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12 April, 2008

Giant Monkey Love: Celebrating Kong on his 75th Birthday

April 7th, 1933 is a Red-Letter date in the history of genre films, for that is the day that the greatest of the giant monsters was born. On that day, an ape named Kong first roared across the screen, a blond beauty screamed her way into the hearts of moviegoers, and audiences everywhere were amazed. On that day, KING KONG premiered, and changed movies forever.

The creation of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack, brought to vivid life by the artistry of Willis O’Brien, and starring Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and the incomparable Fay Wray, KING KONG stormed through the 1933 Box-Office as easily as the jungles of Skull Island. In its wake, it left a legacy that has inspired fans and filmmakers alike for three-quarters of a century. The careers of such genre notables as Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson were encouraged and influenced by the “Eighth Wonder of the World!”, as Carl Denham so eloquently described him to his captivated audience. Generations of MonsterKids have grown up watching Kong battle man, machine, and beast for his “beauty.”

Remade twice in the years since 1933, with varying degrees of success, KING KONG is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The story captures you, pulling you into the film as only the best can. The 1976 remake certainly didn’t do that, and while Jackson’s 2005 version came close, it just couldn’t match the original’s sense of pure, adventurous, escapism… the feeling that you were traveling, with the crew of the Venture, to some place completely undiscovered.

Most of what makes the original KING KONG so special is the depth of the characters. Each one is so well drawn, in such broad strokes, that they defy attempts to update them in the subsequent remakes. In 1976, no attempt was made to remain faithful to the original; the resulting characters are so poorly rendered as to be completely unlikable. Robert Armstrong’s Denham is replaced by a slimy, sniveling oil company executive in the person of Charles Grodin, who plays the role as if Al Gore himself wrote it. Jessica Lange plays Dwan, a beautiful blonde with the I.Q. of a butternut squash, as though it were her goal to confirm every Blonde stereotype in existence. Gone are the courageous Captain and First Mate, originally played by Frank Reicher and Bruce Cabot. Instead, we have Jeff Bridges as Jack Prescott, a hippie environmentalist/ape expert, and the role of the captain has been almost entirely eliminated. No one in this cast of cast-offs manages to approach their counterparts from the original, and the weak script and weaker direction can do nothing to overcome the poor characterization.

In contrast, the Jackson remake brought back the original characters but altered them to such a degree that they became unrecognizable. Carl Denham, the renowned adventurer and filmmaker of the original film, became a two-bit hustler and con-man in the remake, not above lying, cheating, and stealing to get his way. Jack Driscoll went from being the First Mate of the Venture, a strong heroic figure, to a whining little nebbish of a playwright, destined to be “odd man out” in a very weird romantic triangle. The First Mate, played by Evan Parke, was very much the type of character the story needed Driscoll to be, and would have made a suitably strong love interest for Ann Darrow; yet he was relegated to a minor role, and was dead before the battle in the Spider Pit had even begun. The character of the Captain, played by Thomas Kretschmann, was the only one that improved over the original, with more depth and complexity than Reicher’s weathered old salt.

Then there’s Ann Darrow.

Embodied by Fay Wray, the character of Ann is a singular achievement in the history of Horror Films. No other female character of the first fifty years of Horror was as recognizable or had a more lasting impact on the genre, and none has been more integral to the success and longevity of the movie itself. Wray so perfectly captured the innocence, the vulnerability, of ‘Beauty’ that it’s hard to watch the film and not be captivated by her… just as Denham is, just as Driscoll is, just as the crew of the Venture is, and just as Kong himself is.

In comparison Ann, as essayed by Naomi Watts, has no innocence or vulnerability, at least not until she’s on the island, and even then precious little of it is evident. In New York, she’s hit rock bottom… a beaten, careworn woman searching for something to believe in, someone who won’t disappoint her the way every one and every thing else has. She finds that someone… in the form of a 24-foot tall ape named Kong. He demands nothing of her, yet from the first repeatedly risks, and ultimately loses, his life simply in order to be with her. But where Jackson’s version deviates from the original is where his film loses some of its shine, and the true quality of the Cooper film shows through.

Where Wray’s Ann is quite naturally terrified and traumatized by her status as a giant ape’s object of infatuation, Watts’ reaction is just the opposite—she seeks him out after he’s escaped from Denham’s spectacle, showing not a trace of fear as he takes her in his massive hand. She turned her back on Denham, and Driscoll, over the capture of Kong, and she again chooses to stand with Kong, in essence turning her back on humanity. One is left to wonder if, given the choice between which of the two ‘males’ in her life would plummet to their death from the top of the Empire State Building, events would not have transpired differently.

Of course, Watts’ Ann wasn’t dealing with the same Ape that Wray’s character was. Cooper’s Kong was a monster. An innocent monster, to be sure; one that did not wish to be taken from the place where “…he was King…”—but a monster nonetheless. Jackson anthropomorphizes Kong, giving him a humanlike personality, and transforms him from a monster into a 24-foot tall pet monkey… Tarzan’s Cheetah, on the Major League Baseball diet.

But it’s not just the depth of characterization that makes the original so much better than either attempt to remake it. It’s the perfect synergy of concept, story, design, and execution that sets the work of Cooper, Shoedsack, O’Brien, and the rest apart… a synergy that’s almost impossible to duplicate. John Guillermin didn’t even try, and though Peter Jackson came close, his humanization of Kong ultimately defeats the attempt.

In the end, Guillermin film isn’t as bad as it could have been, and Jackson’s KONG is without a doubt a great movie, but neither can be what the original was, and is… the greatest monster movie ever.

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