AfInity: King Kong
By Kim Hollis
September 18, 2009


We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#41: King Kong

Somewhere between the age of five and nine, I became obsessed with "creature features". The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Gamera, and the Blob all thrilled and terrified me. It's my memory of these times that reminds me that kids love to be scared. Whenever I hear people say that movies like Coraline are too intense for children, I think, "Please. That's exactly the kind of story they love to see." I think there's value in those iconic childhood scares, from the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians.

One of my fondest memories is sitting in my bedroom with a tiny black and white television, trying to adjust the ears enough that I could watch King Kong. I mean, it was a giant ape! And he fought other giant monsters! What a thrill! I'm really not exaggerating for effect. I was exactly this excited about that old black and white movie.

The 1933 version of King Kong sits smack dab in the middle of the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies list. It's certainly an influential movie in my own life story. Watching it again today, more than 30 years after seeing it the first time, would it still have the same power over me?

Well...not really. In the many years since I embraced the film as a youngster, so many advances have been made in the film technology that this early version of King Kong feels quaint and sometimes amusing. That's not to say I can't see how it would have been tremendously impacting on audiences who had never seen anything like it before. I've experienced that kind of movie in my lifetime, and it's an unforgettable, special feeling to be sure. But because there have been numerous movie versions of King Kong in the years since then, it's a bit difficult to watch the original without a jaded eye.

Still, the movie does a number of things surprisingly well, particularly considering its age. While I remembered it as a creature feature, it's really more of an action adventure. In that sense, King Kong succeeds. The movie begins with movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) discussing his newest project with the skipper and first mate of a boat that will be taking him to the filming location. He's very mysterious about what the trip will entail, and is primarily concerned with finding a girl to appear in the picture, as he's been told that his previous movies have lacked the romance angle that reels audiences in.

Denham discovers his ingénue living on the street. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is a pale, beautiful girl who's thrilled to have an opportunity to make a little money and have an adventure along the way. The men on the ship, including First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), grumble that it's inappropriate to have a woman onboard due to all the dangers, but she's sunny and bright, charming to one and all. Finally, once the ship reaches a certain point, Denham reveals to the skipper and his crew where he intends for the ship to go. The director has gotten wind of a mysterious island where a mythical creature named Kong may live. He hopes to film the beast, with Ann serving to offer the movie some humanity.

They arrive at the island, where the natives are performing a "marriage ceremony" between one of their women and Kong. When they see Ann, however, they immediately decide that the beast would be much more satisfied with the "golden woman". They kidnap her and offer her up to Kong, and then the real adventure begins.

Those who have seen Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of the film probably remember that interminable boat ride to Skull Island. It seemed like it went on forever (and then the scenes on Skull Island itself took another infinity). The original King Kong suffers from no such dullness or overindulgence. Though it does take a little while for the ship to arrive at skull island, the scenes on the boat flow nicely, giving us some brilliant touches of character development and planting the seeds for future branching of the plot. Once they arrive at the island, things escalate quite a bit, with both the men and Kong himself fighting a menagerie of monsters until Kong is captured and taken back to New York City.

The acting in the film ranges from over-the-top (Armstrong) to okay (Cabot) to really quite charming (Wray). We realize that the movie's really about the monster, but we do spend a lot of time with these people while we wait to get to the fireworks factory, so it's important that they entertain us. Cabot's Driscoll seems a little stiff and surly until he finds himself falling for Ann, at which point we start to really root for him - silly white dress shoes and all.

As for set pieces, they're a bit primitive, but that's to be expected given the time frame we're looking at. What really matters is the creature effects. Are they believable? Would they be good enough to scare an audience? If reviews from that time are any indication, they weren't all that realistic even by 1933 standards. People found Kong to be robotic and stiff, and it only suffers all the more today after having seen Peter Jackson's carefully crafted, emotional ape. Additionally, there's no connection between the 1933 Ann and Kong. She's scared of him and never wants to see him again. I have to say I much prefer the 2005 story, where the actress becomes attached and emotionally involved with the ape.

Another small problem for more modern audiences is that those of us who have taken a science class will know that some of the vicious monsters onscreen are actually dinosaurs that were peaceful herbivores, like triceratops, brontosaurus and stegosaurus. It's kind of silly watching them chomp down on humans knowing that they would much rather have preferred eating a tree.

So, by the time I finished watching King Kong, I realized that it was in fact a little silly. It certainly wasn't scary (what was seven-year-old me thinking?). And yet, it's a pretty solid little adventure movie, with a really interesting performance from Wray. It set the stage for other action films - and other monster movies - to follow, and is deserving of its place on the AFI list as a groundbreaking movie with new ideas and effects. So what if it's a little cheesy by today's standards?

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