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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

King Kong (1933) vs. King Kong (1976)

Now that we've seen the Peter Jackson remake I thought it’d be nice to take a look back at the first two incarnations of the mighty Kong. In 1933 Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B, Schoedsack created a film that would change the look of cinema forever. There are many iconic images in film history but almost none are as grand as the site of a huge ape standing atop the Empire State Building, as he swats at attacking airplanes. Now flash forward to 1976 and director John Guillermin and producer Dino De Laurentiis have placed Rick Baker in an ape suite atop the World Trade Center. Let’s just say it doesn’t quite work as well as the original. For many years (long before I heard about Peter Jackson plans) I prayed for another attempt at doing the big hairy guy justice, and I’ve always saw it as a period piece, it only makes sense. Even in 1976 the local police would have had enough artillery on hand to take out gorilla no matter how large, and that in one point in the film, when Kong wades across the Hudson, that they lose track of him is rather ridiculous. (In all fairness to that film the police and army some how managed to lose track of the Rhedasaurus in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms). Paramount should have realized that some stories could not be properly updated with out straining the laws of credibility. We can buy a pilot of a plane making a pass to close to the grasping arms of Kong, but what the hell was the helicopter pilot in the remake thinking when he got to close. How hard could it be to just hover out of reach and shoot? This guy ranks up there with the idiot chopper pilot in the Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, who couldn’t shake the big lizard even when one of them can’t fly. So hearing that Jackson was setting the film in the thirties filled my heart with joy. Now let’s do as close of a direct comparison as we can. In the 1933 version it’s Carl Denham, a film producer who forms an expedition to seek out Skull Island to find this fabled beast known as Kong, and to make a motion picture. In 1976 we have the oil crisis, and so instead of a filmmaker we have a greedy capitalist oil executive Fed Wilson (Boo hiss) who is lead to believe that there is oil on the island. So in the original we a have man who actually finds what he was looking for and brings it back alive, and in the remake we have guy who finds out the oil on the island is worthless, so he settles on taking Kong as some kind of consolation prize. Carl Denham had hired Ann Darrow to be in his picture, while Fred Wilson finds Dwan adrift in a life raft. So right off the top it appears that the 1976 version is just relying on luck and happenstance to move the story forward. Once we get to the island the differences become even vaster. The crew lead by Denham find a village cut off from the rest of the island by a massive wall (a wall constructed for the 1927 King of Kings and later torched during the burning of Atlanta), Fred Wilson finds a wall that looks like a left over from Disney’s Polynesian resort. Both walls of course raise the same question, “If you’re trying to keep out giant beasts, what’s with the big friggin door?” When Ann or Dwan are kidnapped and given to Kong both versions run pretty parallel, with one major difference. In the 1976 movie we ask ourselves, “Where are the bloody dinosaurs?” Let’s talk monsters for awhile. In the original the sailors and Kong encounter a stegosaurus, a brontosaurus, a lizard from the pit, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an elasmosaurus, and a pterandon. While in the remake made decades later we get a really big snake, and not even a particularly convincing snake I might add. The 1933 version's trek through the jungle, as amazing as it is, is not with out its faults. I especially love the one sailor who spots a broken branch as they trail Kong…what? This is a monster that is as big as a house who we just saw knocking down trees to make his way to the wall, and this idiot is noticing a broken branch. This also raises another question, how often do these sacrifices take place? Or do the trees that Kong knocks down belong to some peculiar strain of fast growing plant, if not he really should have a path pretty well beaten down by now. A couple of the dinosaurs are portrayed in a manner that might confuse today’s more educated audiences. Both the stegosaurus and brontosaurus (more correctly labeled today as an apatosaurus) are given behavior one wouldn’t normally expect from a herbivore. Though it is possible that they were very territorial creatures, and treated any incursion as a threat, and we never do actually see the men getting eaten. Still faults and all it really kicks the crap out of a guy in an ape suit wrestling a rubber snake. On to motives, neither film tries to give any kind of reason for why a thirty-foot ape would want with a tiny human, and I don’t buy the "for love thing". I have my own pet theory and am eager to hear people's opinions on it. What would a giant gorilla do with a little woman? Simple…he’d use her for bait. Think about it, you’re a big hairy ape and are the undisputed ruler of this island, so how do you pass the time? We never see a Mrs. Kong (we do get a Son of Kong in the sequel, but I guess we can assume his mom died some time before the King Kong story starts), so how does he get his jollies? The answer is simple…he loves to fight. But after awhile the other creatures on the island would have figured out that Kong could kick their proverbial asses up and down the jungle any time he wanted, so they'd probably avoid him at all cost. So what’s Kong to do? He goes to the village, picks up a woman, and then proceeds to leave her out in the open where any wandering dinosaur might hear her screams. Thinking it’s time for an easy meal the unsuspecting dino saunters up to this tiny morsel, but before he can dig in Kong jumps out, acting all self righteous, to “defend” his property. He then proceeds to rip the poor dinosaur a new one. And thus falls the noble T-Rex, elasmosaurus, and the pterandon. Now the lengths that he goes to retrieve Ann Darrow would suggest that he has grown somewhat attached to her as one would a favorite pet. Okay, back to the comparison. In the original film Kong breaks through the gates, and rampages through the village, killing all who would stand in his way, until he’s dropped by gas bombs thrown by Denham. In the 1976 movie he busts through the door, then immediately falls for the old pit trap trick, and quickly succumbs to the gas placed inside. Not much of a tough call on deciding which one is cinematically more interesting. Both versions gloss over how they got this huge beast from the island and onto the boat, but the 1976 version at least gives us a scene of Kong locked in the tankers hold. Where Carl Denham would have kept him on his boat the Venture is anyone’s guess. Once in New York we find that both Ann and Dwan are to be made media darlings and that they are to attend the unveiling of Kong. In the 1933 version Kong breaks free just shortly after the curtain goes up so one question was left unanswered, “Was the whole show just going to be Kong standing there chained to the platform? Or would there be film shown later or maybe dancing girls?” It does seem that Kong would have been more suitable as zoo attraction rather than a Broadway show, because he certainly wasn’t as talented as his smaller cousin was in the 1949 Mighty Joe Young. In the 1976 film Fred Wilson wanted to use Kong for promotional purposes, “Put a gorilla in your tank!” I’m not sure how this campaign would have worked out in the long run, but it does seem more plausible than people sitting down in a theatre to just stare up at a big ape. I’ve already touched on the problems the remake had when placing the story in a modern setting. Kong is not invulnerable, and I just don’t see him making it four blocks before the local precinct could fill him full of enough lead to bring him down. In 1933 you could readily believe that Kong would give them a run for their money. One of the things that annoyed me in remake was there attempt to make Kong more sympathetic. I thought the original did a fine job of showing us that Kong was just an animal set lose in an environment he didn’t understand, and lashing out in the only way he knew how. But that’s not good enough for Dino De Laurentiis, in a press conference he stated that, “Nobody cry when Jaws die, people gonna cry when Kong dies.” So we are subjected to scenes of Dwan trying protect Kong by trying to get him to pick her up so the helicopters won’t shoot him, while in the much more realistic original Ann couldn’t wait to get away from the terrifying beast that had kidnapped her. Let’s talk effects. Willis O’Brien ( mentor to Ray Harryhausen) was at the top of his game when he created the creatures that inhabit Skull Island, and decades later they still hold up against their CGI descendants. While Carlo Rambaldi’s robot was so bad that it was used for less than a minute in the scene were he breaks free at the Petrox celebration. The rest of the film contains Rick Baker in an ape suit. Mind you it’s a pretty good ape suit, much better than then the one used in King Kong Vs. Godzilla, but it’s still a man in a suit, thus some of the magic is gone. The fact that this film won an Academy Award for this is a crime. The original won no awards because the effect categories didn’t exist back than. Now I haven’t talked about the love story, and the reason being neither film was really successful on this point. But I’m certainly more forgiving of film made in thirties for having cheesy dialogue, and stilted acting. As I’m sure you’ve guessed I’m a huge fan of the original King Kong and have no real use for the remake. Both versions spawned sequels and neither of them is as good as the predecessor, though Son of Kong is leaps and bounds better than the crapfest that was King Kong Lives.

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