Saturday, April 15, 2017

Stubs - King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933) Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Produced by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Screenplay by James Creelman, Ruth Rose. Run Time: 104 minutes (with overture). U.S.A. Black and White. Action. Adventure.

Almost as big as King Kong is the story of its creator, Merian C. Cooper. He is one of those larger than life characters that we don’t seem to have many of these days. Once a member of the Georgia National Guard so he could help down Pancho Villa, Cooper would go on to fly in World War I and even survived his plane getting shot from the sky in 1918. He would later volunteer as a part of the Kościuszko Squadron, which supported the Polish Army in their fight against Soviets between 1919 and 1921, even spending 9 months as a prisoner of war before he managed to escape.

Returning back to the states in 1921, Cooper, through his job at the New York Times, made the acquaintance of Ernest Schoedsack on a sea voyage to the Ethiopian Empire, where he met prince regent, Ras Tefari, later known as Emperor Haile Selassie I. He would later work with Schoedsack on the film Grass (1925), which was picked up by Paramount Pictures. A documentary, Grass follows a branch of the Bakhtiari tribe of Lurs in Iran as they and their herds make their seasonal journey to better pastures.

The film got the attention of Jesse Lasky, who commissioned the two to make Chang (1927), another documentary, this one about a poor farmer in Northeastern Thailand and his daily struggle for survival, which Famous Players-Lasky, a division of Paramount Pictures, released. Cooper and Schoedsack also co-directed, with Lothar Mendes, The Four Feathers (1929), which starred Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, and Clive Brook and was produced by David O. Selznick.

But flying never quite left Cooper, because, in 1926, he helped form Pan American Airways with John Hambleton. During his time on the board, Pan Am, as the company was called, established the first regular Trans-Atlantic service. But you can take the boy out of Hollywood, but not Hollywood out of the boy and Cooper’s interest returned to filmmaking. While still on the board at Pan Am, he started to develop the screenplay for what would become King Kong.

After reading The Dragon Lizards of Komodo (New York, 1927), a nonfiction book written by his friend, W. Douglas Burden, in which Burden describes his exploration of the East Indian island of Komodo and his study of the rare dragon lizards that inhabit the island.

In a letter to Burden written in 1964, Cooper states: “Then one day, after one of my conversations with you, I thought to myself, why not film my Gorilla ... I also had very firmly in mind to giantize both the Gorilla and your Dragons to make them really huge. However, I always believed in personalizing and focusing attention on one main character and from the very beginning I intended to make it the Gigantic Gorilla, no matter what else I surrounded him with... I had already established him in my mind on a prehistoric island with prehistoric monsters, and I now thought of having him destroyed by the most sophisticated thing I could think of in civilization... My very original concept was to place him on the top of the Empire State Building and have him killed by airplanes... I thought that by mattes and double printing and the new technique called rear projection it could be done... I personally conceived and initiated development of the photographic process afterward called 'miniature projection'...I ... went ahead and wrote a number of outlines of King Kong in the years 1929-30.”

In 1931, while Schoedsack was in Sumatra filming a picture called Rango, David O. Selznick became the production head at the financially desperate RKO.

Meanwhile, Cooper tried to buy out MGM’s financial interest in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, hoping to make two films at the same time in Africa, Tarzan, and King Kong, but Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, wouldn’t play along.

Cooper then went to Hollywood in the fall of 1931 to discuss the possibility of making his gorilla picture. But he was turned down by everyone, though Selznick did hire Cooper to help reign in the production of Creation, a stop-action motion picture that had been in production for over a year.  While Cooper shut down that production, he thought Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-action techniques, first developed for First National’s The Lost World (1925), would be perfect for his “giant gorilla” idea, allowing the film to be made without costly shooting in Africa.

He made a proposal to Selznick to shoot a couple of scenes with the gorilla “to see how lifelike and terrible a character it can be made.” Selznick agreed but still had to push hard to get the studio’s New York executives to finance the one-reel test. With the go-ahead, Cooper assigned modelmaker Marcel Delgado to build a miniature, “almost human” ape figure. It took Delgado some a couple of tries, but he managed to make an 18-inch model which satisfied Cooper. The scene in the test featured Kong tossing terrified sailors off a log to their deaths, and Kong fighting an allosaurus. The scene was capped by the doomed men being eaten by giant crab spiders. (The scene was later edited from the film after a preview in San Bernardino because Cooper thought it slowed down the pace of the film.)

An attempt was made to try and make the setting for the film be as “realistic” as possible. After investigating scientific records and consultations with Paleontologists it was decided that the most likely location was an island off the Malay Peninsula, so backgrounds were painted with that in mind.

Production of the test reel began in January 1932. During its shooting, Selznick brought English mystery writer Edgar Wallace in to write a draft of the screenplay based on Cooper’s treatment. Unfortunately, Wallace would come down with pneumonia on February 10, 1932. While Cooper would reject the idea that Wallace contributed much to the story, some argue that his draft, written between January 1 and 5, 1932, details many aspects of the story that ended up in the film.

After Wallace’s death, other writers were brought in to work on the screenplay. One of those rumored to be have worked on it was Dudley Nichols, who would later write the screenplay for Stagecoach (1939) as well as other John Ford films. But that is only a rumor as no records indicate Nichols as involved. Another writer, Leon Gordon, is credited with being the treatment writer, but there is no evidence he contributed anything to the film.

James Creelman wrote two drafts of the screenplay but quit over differences with Cooper, who in turn hired Ruth Rose, Ernest Schoedsack's wife, to complete the screenplay. While not a novice writer, this was her screenplay debut. She simplified the story and eliminated some scenes Creelman had written, such as Kong’s trip to New York. Cooper instructed her to put her husband and himself in the story, so it said that the character of Jack was modeled on her husband and Denham was based on Cooper. Cooper also wanted to take their time introducing Kong, being sure to explain everything before Kong appears so there is no need afterward.

While the cast seems synonymous with the film, they were not the first choices of the producers. Fay Wray, who had worked previously with the filmmakers, was far from the first choice. Cooper first thought of Jean Harlow for the Ann Darrow part and had also asked Dorothy Jordan, his wife-to-be, but was turned down by both women. Joel McCrea was the first actor approached about the role of Jack Driscoll, but Cabot was chosen because it was thought he would be a better fit for the rigors of the role.

During production, Cooper concentrated more on technical scenes, including the later New York, jungle, and ship scenes, while Schoedsack directed the remaining sequences, including the village scenes and some of the New York footage. The scene depicting the sacrificial ceremony, which involved hundreds of extras, three camera crews, a flotilla of costume and makeup personnel and sixty-five electricians, was shot by Schoedsack in one night. Live action sequences were shot beginning in June 1932 in three and four week stretches with weeks off in between. In some cases, filming went on non-stop. Fay Wray, in her autobiography, recounts that she spent twenty-two straight hours on her test reel scene. The animation crew, in order to achieve a constant look to any scene, would work continuously as well. The film was in production for eight months, concluding in February 1933.

With a long production schedule, then as now, costs were of concern. After a successful test reel, RKO gave Cooper a $500,000 budget, but that would rise to $672,000 before all was said and done. Selznick is even quoted as saying that he squeezed monies from other RKO productions to finish the picture. They even used sets from one film, The Most Dangerous Game (1933), which Schoedsack was shooting during the day with Armstrong and Wray. Sets from Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings were repurposed to serve for the village sequences. Those sets would later be burned as part of the burning-of-Atlanta scene in Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939).

One way the studio hoped to save money was to have studio composer Max Steiner re-use music from other productions. But Cooper insisted that Steiner write an original score, offering to pay him out of his own pocket. Steiner’s score took 8 weeks to compose and recording required a large 46-piece orchestra. The cost ended up being $50,000. Parts of his score would also find their way into other films including The Son of Kong (1933) and White Heat (1949) among others.

The film opened on March 7, 1933, in New York. The Los Angeles premiere got caught up in the politics and finances of the day. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became President that year, he called for a Bank Holiday, which caused a week delay in the LA opening as well as a drop in the price of tickets to the premiere from $5.50 to $3.30.

Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is sitting on a boat in New York harbor. He is leaving the next day to start production on a new wildlife film in some faraway place that not even Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) of the Venture knows where they’re going. Because he’s being so mysterious about the film, he is having trouble finding an actress to play the lead in his film. Having a woman in one of his jungle films is not his idea, but he needs a love interest to sell tickets.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) saves Ann Darrow (Fay Wray)
from being arrested for stealing an apple from a newsstand. 

When agents let him down, Denham goes out into the streets to look for a possible actress. His search proves futile, that is until he happens upon a penniless woman, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who is caught stealing an apple for her dinner at a news stand. Ann is hungry enough to listen to Denham’s pitch over dinner and just desperate enough for work to accept his offer of leaving the next morning on a long sea voyage.

First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is not happy about
a woman onboard the ship, but still falls in love with Ann.

During the voyage, First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), a bit of misogynist about women onboard a man’s ship, falls in love with Ann.

Denham does some camera test with Ann...
Who practices her reactions to something big on deck.

Besides some camera tests and coaching Ann on screaming in horror, Denham is mum on his plans for the ship’s final destination. Finally, after weeks of secrecy, Denham tells Englehorn and Driscoll that they’re headed for Skull Island, which can only be found on a map in his possession. Denham is after a mysterious creature he’s heard stories about that lives there: Kong.

Denham tries to capture a native ritual on film.

When the ship finally anchors offshore, they see a native village. A landing party goes ashore, they see that a high wall separates the village from the jungle. They witness as native men dressed in gorilla skins dance and a young native woman is being prepared as a sacrifice, of the “bride of Kong.” When Englehorn, who understands the native’s language, attempts to make friends so that the camera-wielding Denham can shoot the scene, the native chief (Noble Johnson) stops the ceremony. Seeing the blonde Ann, the chief states cryptically that she would make a good bride for “Kong.” The chief offers to make a trade for the “golden woman.” Denham has no interest in trading Ann and orders his group back to the boat.

When he sees Ann, the native chief (Noble Johnson) wants to make a trade for the "golden woman."

But that night, a band of natives sneak aboard the Venture and kidnap Ann. When the crew discovers she’s gone, they go ashore in time to see her tied to an altar as the offering for Kong. At the sound of a gong, a large gorilla-like ape of enormous proportions emerges and carries her off into the jungle.

Kong emerges from the jungle when he hears a gong and carries Ann away.

The men open the gates and take chase, following broken branches Kong leaves in his wake. They find that Kong is not the only large prehistoric creature on the island. A horny-tailed stegosaurus charges at them, but they manage to kill it with their guns and gas bombs.

Ann is helpless in Kong's large hand.

The group constructs a raft and sets out across the swamp after Kong, but a Brontosaurus capsizes them and they lose their supplies and several men. The survivors make it to shore and flee through the jungle, but soon encounter Kong, who tries to stop them from following him across a ravine by shaking them off a fallen tree the men are using as a bridge. Only Driscoll and Denham, who are on opposite sides of the ravine, survive.

Kong shakes the log that the men have used as a bridge, sending most to their deaths.

Meanwhile, Ann, whom Kong has left in the nook of a tree, is threatened by a tyrannosaurus. Hearing her screams, Kong comes to her rescue and kills the dinosaur.

Kong battles a tyrannosaurus that threatens Ann.

While Denham goes back to the village to get more men and ammunition, Driscoll continues to follow after Kong and Ann. In Kong’s lair, a mountain cave, Ann is once again about to be attacked, this time it’s a snake-like Elasmosaurus and once again, Kong comes to the rescue, wrestling the snake and ultimately killing it.

The prehistoric encounters don’t stop there. When Jack accidentally makes noise, Kong goes to investigate, leaving Ann unprotected. A Pteranodon swoops in and tries to fly away with Ann, which means Kong has to kill it. Distracted, Kong doesn’t notice Driscoll, who reaches Ann and they climb down a vine dangling from the ledge of a cliff. Kong notices and starts to pull them up. To thwart him, they let go of the vine and fall unharmed into the water below.

Kong rampages through the native village.

Driscoll and Ann run through the jungle back to the native village where Denham, Captain Englehorn and the rest of the crew are waiting. Kong follows them, breaking the gate, and rampages through the village. Out on the shore, Denham, who is determined to bring Kong back with him, knocks the big ape unconscious with his gas bombs. Seeing Kong unconscious, Denham gets the idea that he could make a fortune and decides to carry Kong on an enormous raft back to New York.

Back in New York, Kong is put on display as The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Back in New York, Kong, who is chained and shackled, is to be presented at a Broadway theater as "Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World." Denham has Ann and Jack, who are now a couple, brought up on stage with him. He then invites a group of press photographers to take their photo. But Kong thinks the flashes are actually an attack and thrashes about, breaking loose from his chains. The audience, filled with terror, flees out of the theater. Ann is taken away to her hotel room on a high floor.

Kong climbs the side of the Empire State Building with Ann in his hands.

Kong climbs up the side of the building and reaches in through the window and snatches her. Carrying her in his hand, Kong rampages through the city, wrecking a crowded elevated train before climbing up the Empire State Building, then the tallest in the world, like he was back in the jungle.

Once on top, Kong faces biplanes sent up to shoot him down.

Denham urges city officials to call in planes with machine guns to shoot it down. When he reaches the top of the building, Kong is attacked by four military airplanes. Setting Ann down, Kong battles the planes, managing to down one of them in the process. But outmanned and outgunned, Kong finally is wounded by a plane flown by Cooper with Schoedsack as the gunner. Kong lets go of the building, falling to his death and into the street below.

Pilot (Merian C. Cooper) and gunner (Ernest B. Schoedsack) shoot Kong down.

Ann and Jack are reunited when Denham pushes through the crowd surrounding Kong's body When a policeman remarks that the planes got him, Denham tells him, "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."

Kong lies dead on the streets of New York City, while Denham looks on.

Advertising for King Kong was elaborate and costly. RKO even went so far as to buy thirty minutes of air time from the National Broadcasting Company and, on 10 Feb 1933, broadcast a thirty-minute radio “teaser” for the film. The special featured a specially written script and sound effects. In their Feb 1933 issue, Mystery magazine even ran a serialized version of the story, which they advertised as “the last and the greatest creation of Edgar Wallace.”

Despite the Great Depression, the film opened and was an enormous success, earning $2.8 million at the box-office. It would be released in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952 and 1956. The film would be so successful that a sequel was rushed into production and released the same year: The Son of Kong (1933). The creative team of Cooper, Schoedsack, Rose and Armstrong would return to big apes with Mighty Joe Young (1949).

As with any successful original story, King Kong would be remade more than once. Not counting Japanese films that used the character and an American/Japanese anime series “The King Kong Show,” American studios can’t seem to get their fill.

Paramount Pictures released King Kong (1976), made by Dino De Laurentiis, starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange. There was even a sequel to that film, King Kong Lives (1986). Peter Jackson, fresh off the success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, used his newly found clout to make his own version at Universal, King Kong (2005), starring Jack Black, Naomi Watts, and Adrien Brody. Not to be outdone, Warner Bros. released Kong: Skull Island (2017), a reboot of the story, starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and, of course, John Goodman. The studio has plans to make yet another sequel to this film, Godzilla vs. Kong, slated for 2020.

Even though the special effects are low-tech by today’s standards, the achievement is still somewhat remarkable. It was good enough to convince and terrify its original audience and to be seen over and over again throughout the years.

The acting, on the other hand, is not as good as the special effects. Robert Armstrong will never win any awards for his acting chops, though he does have 183 acting credits to his name, spanning from The Main Event (1927) to For Those Who Think Young (1964). He’s likeable enough as Denham, though he does not take away from the main character, a stop-action animated ape.

Likewise, Bruce Cabot was not going to steal focus away from Kong either. An actor in the vein of John Wayne, Cabot would go on to become one of “Wayne’s Regulars” appearing alongside him in such films as Angel and the Badman (1947).

Perhaps the most memorable cast member is Fay Wray, who had been making films since the short Gasoline Love (1923) and would continue acting until Gideon’s Trumpet (1980). Fay is cute as Ann Darrow and has more presence as any live actor in the film. But again, she is no match for the King, in this case, Kong.

Fay Wray in her memorable turn as Ann Darrow in King Kong.

The original Kong has sadly not aged well. He is not as scary to modern audiences as I’m sure he was in 1933. Some of that has to do with the progression of filmmaking since. Computer animation has replaced stop-action animation as the primary form of special effects, making him look sort of homey by comparison with modern monsters. While I am not a dinosaur expert, I would imagine that many of the concepts that seemed relevant about them back in the 1930s have been altered or disproven by now. But if you’re trying to watch this for its scientific accuracy, then you shouldn’t watch it.

At the time King Kong was released, the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression and audiences were eager to spend an hour and a half not thinking about it. Ann Darrow is truly one of them and is plucked up and taken on the adventure of her life. By following her, audiences were able to escape high unemployment and poverty for a while. This is the power of the movies, to transport us away to some place we’ve never thought to go and let us leave the worries of daily life in the lobby.

Watching a classic film is not always about escapism. There is a historic quality about some films that beg for them to be watched. The original King Kong is one of those films. A bigger than life story from a bigger than life man, Merian C. Cooper’s film has aged, but it is still a film worth watching. While not suitable for really small children, it is a film most of the family can and should enjoy. Word of caution, though, if you’re planning to eat dinner while you watch, be aware that there is an overture before the film starts and you might find yourself through with dinner before the movie actually gets going.