King Kong (1933/1976) (review)
Of Beasts and Beauties
What with the new DVD release of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 King Kong and the anticipation over Peter Jackson’s about-to-be-released homage, the eternal question is renewed: Just why the hell did the natives on Skull Island build an anti-Kong wall… and then put a Kong-size door in it?
You know what? It sooo doesn’t matter to me. That door may be pointless in a story sense, but it is tremendously effective visually — much more so than the high wall, that door says, Something enormous lurks behind here. Seeing the door again — as I watched the ’33 Kong again recently, in preparation for Jackson’s new film, for the first time in maybe a decade or more — I was kicked in the chest with the sudden memory of how that image loomed so monumentally in the imagination of my childhood. Maybe if I was seeing Kong for the first time today, the senselessness of that door might be enough to ruin the experience for me. But as a kid? Whew.
This movie is part of why I’m so twisted today, and not just because of how that door and the hellish promise of what it hid teased its way into my kiddie brain. It was the horrors of Kong stepping on the natives, too, and Kong dropping the not-Anne woman from the hotel window, and Kong toying with the flaccid jaw of the dead T. rex, and Kong dumping the men from the log into the crevasse. Holy crap, this is some elemental stuff, and I sat watching it again in awe of how powerful it still is.
Sure, some of that is a result of endless viewings as an impressionable kid: Every Thanksgiving Day, it was the Macy’s parade in the morning, and then Kong and Mighty Joe Young while waiting for the turkey to finish roasting. That was NYC broadcast TV in the 70s if you didn’t want to watch football, and I can’t believe I’d forgotten that. (The Wizard of Oz came on after dinner that night.) I’ve never forgotten, though, the recurring nightmares about dinosaurs that haunted my childhood, and I think this is where they came from.
Kong’s power isn’t just about my eight-year-old brain being reprogrammed, though. That door might not make sense but so much else does work, and beautifully. The FX are dated, of course, but only technologically — the stop-motioned creatures retain a charm and a plausibility that lets them live and breathe still. Kong’s muscles ripple and his fur ruffles in the breeze; the T. rex scratches his ear, perhaps a what-the-heck-is-that response to Anne’s piercing screams; the stegosaurus twitches in death spasms after it’s been shot. Man, there’s a scary weight to the meat of these creatures, and a helluva lotta blood, even if it is black-and-white: we all know what that viscous fluid leaking from the T. rex’s jaw is.
But there’s plenty I never noticed as a kid, either, plenty that makes Kong so endlessly fascinating to me as an adult. Kong crucified on the cross of civilization and commercialism in adventurer/filmmaker Carl Denham’s (Robert Armstrong) freak show — whoa. I never realized as a kid that Denham is the villain here, not Kong, though I may have dimly recognized the tragedy of the great ape, killed — or so I might have believed, as Denham does — by beauty. Now, the last line of the film, Denham’s “’Twas beauty killed the beast,” makes me snort with derision: Great, blame the girl, ya schmuck — you killed the beast, Denham, with your greed and your recklessness.
Blaming beauty works great, however, as a finale to what I now, as an adult woman, see as a satire of the shabby treatment of women in “civilized” society. (Is the satire intentional? One of the screenwriters was a woman, Ruth Rose — the other was James Creelman — but who knows? Perhaps this is only obvious as a postfeminist reading 70 years on.) Denham doesn’t want an actress along on his filmmaking journey to the South Seas, but the moviegoing audience demands a girl in what he’d like to be a purely testosterone-driven story: “Isn’t there any adventure or romance in the world that doesn’t have a flapper in it?” (Hell, even the ostensible hero, Jack Driscoll [Bruce Cabot], the first mate on the ship that takes the gang to Skull Island, believes that “women just can’t help being a bother.”) But if he must have Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) along, he’s not above putting her in danger in order to get his movie — he has a pretty good idea what they’ll all be facing on Skull Island, and he’s perfectly content to offer up Ann as a sacrifice in pursuit of profitable entertainment. Is that any different than what the natives want to do with her, or to any of their brides of Kong?
Male predation of women is the undercurrent of horror that drives Kong — it creeps me out to ponder with what practiced ease Kong can undo the bonds of the women presented to him, as does the intensely voyeuristic aspect to Kong peering in windows in NYC, trying to find Ann. Kong is an extraordinary danger, though — Denham and his ilk are obviously distressingly common in Ann’s world: She may have misinterpreted Denham’s interest in her in the beginning of the film, when she assumed she’d be expected to, ahem, repay Denham for casting her in his film, but no doubt long experience had taught her that that’s how a girl like her is typically sacrificed to beasts like him.
There’s no Denham in 1976’s King Kong, no filmmaker preying on innocent young things in order to appease his audience — instead, there’s a rapacious oil executive and a somewhat tortured theme about the rape of the environment. But there’s still all sorts of predatory subtext here… only this Kong celebrates it rather than satirizing it.
The Girl is actually accidental here, not a trial to be endured because at least someone values, her but an intruder, floating into the movie on a life raft from the offscreen explosion of a pleasure yacht to land on Fred Wilson’s (Charles Grodin) oil-exploration ship. Dwan (Jessica Lange: Big Fish) is a bimbo, and a ridiculously named one at that, belittled by the very film itself from the first — as if at the very height of the popular feminist movement it was necessary to try to puncture it, remind women of their proper place in the world, as sexual objects.
The ape here is of course absurd, clearly a guy in a gorilla suit, but maybe he’s meant to make us think more of a man than a lower primate — we’re meant to identify with Kong, not Dwan, in the whole predator/prey thing. In 1933, poor Ann, dangling on her sacrificial altar, sees Kong before we do, and when she starts screaming her head off, we’re terrified right along with her. Here, in 1976, we get a Kong’s-eye view of Dwan tied up and unable to escape — the camera leers at her just as Kong does. Oh, and that’s after the horny priest does a bump-and-grind dance at her to commemorate her sacrifice to the ape, and after the giant phallic bolt gets slid back into the door, locking her on the other side. Heh heh, kewl: she’s gonna get nailed by a giant ape. There’s no horror in the prospect, just something like glee.
But maybe Dwan’s into it, though. After giggling that Deep Throat saved her life — she didn’t want to watch the film with her yacht buddies, so she was on deck when the ensuing orgy apparently caused the little boat to explode — she screams at Kong that he should “go ahead and eat me — choke on me!”