Wednesday, 11 May 2016
KING KONG (1933)
“Gee, ain’t we got enough o’ them in New York?”
During its relatively short history, RKO Radio Pictures was a film studio that produced some of the truly classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, standing the test of time against their bigger competitors, such as Citizen Kane, Bringing Up Baby and Gunga Din. They made an indelible stamp on the horror genre as well with arguably the greatest version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton and possibly their most successful film (judging from its many lucrative re-releases), King Kong.
RKO (the acronym stands for Radio-Keith-Orpheum corporation) began as a British partnership, Robertson-Cole, between Rufus S Cole and H.F. Robertson that imported and exported automobiles. After becoming motion picture distributors, they decided to set up as a self-producing film studio in 1921, buying a 13.5 acre site from the Hollywood Cemetery Association. Such was their eagerness to start shooting that they began filming their first property Wonder Man before they had finished building the lot. Paramount Pictures became literally their next door neighbour studio five years later after buying the rental company United Studio. During this period, Robertson-Cole became FBO (Film Booking Offices of America, Inc) after a buy-in by Americans including Harry M Berman, whose son Pandro went on to be their most successful producer.
FBO’s output was simple and crowd-pleasing (often western and melodrama) filler product rather than the top-billing films that the major studios prided themselves on. Even after Joseph P Kennedy (father to JFK and Robert) bought out FBO and installed Paramount’s east coast head of production William LeBaron, the studio still couldn’t shake off a poor-cousin reputation. The turning point came with the sound revolution when the president of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), David Sarnoff, was scoping for a studio whose movies could utilise his company’s new optical sound invention (recorded directly onto the photographic film itself) in cinemas. The heavyweight studios had all signed binding agreements to use Western Electric’s sound technology. RCA invested heavily in FBO as the perfect partner to showcase RCA’s ‘Photophone’ system.
Despite now having a seat at the big boys’ table with their cutting-edge tech, FBO was not safe from the kind of merger mania that suddenly gripped Hollywood studios. Their major competitors feverishly speculated about potential buy-outs of each other to attain a monopoly position. This inevitably fostered a paranoia of vulnerability, particularly for FBO who didn’t have a vast chain of cinemas to protect their stronghold. To counteract this, they made a deal with the K-A-O (Keith-Albee-Orpheum) theatre network which immediately gave them access to 700-plus cinemas, albeit not all equipped to handle the new ‘talkies’. At a stroke, RCA gained a controlling interest in both FBO and K-A-O in October of 1928. What had once been dismissed as a Poverty Row outfit was now a major player worth $300 million dollars and with a new name – RKO.
As was made clear from trade journal adverts hyping his new empire - ‘A TITAN IS BORN…ECLIPSING IN ITS STAGGERING MAGNITUDE AND FAR-REACHING INTERESTS ANY ENTERPRISE IN THE HISTORY OF SHOW-BUSINESS’) - Sarnoff’s ambition for his studio extended further than film. He wanted RKO to connect the radio media with the film world. They already owned the NBC network, (now the oldest major network broadcaster in the USA), and trade-marked the name ‘Radio Pictures’. This is why their fondly-remembered logo is the quaint radio mast famously signalling ’A Radio Picture’ before each film.
Sarnoff’s triumphal advertising was not simply hot-air hubris. It heralded immense physical expansion of the studio, adding more theatre chains, half a million dollars invested in talking film production and another 500 acres of production property. He was an avant-garde media visionary who saw a future where film, radio, theatre and the latest medium of TV could work together long before the understanding of ‘multi-media’ that is so commonplace today. Unfortunately a single house style never emerged (as for example with the gritty reality gangster pictures of Warner Bros or the lush musical make-believe speciality of M-G-M).
In their superb biography The RKO Story, Richard B Jewell and Vernon Harbin noted that different film-maker groups and new managements succeeded each other frequently, and so the studio never gained a settled identity. It relied on the governing personality of whoever was in charge, which was prone to regular turbulent change. Though it ultimately was sold to the unbalanced Howard Hughes in 1948 who offloaded it to General Teleradio, Inc in 1955 (thereby ceasing its erratic production schedule for good), during RKO’s heyday there were two periods of interest to horror fans. One was the cycle of famously distinctive horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s including The Cat People and The Body Snatcher - low-budget and titled for sensationalism, they rescued the studio from financial trouble.
The first though was the earlier regime that gave birth to cinema’s most-loved monster – King Kong. David O Selznick, the genius producer who later went on to mastermind the Oscar winners Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) replaced William LeBaron as production and single-handedly ushered in a more highbrow roster of movies. Before his desire for ungranted full creative control caused him to leave RKO, he brought in Merian C Cooper, his protégé who replaced him in early 1933.
Cooper was a documentary-maker, explorer and aviation fanatic, a remarkable man who had willed himself from a timid child-hood and small stature into keen physical fitness and a confident personality that exemplified life-long bravery and derring-do. His motto was to pursue anything adventurous that was ‘distant, difficult and dangerous’. In World War One, he chose to become a bomber pilot for the French effort, resulting in a remarkable near-death experience piloting his bullet-riddled, flaming ‘plane to the ground without the use of his burned hands, using only his knees and elbows. (His family had received official notice that he had been killed in action). He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp and for the rest of his life would maintain close active links with aerial military duty. His passion for telling astounding human stories was partly inspired by flying for the courageous Polish freedom fighters in over 70 missions against the Bolsheviks.
Cooper had a feeling for spectacle and showbiz that surely inspired the central character of showman Carl Denham in King Kong. Whilst Selznick was still overseeing him. Cooper was given free reign to develop his passion for adventure films. Gorillas had fascinated the adventure-seeking Cooper since his childhood reading the book Adventures In Equatorial Africa. He had filmed baboons whilst on movie location work, and after reading W. Douglas Burden's The Dragon Lizards of Komodo, he conjured up an early screenplay idea containing some of the key elements he would later use in Kong: a gorilla fighting a lizard, a female heroine and settings that shifted from an exotic island to modern New York City. Paramount studio was offered it, but baulked at the cost of remote location work (this was right at the start of America’s ruinous Great Depression). Enter Selznick, who allowed Cooper to develop his own projects at RKO whilst being his executve assistant.
Cooper soon forged creative relationships that would create components for King Kong. He conceived The Most Dangerous Game (see my review of 30/3) whose evil big-game hunter of humans protagonist took his explorer theme and tinged it with horror. He enlisted actors Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray who would star in King Kong. Ernest P. Schoedsack was enlisted to direct, his partner from their documentary company who co-directed their renowned ‘natural drama’ projects Chang and Grass. Schoedsack was a crucial influence on Cooper and in our story, teaching him the basics of film technique and forging a globe-trotting partnership recording and creating real-life tales of valour over hardship. He also inspired Cooper’s creation of Driscoll in King Kong, the ship’s first mate, who finds women a nuisance on adventure travel but begrudgingly accepts then falls in love with Ann.
Whilst The Most Dangerous Game was in safe hands, Cooper could transfer his attention to the soaring budget on Creation, a dinosaur island film whose special effects designer was Willis O’Brien. Though he would head one of the most vital creative talent teams of Cooper’s future blockbuster, O’Brien’s boss was not impressed by his stop-motion work here. (O’Brien had previously realised dinosaur effects such as a brontosaurus terrorising London in 1925’s The Lost World). However it was enough to convince Cooper to junk his original dragon-centric concept, focusing instead on a single enormous gorilla, cannibalise the jungle sets and with O’Brien’s model effects, assemble a cast for a presentation including actors Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray from Game. The studio backed him. The name of the epic horror-adventure film changed during production from The Eighth Wonder, The Beast and Kong until settling on its regal title. Cooper collaborated with Ernest P. Schoedsack in directing and producing duties and brought in James Ashmore Creelman and then Ruth Rose, Schoedsack’s wife, to complete the screenplay he had started with Edgar Wallace. It was Rose who managed to incIude all the crucial plot points and buIld tension before Kong’s first unforgettable appearance. The movie began shooting in August 1932 but wasn’t ready for release until March 1933.
For those who haven’t seen it, the story goes that film-making entrepreneur Carl Denham (the role of a lifetime for Robert Armstrong) persuades down-on-her-luck young beauty Ann Darrow (an equally signature career role for Fay Wray) to join his voyage to a far-off island to film something exciting he will not disclose. The promise of money and adventure lures her and she signs on, falling in love with Bruce Cabot’s lacklustre first mate Driscoll as they make their way to the uncharted Skull Island. There they encounter natives before an enormous gate about to offer a maiden to the mighty ‘Kong’ that they worship. The tribal leader decides that Ann and her unusual (to them) blonde hair will make a perfect sacrificial offering to their gorilla master and kidnap her from Denham’s ship to do so.
The spectacular sacrificial scene reveals Kong, an incredible 50-foot gorilla that surpasses even Denham’s wildest dreams for a film subject. He is enamoured by Ann and carries her away into the jungle. In tracking her, the crew discover the unimagined bonus of other giant-size creatures and dinosaur inhabitants too. They are attacked by a Stegosaurus and a Brontosaurus. Kong finds himself in the heat of battle as well with a T-Rex, a Pteranodon (a diversion allowing Driscoll’s men to rescue Ann from both of them) and an Elasmosaurus. In his rage, Kong attacks the crew-men, shaking some of them off a log to their deaths in the ravine below.
Rather than relishing their narrow escape, Denham seizes the chance to capture Kong as the ultimate show-piece for paying audiences back home. He drugs him with gas bombs and ships him back to New York City as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Paraded on a theatre stage in steel shackles, Kong is docile until his temper is ignited at seeing Driscoll with his arm around Ann and by the harsh flash-bulbs of the photographers. He breaks free from captivity and runs amok, plucking Ann from the hotel room where she hides, wrecking a train and scaling the Empire State Building with her. Atop the building, he is subjected to aerial bombardment by military biplanes until he plummets to his death. As Denham surveys the once-phenomenal creature’s body, a police officer satisfies himself that the ‘planes got him. Denham disagrees with a trace of mournful respect “It was beauty killed the beast”.
The theme of beauty versus beastliness is made evident through the film, yet the accepted definition of what is civilised and what is primitive, and where it is found, is not as simple as we might think. We may be led to lazy racism dismissing the tribe that worship a giant gorilla as ignorant idolatrous savages who also cannot be trusted – (our innocent white women will inevitably be kidnapped by them) - yet are the westerners here more principled people? Leaving aside the indiscriminate shooting of the Stegosaurus which arguably could have been left alone, Denham’s people are not guests of the islanders. They turn up uninvited and expect to pillage it of its most important indigenous living creature like common thieves (or slave-traders if you want to draw a heavy comparison from history). No wonder Kong goes ape-shit. He didn’t sign up for drugged abduction from his homeland to a frightening metropolis that even a hayseed human would find intimidating. Also, in those soulful eyes that O’Brien’s team gave him and the tender moves he puts on Ann, he is less of a rough creature than you might expect. When Kong is shot down by the navy airplanes, that is no mercy killing. I would have enjoyed even more of Kong trampling New York as revenge. His death is execution dressed up as some kind of heroism, but despite the faux-nobility of Denham’s tribute at the end, (let’s not forget this is the guy who tells the theatre punters that Kong is ‘merely a show to gratify your curiosity’), the captivity and undignified parading of a beautiful wild animal solely for money is not our finest hour.
For all the competition we could give him in (liberal) chest-beating, it is drowned out by the awesome spectacle of the set pieces of King Kong, splintering any soap-boxes along with tribal huts, trains and much more in his breathtakingly-staged path. The scale and poignancy of Kong’s stunning realisation excited audiences rather than the humans, and still do to this day. Remember, he was the first major star of a film to be solely a visual effect creation. No-one ends the film gabbling to each other about the relationships between Denham, Darrow and Driscoll. They are assembled with functional speed and humour to move the plot to the real thrills. (Denham’s “Great!” that ends his whirlwind pitch to Ann is funny in his presumption of her acceptance, matched only by the pace of Driscoll’s later sudden confession that he loves her).
In the casting, actors Robert Armstong and particularly Fay Wray were pulling double-duty, split between King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game shooting simultaneously. The effects work was so time-consuming on Kong that she was only needed for around ten weeks of its eight month production schedule. Wray had been enticed, Denham-like, by Cooper’s pitch that she would have the ‘tallest, darkest leading-man in Hollywood’ before revealing his simian identity. She in fact performed in 11 films that year, notably Mystery of the Wax Museum – (reviewed 23/4). Bruce Cabot had originally been spotted working as a waiter before being put under contract by RKO and leading to Cooper’s epic.
Willis O’Brien had worked through a myriad of jobs as a jockey, boxer, farm-hand and cowboy amongst others. Experimenting with cameras, he invented stop-motion photography (filming one frame at a time to create the illusion of continuous movement) almost by accident. For The Lost World, based on Conan Doyle’s novel, he created a wealth of dinosaurs that wowed audiences, yet the time he worked on Creation, he was struggling to convince studios to bankroll the enormous cost of the laborious work it took to film in stop-motion. Cooper realised that he had already spent $100,000 on ongoing effects work for this film at a time when an entire standard Hollywood film could be shot for just $200,000. He was forced to cancel Creation. To offset the crushing blow, O’Brien’s team was moved to what would become his most celebrated show-case of cutting-edge talent using some of the abandoned project’s ideas including virtually all the prehistoric creatures. (The feature-packed American Bluray of King Kong contains test footage and a narrated animatic of what Creation would have looked like)
Although David O. Selznick’s involvement in King Kong was minor, he and fellow producer B.B. Kahane shaved enough expenses from other planned films to provide £300,000 over the original budget to support the enormity of the vision for King Kong.
Marcel Delgado and his unit under O’Brien created the various animated versions of Kong. The brilliant mechanical puppets with intricate articulated skeletons were realised in fabulous detail down to the separately-hinged phalanges of each finger, then padded out with cotton dental dam for the musculature, a layer of rubber and coated in rabbit fur for his hide. For the early jungle scenes, 18-inch models of Kong were suitable, but when juxtaposed against the scale of the urban New York sets a more domineering 24-inch version had to be constructed. There were noticeably two different-looking visages for Kong, one called the ‘long face’ (seen when he fights the T-Rex) and one known as the ‘short face’. Studio insiders initially criticised the hard-to-avoid rippling of the fur caused by the endless re-positions of his body during the shots. They soon changed their tune when audience feedback noted the ‘realism’ of his hair seeming to stand up on his body.
The finished models were then ready for O’Brien and his assistant Buzz Dixon to animate in a hugely labour-intensive process. He had spent almost twenty years pioneering this incredibly patient and painstaking technique, which incidentally has hardly changed at all in the decades since. It would require 1,440 separate frames of filmed movement for each minute of film. Even at a good working pace of say 10 frames per hour it can take 150 hours to generate that single minute on screen. Seven weeks were spent just to create Kong’s heavyweight title fight with the T-rex. What makes this work-load even more impressive is the time found for those delicate, playful gestures that imbue Kong with so much personality - his smelling of a flower while the Elasmosaurus sneaks up on Ann, his child-like curiosity tweaking the dead T-Rex’s jaw and the mischievous way he tickles the scantily-clad Ann, for example. O’Brien’s second wife fondly recalled that she saw a lot of of her husband in Kong’s character.
(Technical blooper fans might like to note that almost imperceptibly there is a frame of Kong footage on a jungle ledge where the measuring surface gauge was left in the shot).
The stop-motion effects were often combined with live-action in multiple techniques sometimes so sophisticated that even modern artists can’t always spot how they were done. One system was to film the actors in front of rear-projected footage of the creatures which helped performance authenticity by having them react to its actual presence rather than their imagination. (I can recall numerous interviews from films where embarrassed actors remember emoting their hearts out in fear of an unrealised monster and then discover the later superimposed beast was woefully unworthy of their efforts). Another was to shoot actors ‘in-camera’ and then merge those scenes with pre-filmed effects shots using the Dunning Process of blue and yellow lights to produce composite images. The Williams process was similar but allowed for using an optical printer without the colours, instead of having to mix the images ‘live’. Kong’s shaking of the men off the jungle log and his appearance through the marvellous giant gate were filmed this way. Matte paintings on glass in front of the camera added extra depth of perspective to the jungle sequences, crafted by a team featuring Byron Crabbe, Henry Hillinck and Mario Larrinaga. The giant animated arm that lifts Ann out of her hotel room was made of rubber so the enormous fingers could safely wrap around Wray’s body as it moved.
Kong’s superbly effective climb of the Empire State building was realised in miniature, but using full-sized navy issue New York-based biplanes for the dogfight. ‘We made ‘im. We should kill the son of a bitch ourselves’ stated Cooper, earmarking cockpit cameos for himself and Schoedsack as the ‘plane duo that brings down Kong. They did not fly the actual plane yet Cooper’s experience as a WWI bomber ace could certainly have handled the real stunt-work.
Willis O’Brien’s ground-breaking artistry gained him a special technical patent. He did not receive a richly-deserved Academy Award for King Kong sadly because at that time there was no precedent for FX awards. This was later redressed somewhat with a special statuette when RKO won an Oscar for Mighty Joe Young (1949) for which he had been credited as Technical Creator. His more profound legacy was to inspire generations of film-makers such as his famous protégé Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson who made his own remake homage to King Kong in 2005.
Cooper’s film wasn’t just a landmark in terms of the visuals. Thanks to Murray Spivack, it also pushed the envelope of what was possible in cinema sound design as an art form. Housed in the inauspicious environs of a small building formerly used for Tom Mix’s horse, he experimented, recording human sounds and animals from the local zoo, layering and combining. Kong’s full-blooded roar was a mix between that of a tiger played backward at half-speed and a lion’s growl played forward.
Spivack’s sound effects, like the rest of King Kong, worked in harmony with the beautiful score written by Max Steiner, possibly the first composer to construct a soundtrack of specific cues and themes in a film such as lyrical strings for Ann and an ominous three-note leitmotif for Kong himself. He is also an important factor in building tension and touching our heartstrings with Kong’s plight in the climax.
The climactic Broadway show was achieved by filming in front of a full-house of extras at the old Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and later inserting a scene of Kong himself as a matte screen effect. The bravura elevated train sequence, where Kong gives us the vicarious pleasure of pulverising the vehicle and its occupants, was an after-thought – Cooper discovered that the original cut of King Kong would have been a bad-luck thirteen reels in length, so superstitiously added this highlight scene to extend the running time. Later, with the aid of expert editing by Ted Cheesman, he truncated the flagging pace of this version down to 11 reels (100 minutes).
When King Kong opened, it was an immediate sensation, a massive box-office hit even though it came out at the height of the Great Depression.
The aforementioned re-releases, as successful as they were, each time suffered from draconian censorship demands after the Production Code came to power in the mid-1930s. Moments such as Kong biting the head off a New Yorker or stomping a crew-man into the jungle earth were excised and presumed lost for decades until it emerged in the 60s that the censor who cut them had taken the banned clips home and sold them. For many years, the only way to see a full print was a version with these 16mm edits crudely merged with a 35mm censored edition.
The almost fully intact version on the Bluray comes from a restored British 35mm nitrate print that mercifully had none of the 29 deletions made. However, there is a legendary missing scene known to fans as ‘the spider- pit sequence’. It comes after Kong shakes off the sailors into the chasm and just before Driscoll’s attack by the Komodo dragon, where the crew-men are besieged by a crab-like monster, an octopus, a two-legged lizard and a huge scuttling spider. O’Brien agreed it slowed the plot down despite feeling it was some of his best work. He burned the footage, something he commonly did to prevent unauthorised use by others, and yet many years later Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine printed a tantalising still frame showing the infamous arachnid. This obsessed superfan Peter Jackson to the point of enlisting his Weta team, Frank Darabont and Rick Baker to film a fans’ recreation of what the scene could have resembled using armature models, Weta staff as actors and Ruth Rose’s script, which handily was handily written like a shot-list blueprint. During filming they were surprised to find clues to an additional missing sequence where the sailors are pursued by a Styrachosaurus on the other side of the log, so they sourced O’Brien’s original armature as an aid and FX from the sequel Son of Kong as a reference. In post-production they even had access to twenty minutes of out-takes from Max Steiner’s score.
Peter Jackson and his friends’ finished labour of love is a fitting tribute to the powerful longevity of the awesome King Kong – truly the Eighth Wonder of the World.