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Original 'King Kong' remains a towering favorite
By M.V. Moorhead

December 17, 2005

“What’s your favorite movie?”

When you write about movies, you’re asked this a lot, and for most true lovers of film, the question borders on the absurd. Out of this inexhaustible, endlessly varied art form, who could be expected to choose a single favorite, for all time?

A person who can honestly name one favorite movie, or one favorite book, or one favorite food, is unlikely to be a profound appreciator of cinema, or literature, or cuisine.

This makes a pretentious answer to a playful question, however. And to rattle off a Top Ten List is to indulge in pedantry. No, I’ve found that one must figure out an official favorite movie, and have it at the ready—and for me, that movie is King Kong.

I’m talking about the real King Kong, of course, the 1933 classic about the lovestruck big ape from the boondocks who makes a spectacular debut in the Big Apple but loses everything over a dame.

It’s one of those movies that transcend genre—it can with equal legitimacy be called an adventure yarn, a monster picture, a show-business story and a romantic tragedy—but it also transcends cinema itself. Kong, clutching his bride atop the Empire State Building, has long since entered the realm of archetype and myth.

The story, for the uninitiated: A Depression-era showman named Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters a ship to a South Sea island where, he is sure, he will find the big attraction for his next wildlife movie. He takes with him a beautiful out-of-work actress, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) as his leading lady. Arriving at “Skull Island,” he finds a native tribe about to sacrifice a young girl as “The Bride of Kong,” Kong being a deity who resides on the other side of a huge ancient wall.

The natives catch sight of Ann, decide she’s a better choice for Bride than the local gal—for once, being blonde proves a misfortune—kidnap her and hand her over to the towering primate, who rules with both fists the prehistoric beasts on the other side of the wall.

Ann is rescued from Kong’s lair by the valiant sailor Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Denham subdues the enraged Kong—after the deaths of many sailors and natives—takes him back to Gotham, and displays him onstage in chains. The beast breaks free, runs amok in the streets, grabs the girl, and climbs the tallest building he can find, atop which he faces his destiny in the form of a flock of pestering biplanes.

While there are unmistakable—and rather unsavory—sexual, racial and political subtexts stirring just under its surface, King Kong has the universal accessibility of a fairy tale. The theme from which it draws its emotional power is likewise universal: unrequited love. Just about everyone has felt its humbling force—I both envy and pity anyone who hasn’t—and everyone has felt the urge to raise a Kong-sized ruckus over it.

Herein lies the difference between the original and Peter Jackson’s remarkable current remake: The former is about unrequited love, while the latter is about star-crossed love.

Whatever else may be said about Jackson’s version—I would say that, a few minor missteps aside, it’s a grand and robust retelling with genuine emotional payoffs—it is to be thanked for providing the impetus for an American DVD release of the 1933 version, long bafflingly absent from the format. Several levels of elaborateness are available, but even the most basic unit is excellent.

It’s an affordable two-disc set, packed with commentaries by the likes of Ray Harryhausen and the late Fay Wray, exhaustive historical documentaries, and a recreation, by Peter Jackson, of the famous “Lost Spider Pit Sequence” (ask a Kong geek; he’ll explain). One level up is a box set including all of this plus two other movies: the far less potent but whimsically charming sequel The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, a later giant-ape fantasy from the same filmmaking team. One level up from this a “Collector’s Tin” without the other movies, but with a reproduction of the 1933 souvenir program. Not the best value, for my money.  And at the top of the heap—available only at Best Buy—is a set including all of the above, the other two movies, and a collection of ten post-card-sized reproductions of the movie’s poster art. This, needless to say, is the collection I opted for.

As to family suitability: King Kong is very violent, it shows an animal in distress, and it has a sad ending (so does The Son of Kong; Mighty Joe Young ends happily), so smaller kids may find it a bit much, though I loved it when I was a kid.







































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