Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Race and KING KONG (1933)

How I loved our uncle and nephew bonding experience last Saturday morning.  My 9 year old computer whiz nephew and I were watching the original King Kong on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).  To me, introducing a kid to a good classic movie and discussing it stands in the same golden category as introducing a kid to a good book.   While watching the feature, one of my all-time favorites, I recalled that it was the first movie that made me cry.  Yes, 1933's King Kong.  I was a grade schooler watching it on local Channel 9 in Los Angeles.  The smart, creative direction made the giant beast horrifying yet human.  I understand his conflict.  I knew why he was angry and why he was heartbroken.  I could see the goodness in him.  I cried when he died, taken down by airplanes.  When I was in high school, I got more out of it.  The original King Kong has a subtext that the two remakes don't.  In a way, that Depression era hit movie is practically an allegory for the black man in America.  The script hints at our U.S. history of slavery and racism.

Carl Denham:  "...there's something on that island that no white man has ever seen."
I was not the only one in my class who caught that social commentary in King Kong.  Keep in mind I was a high schooler during the turbulent 1960s marked by civil rights marches and race riots.  Our high school was in Watts, site of a major race riot that made national headlines.  In today's world, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) would be a hotshot host/photographer of an animal kingdom action series on cable that takes viewers up close to the jungle jaws of danger.  Denham takes movie audiences to exotic locales.  Africa has made him a celebrity and a show business success.  Africa was good for his income.  He's a big game hunter who uses a movie camera instead of a gun.
Denham will give us one of the most famous last lines in a Hollywood classic.  Another element that adds dramatic grit to this action/fantasy horror movie is that it reflected the Great Depression.  Denham needs a crew for an expedition to Africa's mysterious Skull Island.  He needs a brave girl to be in his documentary footage.  Ann Darrow (the most famous role Fay Wray would have in her long career), is so broke, hungry and down-on-her luck in Manhattan that she's caught stealing something to eat.   A piece of fruit. The famous, ambitious filmmaker sees this and intervenes.  She's the girl for his feature.
He establishes that his intentions are honorable, buys her a meal and pitches the project.
Hunger makes people brave.  Ann Darrow accepts the project.  Denham has his crew.
You know what happens after that.  It's a thrill ride of a movie once Ann is kidnapped by natives to be a sacrificial bride of sorts for Kong.  No one expected that the enormous ape would basically fall in love with the lovely, frightened blonde.  Kong is captured, cuffed and put on a boat.  He'll be transported against his will from Africa to America where he will be used by a white guy for financial gain.  When Denham declares "He's always been king of his world but we'll teach him fear," that is deep.  You could've had that same exact line refer to a trapped African chieftain in Roots about to be forced onto a slave ship.
As far an Kong's affection for Ann Darrow, that touches on the then-taboo subject of inter-racial dating.   Yes, kids loved this scary creature feature but it sure did have some adult social statements in it too.  When I got to college, I gained more appreciation for King Kong -- and for film preservation.  I'd grown up seeing the edited version on TV.  Scenes were restored showing Kong playfully and gently undressing Ann as he held her.  Later, his full rage when he loses Ann had been clipped.  Running wild, the huge gorilla was scarier than we thought.  Angry Kong used a few folks as beef jerky substitutes.
This restored version is the one now seen on DVD.  King Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World, is brought to New York City in bondage, exploited for amusement and profit.  Carl Denham will make more money than ever thanks to this live African import.
At first, subdued and seemingly "civilized" by his captors, Kong breaks out into a deadly Othello-like rage when he sees Ann onstage with the man who took her away from him on the island.  That man is now her fiance.  Kong breaks out of his chains and all hell breaks lose in New York City.  He's like a race riot unto himself.  He find and reclaims the thing he loves and heads for the now-famous finale on top of the Empire State Building.
King Kong was shackled like a slave.  He has a forbidden love.  This American racial history undercurrent doesn't exist in the first remake.  The 1976 update was a total flop that screen newcomer Jessica Lange survived.  Instead of the Empire State Building in that modern-day version, Kong scaled the Twin Towers.  In Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, we return to the 1930s with Naomi Watts.  Jackson's remake was critically and financially more successful than the previous one.  Watts did wonderful work in a film that was entertaining yet over-produced and too long.  Historically, the Twin Towers replaced the Empire State Building as New York's tallest structures in the early 1970s.  Ironically, they no longer exist.  Like King Kong, they too were taken down by airplanes.
"You are going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." That's what director Merian C. Cooper reportedly told Fay Wray about her co-star in his film.  And he was right.  Cooper was a war veteran who'd flown missions. He was also a world traveler who embraced and respected other cultures and races.  I think the racial overtones of his script give King Kong a depth and heart that the two remakes, with all their bigger and more modern special effects, don't have.  Movies learned how to talk with the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer.  This classic with its remarkable special effects, sound effects, Max Steiner music score and its quotable screenplay came out just a few years after The Jazz Singer.  Like Kong, it was huge -- at the box office.  It did so well that it saved RKO Studios from bankruptcy.  Carl Denham, the brass balls filmmaker and promoter, fascinates me.  Armstrong plays him as a man with an All-American macho enthusiasm while being clueless to his own lack of scruples.  His quest for fortune causes the deaths of several innocent people, including members of his courageous crew.
Whether in the jungle threatened by extinct pre-historic creatures or at the very top of the Empire State Building, Ann Darrow will survive and be protected by King Kong until he dies.  Denham the promoter, at the body of his fatally wounded captive and star, delivers one of my favorite lines in a famous Hollywood film:  "It was beauty killed the beast."
Now an uncle to nephew who's about the same age I was when I cried at the end of this classic, I still totally dig and can sit through another airing of 1933's King Kong.  A Hollywood landmark, this movie holds up.  It's still more substantial than the two remakes.  When I lived in New York City, there were constant reminders of how iconic scenes from the RKO classic are.  About five years ago one summer's afternoon, I was standing on the corner of 5th Avenue at 34th Street waiting for the light to turn green.  Asian tourists were standing next to me and chatting.  I don't speak their language but I did understand when one pointed up and said "...King Kong."  I glanced up at the Empire State Building and smiled as we all crossed the street.  Last Saturday, my nephew here in Northern California said, "If Disney and Universal got together, they could make an awesome King Kong ride."  Yes, they could.  And I wonder if young pretty blondes would ride for free.

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