King Kong (1933): Special Edition

Touted by some as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” the 1933 “King Kong” is available on DVD with lots of extras, just several weeks before the eagerly-waited version of Peter Jackson, due December 14.

The 72-year-old classic is considered by some critics to be the greatest adventure-fantasy-horror movie ever made.

Now, with its new digital restoration, you can judge for yourself whether the hype was justifiable.  According to a survey, patrons have put the film as number one on the list of “Most Wanted but Unavailable DVD.”

Due to changes in the industry, the ownership of “King Kong” has shifted several times after the collapse of the film’s studio, RKO.   The movie, which has been shown many times on TV in edited versions (to fit commercial breaks and other considerations), has suffered, and the Warner team is reported to have spent years finding better footage in France and England.

As I pointed out in another piece, “King Kong” came out in one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and thus saved RKO from bankruptcy.   A huge box-office hit, it also helped boost the Hollywood industry.  Technically, “King Kong” launched a new era of sound and visual effects, with groundbreaking work by stop-motion master Willis O’Brien.

The new two-disc DVD contains the movie; a documentary about the filmmakers; commentary by special effects expert and stop-motion artist Ray Harry.  Harry, who’s now 85 and saw the film when he was 13, recalls his initial response: “I came out of the theater a different person.  It was the kind of wonderful fantasy you only see in a nightmare or a dream.”

Among the extra featurettes are:

The Spider Scene:

Peter Jackson and his crew have recreated the long-lost spider sequence, which was deleted by director Merian C. Cooper in 1933 when it proved too horrifying for the public.  The restored sequence, which is about 6-minute-long, is still quite scary.

 

 

 

More Details:

 

 

 

The new DVD shows in greater detail and visibility the bubbling lava inside Skull Mountain and the shiny sequins on Fay Wray’s gown.  You’ll be able to tell precisely the time when King Kong climbs up the then new Empire State Building by looking at the clock of the police station, which is 4a.m.

 

 

 

Clearer Sound:

 

 

 

You will be able to hear lines of dialogues that were not very clear, as when a woman at a soup kitchen (an archaic institution) talks about “soup tonight, and coffee and sinkers in the morning.”

 

 

 

Dialogue:

 

 

 

When the arrogant showman Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) says, while preparing to bring Kink Kong to New York, “We’re millionaires, boys. I’ll share it with all of you!” you could imagine Peter Jackson saying it about the box-office bonanza that his movie is expected to yield.

 

 

 

For those interested, Warner has also produced a 4-disc “King Kong Collection,” which also includes the movies “Mighty Joe Young” and the sequel “Son of Kong.”

 

 

 

Basic Facts about King Kong:

 

 

 

The movie was produced by RKO and co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and produced by David O. Selznick.  Though the notion of high-concept didn’t exist in the 1930s, “King Kong” epitomized it since it was based on a single idea-image that reportedly inspired Cooper to make the movie.  As he put it: “Let’s have a beast so large that he could hold the beauty in the palm of his hand, pulling bits of her clothing from her body until she was denuded.”   It’s noteworthy, that “King Kong” was one of the last movies made before the Production Code was established as Hollywood’s moralistic guide

 

 

 

The movie was filmed between June 1932 and February 1933 in various locations in California, among them San Pedro, the Bronson Canyon, and, yes, the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.  The set of the scary Skull Island ruins was a leftover from Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic, “The King of Kings,” used again for the movie “She” (1935).  This set went up in a blaze as part of the burning of Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind” (1939), one of the first scenes to be shot.

 

 

 

The running time of the 1933 film is 100 minutes, of the 1976 remake 135 minutes, and of Jackson’s version rumored to be close to three hours!  While producer Cooper promised leading lady Fay Wray “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” the great ape was really short, only 18 inches, to be exact 95 inches taller than the Oscar statuette!).  Kong’s flesh and bone consisted of rabbit fur, which covered molded sponge rubber on an aluminum frame.

 

 

 

In the jungle scenes, the basic scale ratio for its size was one inch to one foot.  However, the city scenes required a larger Kong that stood 24 inches tall on the same scale so as not to be dwarfed by the skyscrapers.   While Kong was a monkey-size doll, the parts of him that engaged with human actors were built on a massive scale.  These included a foot, lower leg, and giant furry paw, a crane like device about 8 feet long, in which Fay Wray writhed sexily and was lifted 10 feet over the studio floor for her big scene atop the Empire State Building.

 

 

 

At the time, state-of-the-art technology was used.  The derailed miniature sets were merged and composited with glass paintings, rear-projection backgrounds, stop-motion animation sequences, wooden puppets, and full-size actors.  By today’s standards, the film’s special effects look primitive, but “King Kong” was the first film to pioneer the basic machinery and techniques that modern filmmakers, such as Spielberg and Jackson, later refined with the help of electronics and computers.

 

 

 

While there have been many pale imitations, there was only one direct sequel, “Son of Kong” (1933), rushed into production in the wake of the huge success of the first film.  Many inferior rip-offs followed in the next decades.