Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Blogging: King Kong (1933)



King Kong (1933) commences with a title card that recites an old Arabian proverb:  “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.  And it stood its hand from killing.  And from that day it was as one dead.”

This on-screen legend frames the famous monster movie as a beauty-and-the-beast story, though King Kong has been interpreted quite frequently over the decades as a coded social critique as well. 

No less prominent a figure than director Quentin Tarantino has interpreted the Merian C. Cooper (1893 – 1973)/Ernest Schoedsack (1893 -1979) film as an “allegory about the transatlantic slave trade and America’s fear of the black male.”

I recently re-watched the original King Kong in preparation for this review, and can’t deny that the sub-textual material is present.  Nor can I deny that the film is mindlessly racist and sexist by today’s standards, at  least at certain junctures.

But I was struck by another intriguing aspect of this famous monster movie as well. 

In short, this 1933 fantasy film seems very world-weary, and disappointed with the predictability, safety and even bureaucracy of modernity.  Accordingly, the film positions itself as an escape from modernity.

The modern world, represented by the gleaming skyscrapers and skyline of New York Harbor in the film’s inaugural shot, is a place that -- especially during a financial Great Depression -- can’t seem to provide much of anything to people in terms of answers, or even sustenance. 

Instead, people like filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) actively seek the “thrill of a lifetime” outside of modernity, in places such as Africa or the West Indies.  This desire for freedom and excitement is contextualized as the thrill of something new, or conversely, the thrill of something very old, and very natural…but never-before-seen and recorded by modern eyes or cameras.

Denham sees it as his mission to show “something new” to a depression-weary people.  The first such “new” thing he finds, for example, is the untested screen presence of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).  Denham’s bosses want a female to appear in his latest motion picture to ramp up the box office grosses, and Denham must kowtow to their wishes.  But the “reckless” Denham goes out and finds a female star on his own, in his own way. He discovers the young woman, Ann, attempting to steal an apple from a fruit stand, on the verge of starvation. 

He essentially offers her an escape from modernity too. 

Denham then goes in search of that elusive “something new” on Skull Island, far beyond the well-populated waters of New York Harbor….beyond the horizon itself.  An old legend in the South Seas tells of an “island held in the grip of fear…” 

Kong’s island stands in unexplored, mysterious waters, beyond a gateway made of natural reefs. And Kong himself -- the ultimate unknown or something new -- exists behind yet another barrier, a large perimeter wall built by an ancient society of natives. 

To find Kong -- to find something new and natural, then -- one must pierce all the various “gates” of modernity, and head straight back into the less-calculated, less buttoned-down past…even to prehistoric times. 

The sea voyage of the Venture (a name meaning “risky or daring journey”) is accordingly one that escorts audiences and the film’s dramatis personae through a series of doorways leading from staid modernity to unfettered antiquity, and “freedom.”

This freedom is first expressed in terms of the rigidity of New York’s bureaucracy, where Denham learns that an insurance company plans to halt his voyage because of the dangerous explosives he is transporting.  Denham orders an early departure to assure there are no such further impediments to his…entrepreneurship.  

Once en route, Ann and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) let down their guards and fall in love.  This is a big deal for Jack, who finds that women are a “bother,” but comes to change his mind.  Something about the open air of the sea makes them connect, and come to love one another.

In modernity...

...the search for new faces and new things begins...

Beyond the reefs...

...and behind the wall...

...lives Kong.

King Kong’s final act -- with Kong returned to New York City as Denham’s captive -- reverses the film’s conceits regarding freedom. 

Once found by Denham, “freedom” (represented by Kong himself) becomes a commodity not to discover and enjoy, but to exploit, and share (at a price) with those dwelling in modernity.  People will pay good money to vicariously experience the danger of Kong Island, the expedition, and Kong himself.   The giant ape is billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” something human eyes have never seen before.

To put a fine point on it, Kong -- the thing beyond modernity, the thing with the capacity to thrill a jaded modern audience -- is brought back and caged, but Denham quickly learns that no chains and no bars can hold him for long.  Instead, Kong runs free and, by nearly reaching the clouds atop the Empire State Building, eludes modernity again.  Modernity and nature, or freedom, cannot exist side-by-side, the film suggests.



If one considers the biography of the film’s producer/co-director, Merian Cooper, one can see how these ideas of escaping adventure-crushing modernity and pinpointing thrills in incorruptible nature fit in well with his career and biography.  An air force pilot during World War I and a founding member of Pan Am Airways, Cooper directed several early films such as Chang (1927) which were, essentially, travelogues set in far-flung, wild locales.  That film, for instance, famously featured an elephant stampede. 

For long stretches, King Kong plays like a travelogue or documentary, with hearty men of adventurous spirit witnessing beasts never-before-seen. In short, the film is a safari into the wildest jungle ever, with the most spectacular beasts in cinema history.  “Safari” is a Swahili word meaning “long journey,” and a safari usually involves explorers or other adventurous-types going where no man has gone before for the express purpose of seeing new wild life.   

Yet, what remains so interesting about this juxtaposition of a fantasy setting with the safari motif is that Cooper has utilized a tool of modernity -- film -- to bring this story back to his audience.  In fact, it’s not only modernity on display in King Kong’s creation, but pioneering technical innovation as well.  The Willis O’Brien stop-motion effects and optical composites look staggeringly good even to this day, particularly in black-and-white, a schema which hides seams beautifully. 

Thus, one can gaze upon King Kong as the work of a man who looked at the world, couldn’t see any new kingdoms to conquer, and so utilized technology to create something from whole-cloth that his audience had never before witnessed: a prehistoric world populated by the “dinosaur family” of Skull Island. He uses special effects to bring to life creatures people have read about, but never seen “alive.”

This travelogue or safari approach to the film precludes, to some degree, much in terms of humanity or characterization.  After Ann is taken by Kong to the interior of Skull Island, the film descends into a series of (still) harrowing fight sequences and battles, but always with a new animal on display, front-and-center in the frame. 

In short order the audience “discovers” Kong, a stegosaurus, an apatosaurus, a T-Rex, a giant snake, and a pterodactyl.  The film’s soundtrack, largely, is a sustained scream from Fay Wray, from about the forty-five minute point on.  People don’t talk or relate as people, they just delve deeper and deeper into the prehistoric jungle, and attempt to survive each new animal featured on the safari.

The Skull Island Safari #1

The Skull Island Safari #2

The Skull Island Safari #3

The Skull Island Safari #4

I also noted on this viewing that more than ever, King Kong boasts a strong reflexive quality.  Carl Denham takes a camera and a girl, Ann, into the jungle to make an adventure movie, a new kind of safari in a different kind of habitat.

But the movie that the audience is watching -- King Kong -- is also a safari…with a pretty girl fronting it.  When Denham complains about having to kowtow to studio bosses, one feels that the comment originates from Cooper himself. Denham is clearly his surrogate figure.

While we watch a safari film, Denham is also making a safari film.

A girl is needed front both films.  Hence the presence of lovely Fay Wray.
Fans of later generations of King Kongin 1976 and 2005 – will be surprised upon returning to this 1933 classic that there is almost no reciprocal relationship between Kong and his bride, Ann.  He may love her, but here it’s an unrequited love.  She never moves beyond terror for the “beast,” whatever he may feel for her.  By Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), a sympathy or love for “the beast” is added as a crucial element of the equation, but it is definitively not present in this film. 

Certainly, one can look at King Kong today and consider it a beauty and the beast story, though beauty has but distaste and fear for her groom. 

And certainly, one can see how Kong himself is a stand-in figure for a proud African slave, dragged from his country in chains to provide the entertainment for an elitist society that is both fearful and envious of him.  But the quality that makes King Kong so great is its sense or spirit of adventure. 

The film steadfastly takes us through the gates of a real world lacking magic, happiness, and perhaps even romance, and reminds us that there are places and things on this Earth yet unseen by man.  And those things, fierce or beautiful, still have the capacity to surprise us, and perhaps change us for the better if we don’t abuse or exploit them.

I suspect one reason that King Kong has survived for roughly eighty years at this juncture, and translated ably from one generation to another, is that many of us still want to believe in our own capacity to be surprised and delighted by nature.  The film is a non-stop safari of vicarious thrills and terrors, a spectacle in the truest sense of the word (meaning that it shows the audience things never before captured on film). 

Even today, King Kong exists to show bored and world-weary audiences that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in "safe" modernity.  

And even today, the film’s spirit of adventure -- if not divine -- is at least as “royal” as its title indicates.

1 comment:

  1. One of the greatest motion pictures...EVER!!!

    ReplyDelete