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King Kong (1933)

What can be said about King Kong that hasn’t been said before? The legendary film redefined what a motion picture could be, setting an early example for future blockbuster films to strive for. Yet, somehow, there are still plenty of people out there who have never been truly exposed to the film beyond cultural references, not helped by the fact that the movie hasn’t been available on DVD. Well now that’s changed, and this is exactly the type of DVD treatment a movie like King Kong deserves: one full of information and reverence. The one thing most people know about King Kong is the final conflict at the top of the Empire State Building. Even if people have never heard the names Jack Driscoll, Carl Denham, or Ann Darrow, they are at least familiar with the visual of the giant ape facing off against the biplanes. However, if that’s all they know about King Kong then they don’t realize the big monkey is only in New York City for the last twenty minutes of the movie and that the majority of the breathtaking action takes place in another locale altogether: the mysterious lost world of Skull Island.

Skull Island is, of course, where Kong himself is originally found. Leading a crew of sailors including Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), film producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) comes to Skull Island to set his film in the unknown. Not even Denham knows what he’s getting into and ends up interrupting the natives in a ceremony to present Kong with his bride, and in doing so spoils the ceremony. The natives decide Miss Darrow will make an adequate substitute, and soon the sailors, Driscoll, and Denham find themselves fighting Kong, dinosaurs, and even the natives in an attempt to get the leading lady back, eventually leading to the capture of Kong and his relocation to New York City.

I’d be lying if I were to say King Kong wasn’t extremely dated. Ignore the fact that it’s a black and white film and you still have cinematography styles and visual effects from almost 75 years ago. If this were any other film you’d probably catch people laughing at how Kong’s fur bristles as he moves, obviously affected by Willis O’Brien’s stop motion animation technique. But this is King Kong! The second you remember this movie was made in 1933, awe washes over you. The way O’Brien made Kong come to life and managed to combine live action and stop-motion in the same shots is brilliant. There are movies made today with much more advanced technology that can’t seem to manage what O’Brien did in the ‘30s. It just goes to show, making movies is not all about gadgets and superior technology. O’Brien had dedication and a lot of heart, and that shows on screen, where today’s films are often the product of a machine, a lot of cogs moving to grind out something that nobody, studio, filmmaker, or audience, cares about.

The true testament to O’Brien’s heart is the performance of the great ape himself. Everything Kong does seems logical once the audience gets in his head. He fights a giant T-Rex to save Ann Darrow, and when it’s dead he plays with its jaw for a second. Later he does the same thing with another dinosaur that threatens Ann and even later with an elevated train - always checking his opponent to make sure it’s dead. That’s the instinct of a jungle animal. Kong isn’t just a piece of rubber and latex - he’s a thinking, feeling creature, and when he’s injured we sympathize with him, leading to virtual tears at the film’s climax. Kong is the true predecessor to performances like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies - a performance that manages to capture the audience despite being delivered on screen not by an actor, but by a visual effect.

If the fight on the Empire State Building is all you know about Kong, you owe it to yourself and film history to check King Kong out in its entirety, especially before you see Peter Jackson’s upcoming remake. While I have a strong feeling the remake will be more then faithful to the original 1933 picture, it never hurts to know your Kong. I wish I could say King Kong was being released on DVD based on its own merits, but the truth is it’s definitely tied to the upcoming remake by Peter Jackson. Typically releases made for this reason tend to be thin. Thankfully Turner Home Entertainment decided not to skimp, giving King Kong a treatment worthy of the “eighth wonder of the world”.

The release itself is a two disc special edition set. For those who really want to go bananas, there is also a collector’s option which features a really nice tin container for the movie, reproductions of five of the lobby cards and original posters for the movie, and a reproduction of the program from the film’s debut at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. If you’re willing to splurge, get this tin. The reproduction program is a solid reminder that going to the movies used to be a black tie affair; a reminder we could use these days, when we’re lucky to make it through a ninety minute movie without someone’s cell phone going off or some hoodlums starting a riot. These extra materials were enough for me to consider this set one of this years best releases before I even put the disc in the DVD player.

The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio which will probably annoy the uninformed. Kong came out in the days before movies were widescreen, so those with those nice 16:9 televisions will just have to deal with the black boxes on the sides of the image or a stretched image. This is the way the movie was meant to be seen. The image has been cleaned up but not to the point that it loses the character of an older film, so there are no noticeable scratches or dirt, but there’s still a feeling that the film you’re watching has been around for a while. The audio sounds absolutely fantastic, something I wouldn’t normally say about a mono track, but today’s sound systems really accentuate Max Steiner’s original score.

The first disc, which includes the movie, also contains a commentary track by visual effects legends Ray Harryhousen and Ken Ralston, with audio clips added in by Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. There is also a gallery of trailers for King Kong, Son of Kong, and other Cooper films.

The second disc is the meat and potatoes of the set, containing two documentaries: “I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper” and the seven part “RKO Productions 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World”. On top of those two documentaries is a look at test footage for Creation, the film Willis O’Brien was working on before King Kong, with a commentary by Harryhousen.

“I’m King Kong!” focuses specifically on the director/producer of King Kong, Merian C. Cooper. It turns out the character of Carl Denham, the director who would go to great lengths to get realistic footage of the wild, was based strongly on Cooper. The director lived a life that rivaled the excitement of King Kong, fighting in wars and then filming docudramas with his partner Ernest B. Schoedscack, who Cooper met during the war. The story of their lives is accented by those who knew them, study them, and even soundbytes from Cooper himself. It’s an amazing look at a man who lived an amazing life but is probably overlooked these days despite his lasting contributions to film.

The second documentary, “The Making of Kong”, is easily one of those bonus features that is an absolutely must watch item. For over two hours Kong’s accomplishments are explained, and I must admit, there was more groundbreaking work on the movie then I ever gave it credit for. Not only are there all of the visual accomplishments of O’Brien, but this was the first film to delve into the realm of movie scores, with Max Steiner actually building music for the movie that corresponded to the action happening on screen and taking cues from that action. It also featured the first mixing of sound for a film by the brilliant Murray Spivack, balancing sound effects (which had to be made originally instead of taken from a library), dialogue, and the score. These are items we all take for granted these days, but that offered real challenges in the early 1930s. Experts throughout the documentary agree that movies today owe much to the groundbreaking efforts of the people who worked on this film.

Because Cooper wanted his movie made in absolute secrecy, there is no behind the scenes footage from King Kong, which could make a documentary about the making of the film very difficult to keep entertaining. In order to give audiences a look at what is being discussed as far as the cinematography of the movie, Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, and the folks at Weta Workshop recreate shooting conditions for a scene from King Kong, using nothing but the equipment and tools that were available in the 1930s. This also adds the insight of modern day visual effects specialists being able to honestly discuss what it is like to create effects “old school”. I am extremely impressed at the lengths that Jackson and company go in order to recreate the feel and look of the 1930’s King Kong. As one of the artists explains: how cool is it to have the opportunity to not only work on the remake of King Kong, but to know what it was like to work on the original?

In that same recreation category, Jackson and company tackle one of the great myths of the 1933 movie: the lost spider-pit sequence. In the movie there is a scene where several of the sailors are knocked into a giant pit by Kong. However in the original film the sailors did not just die by the fall like they do today. Originally there was a fight in the pit with several creatures. This missing footage has never been found and is considered the Holy Grail of Kong. Since there is no footage to go by, Jackson attempts to create what he thinks the scene would look like. Joining him on the endeavor are other massive Kongphiles like director Frank Darabont and visual effects guru Rick Baker. Jackson continuously states in this portion of the documentary that he has no intention that his spider-pit sequence be considered correct, and that this is just being done by fans in an attempt to have some fun. Still, it must be nice to be a fan with the resources and weight of Jackson and Weta on hand.

The two portions of the documentary where Jackson and Weta are featured prominently have removed all doubt I have that Jackson is the right man to make a modern day version of King Kong. To see Jackson speak about the original film and to watch him drag out his original Kong artifacts is to see true fandom at work. Peter Jackson shows an absolute love for the source material, and I have no doubt that his love and dedication will provide his remake with the right stuff to honor the original film while giving it a modern day touch.

If you have any love for King Kong, or interest in the history of films at all, these documentaries are for you. To me, this set is a perfect representation of what the DVD format should be all about: offering beautiful versions of movies with a wealth of information about them. The older the movie, the more important it is to keep its history intact and available. The folks at Turner Home Entertainment have done a wonderful job with this release, which may very well be the best DVD this year.