berardinelli,james

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Oct 19, 1994, 11:44:05 AM10/19/94
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KING KONG (1933)
A film review by James Berardinelli
Copyright 1994 James Berardinelli

Rating (0 to 10): 7.0

Year Released: 1933
Running Length: 1:45
Rated: No MPAA Rating (Violence)

Starring: Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray
Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Producers: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest b. Schoedsack
Screenplay: James Creelman and Ruth Rose from an idea conceived by
Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Cinematography: Eddie Linden
Music: Max Steiner
Released by Radio Pictures

"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing.
And from that day, it was as one dead."
- Old Arabian Proverb

When released in 1933, KING KONG was greeted with unprecedented
amazement. State-of-the-art visual effects, an entertaining story, and
a touching ending combined to bequeath upon this film the coveted label
of a "classic." It its era - and, indeed, for decades after - no
monster movie approached the lofty perch of this one.

It is no longer the 1930s, however. By 1994, KING KONG has aged,
and the passage of years has not been kind. Many rip-offs, one remake,
and a film called JURASSIC PARK have come and gone. While the original
KING KONG still sits upon the throne of our memories, the said reality
is that advances in technology and acting have outdated the movie. It
deserves credit for what it once was, but the time of its greatness is
past. Though it is perhaps in our nature to embrace this film because
of what it represents, and because of its role in motion picture
history, those who deny KING KONG's flaws deny reality.

The plot is reasonably straightforward - not a bad thing for a
monster movie. A film crew headed by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)
arrives at the mysterious Skull Island to do some location shooting for
a new picture. However, the dark-skinned natives take a liking to
Denham's leading lady, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, in the role that
immortalized her scream), and kidnap her as an offering to their god,
Kong. Just as the cavalry, led by Denham and a hunky sailor named
Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), rushes in to save Ann, Kong - a 40-foot
high ape - makes his appearance, snatching his prize from the altar and
heading off into the jungle.

Denham, Driscoll, and a search party set off in pursuit. Various
encounters with Kong and a series of prehistoric relics decimate the
group. In the meantime, we get to see battles between the giant ape
and several dinosaurs. Eventually, Driscoll sneaks Ann away from Kong
and, when the beast arrives at the natives' village to recapture her,
Denham uses sleeping gas to capture him.

Weeks later, a live show opens in New York City, with a chained
Kong as the main attraction. Despite Denham's best precautions, Kong
breaks free on opening night, grabs Ann, wreaks havoc in the city, then
climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. There, high atop New
York, in one of the cinema's most unforgettable moments, Kong fights a
duel to the death with a group of biplanes.

The story stands up pretty well today. In fact, with the
exception of a few "modernizing" changes, the basic frame was left
intact for the 1976 Dino DeLaurentiis remake. Character development,
on the other hand, is nonexistent. Strange as it might sound, Kong is
the most thoroughly explored personality in the film. Driscoll and Ann
are types (the dashing hero and the damsel in distress), and Denham
isn't given much more depth (the ruthless movie maker who's actually
not such a bad guy).

The acting is part of the problem. What was acceptable in 1933 is
inadequate when compared to even the mediocre performances of today.
It's next-to-impossible to accept any of the three lead actors as
anything other than people reciting lines. And as for the actual words
they were expected to say... How's this for dialogue: "Some big,
hard- boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang! - he cracks up
and goes sappy." There's very little about KING KONG that the word
"corny" doesn't describe.

The special effects, which once were so impressive, now pale in
comparison to what has been accomplished in JURASSIC PARK. On a
technical level, it's possible to appreciate the miniatures work in
KING KONG, but they aren't nearly as awe-inspiring as they were before
ILM let the genie out of the bottle.

Sometimes, it's not always the best thing to re-watch an older,
well-beloved movie. Rarely does the real thing equal the images
preserved and enhanced in our memories. Despite its various
deficiencies and antiquated style, I still retain a fondness for KING
KONG. My overall opinion of this film, however, has been formed more
by childhood impressions than those garnered through any later,
critical viewing. Ultimately, the mystique of KING KONG lies not so
much in what it offers today, but what it has contributed during the
course of the last six decades.

- James Berardinelli (bla...@cc.bellcore.com)

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