#189 King Kong

(1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)

“It was beauty killed the beast”

It was inevitable that at least one giant monster movie would end up on my list. For a time you couldn’t move for giant monster movies, whether it was Universal chucking increasingly silly prehistoric monsters at New York or the nuclear monsters that stomped all over Tokyo in the Japanese kaiju genre. But they all owe a debt of gratitude to the original giant monster, the one and only monkey man, King Kong.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a famous director who likes to make movies in the jungle. For his latest big picture, he plans to travel to an uncharted island, and for the first time he plans on using an actress in a prominent role. However, no big-name actresses are willing to make the long journey, so Denham goes out on the streets to find someone, and ends up hiring an unemployed woman named Ann (Fay Wray). When Denham and his crew reach the island, they find that the natives worship a creature named Kong, who turns out to be a giant prehistoric ape who takes a shine to Ann.

And then at that point the plot drops out so we can watch creaky puppets fight each other until Kong gets taken to New York and decides to climb the Empire State Building in a fit of rage. Your average Thursday, then.

Let’s focus on those creaky puppets fighting each other. After all, the movie dedicates a good half of its running time to them, so therefore my review should do the same. And when I say creaky, I really mean creaky. This is early stop motion at work here, and it shows. Fingerprints in Kong’s fur and a bizarre jerky frame rate in all of his movements really cause the film to show its age in a major way.

The film’s age can also be seen in the many dinosaur puppets he has to fight. Aside from well-known vegetarian Brontosaurus eating people, we have angry Stegosauruses and dumpy looking T-Rexes, with none of them coming across as particularly terrifying in these post-Jurassic Park days. Add to this any time Kong needs to carry Fay Wray around, and she switches from being a real actress to being an obvious doll mid-shot.

But oddly, these creaky effects are charming and make the film watchable. Sure, they’re ridiculous but somehow this makes everything feel like a lot of fun. It becomes Puppet Fight: The Movie, and there’s something hugely entertaining about that. It becomes even more entertaining when Kong’s dumb grin pops up on screen. I’m not quite sure what they were going for, but the end result makes me wonder how it was supposed to be terrifying, even in the 30s. The guy looks so happy, like he’s having the time of his life getting his movie debut, and he’s pretty endearing as a result.

This guy is a mascot for a tea brand, not a BIG SCARY MONSTER

In fact, any time the movie is being nothing more than Puppet Fight: The Movie, it’s fun, but when it attempts actual plot, that’s when the problems really start.

You see, the movie also shows its age in the sexist dialogue spoken by the sailors and the questionable presentation of the backwards island culture, both of which felt embarrassing to watch in these days where people are aware that island nations have the Internet and cars just like the rest of us and women don’t tend to agree to accompany strange men on trips across the ocean just because they’re desperate for a job.

Doesn’t help that the characters are all really flat and one-dimensional. Carl Denham is fairly interesting to watch but really, he is little more than a Crazed Nutter With Money in personality. Also, there’s an incredibly laboured attempt to highlight the central “beauty and the beast” theme of the entire thing that can get annoying. Because it wasn’t the giant monkey, it was laboured analogies that killed the plot.

The movie is fun if you like puppets fighting each other. If you want intelligent, well-paced drama, go elsewhere.

Starring Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot & Robert Armstrong
Written by Edgar Wallace & Merian C. Cooper (story) and James Ashmore Creelman & Ruth Rose
Produced by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Eddie Linden, J.O. Taylor & Vernon Walker
Edited by Ted Cheeseman

Favourite Scene: Kong fights a T-Rex in all their wonky glory.
Scene That Bugged Me: Ugh, movie. I get it. “Beauty and the beast”. Stop.

Watch it if: You like to watch puppets fight each other clumsily
Avoid it if: You’re expecting to be scared by the big ape

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Posted on May 31, 2013, in 1930s, Adventure, Horror and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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