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Review: King Kong--Revisiting A Groundbreaking Classic Movie

Drew Reviews His Favorite Films

I recently saw a special screening of King Kong released in 1933. It was part of the TCM film series celebrating movie classics by rereleasing them in theaters.

It was the last movie that I saw in a movie theater before all the theaters were shut down recently as part of the health concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you had to pick one last big screen movie that you might see for a while, this wasn’t a bad choice.

With theaters now closed, for the foreseeable future, I’m going to take an occasional departure from what I normally do and offer up a list of some of my favorite movies of all time with a brief explanation of why I liked them so much.

They are movies that you could track down and watch at home, if any of them catch your fancy. No reason to leave the house.

Let’s start with the original King Kong, a bonified cinematic milestone. It revolutionized moviemaking back in 1933 and stands the test of time to this day.

It’s a movie that has been re-made several times over the years, but for me, the 1933 version is the best of the bunch despite the primitive stop-motion special effects. There is a certain charm and magic in old movies like this.

For me, it’s fun to watch technicians back then struggling to push the limitations of their craft and, in this case, developing a storytelling technique that would change moviemaking forever by pushing the boundaries of imagination.

I am speaking of the groundbreaking efforts of Willis H. O’Brien, famous for his pioneering use of stop motion cinematography.

If you’re unfamiliar with the process, it involves building scaled down, meticulously-made models of characters and creatures and then moving them fractionally as they were photographed—frame by painstaking frame—with a movie camera so that they appeared to live and breathe and move.

The technique, in the hands of a master, could transform a 22-inch-high model of Kong into the building-climbing, biplane-swatting monster; one who made Fay Wray (and movie patrons everywhere) scream in fear.

The backstory about the making of King Kong is fascinating. The movie is one that I show every semester that I teach the History of American Cinema. It is required viewing.

It seems unimaginable that there could be so many stumbling blocks in the writing and preparation of the film that it was in danger of never being produced. We have David O. Selznick to thank for the fact that it was.

Fay Wray screamed her way into screen immortality with her role as Ann Darrow. Her work on King Kongoverlapped her appearance in The Most Dangerous Game being shot at the same studio, using some of the very same jungle sets.

Who can forget the moment when she first meets Kong, as part of a frightening sacrificial ritual staged behind a mammoth jungle wall—the same studio back lot wall burned to the ground as part of a spectacular fire that rages behind Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The restored print that I saw was pristine, thanks to the digital restoration that resurrects old, damaged film prints and negatives and brings them back to vivid life. Thankfully, The American Film Institute has spent many years restoring movie classics and preserving Hollywood treasures for future generations. Every movie buff should support their efforts. As we know, many precious films have sadly been lost forever, either partially or entirely.

As mentioned, there have been attempts to update and remake King Kong. Worth mentioning, the overblown, cheesy 1976 Dino De Laurentis version starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange and the more-recent, modernized version that Peter Jackson made in 2005 starring Naomi Watts and Jack Black. The former was ridiculous, resorting to an actor in a very obvious gorilla suit. The later was marginally better employing digital effects to bring Kong to life.

I sat up and took notice when it was announced that Peter Jackson was making this update, knowing his success with effects-laden fantasy films. It was a stunning movie from a technical standpoint. The same can be said of the even more-recent King Kong: Skull Island movie from 2017. Pretty much what you would expect in both cases. But they seemed to fall short of the tangible, heart-felt passion I saw in every frame of the original version, as old-fashioned as it may now seem.

In case you’re wondering, I did take notice of the ridiculous looking full-scale ape arms, hands and heads that appear in the original King Kong.

And yes, I even chuckled out loud at how silly they looked in today’s world of absolutely convincing visual effects. But while I occasionally laughed at all this, I also marveled at the efforts of the crew that designed and built these props as best they could, way back in 1933, just two years after the Empire State Building opened to the public.

It puts things into context.

If you’re not a fan of old movies or black and white movies, I understand. And all I can say is that you don’t know what you’re missing.

But if you want to broaden your horizon, step into the past and witness some remarkable moviemaking that is bold and original, I invite you to check out the offerings on TCM and this movie in particular-- King Kongwho you still might consider to be The Eighth Wonder of the World!

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