KING KONG - Blu-ray review

...stands as an innovative trailblazer, to be sure, but mostly it continues to be just plain fun.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Hey, look out! It's Kong. Kong's coming!"

In terms of movie classics, 1933's "King Kong" is one of the biggest of them all, which may explain why Warner Bros. have given it the deluxe Blu-ray Book treatment even though it's over seventy-five years old. The movie stars one of the most-popular and best-loved monsters of all time. Its stop-motion animation may not have originated with the film, but it's probably the most famous film to use it, and the animation technique inspired countless special-effects artists over the years. Max Steiner's musical score was revolutionary and influenced virtually everything that came after it. And the movie spawned two major remakes and any number of sequels and spin-offs.

The movie "King Kong" was the creation of Merian C. Cooper, who produced it, cowrote it, and co-directed it for RKO Radio Pictures. The story line came from an early script by Edgar Wallace, the man upon whose novels and tales more filmmakers based their movies than practically any other author of the twentieth century. Cooper made a fortune with "Kong," going on to produce and/or direct a bevy of popular things like "Flying Down to Rio," "Little Women," "Fort Apache," The Quiet Man," "This Is Cinerama," and "The Searchers." Cooper's co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack, was no slouch, either; he went on to make "The Son of Kong," "The Monkey's Paw," "The Last Days of Pompeii," "Dr. Cyclops," and "Mighty Joe Young."

Max Steiner, who did the original musical score for "King Kong," is generally credited with having invented film music as we know it today. He always shrugged it off, saying it was an idea originated with Richard Wagner. Well, Wagner may have championed the idea of musical motifs, but in the early 1930s, film music was in its infancy. Hollywood had only just added sound to movies a few years earlier, and filmmakers were eager to find as much music as they could. Critics often cite Steiner's score for "Kong" as the first full-length score with musical cues to underline specific segments of the story.

Not that all of the music is exceptional, but it is thoroughly entertaining. Moreover, it's one of those film scores that gets better as it goes along, with "Hey, Look Out! It's Kong. Kong's Coming" and the "King Kong March" among the better items. Then, too, Steiner does a terrific job evoking atmosphere and even imitating real-life sounds with his orchestra. "The Sea at Night," for instance, and "Cryptic Shadows" create wonderfully flavorful moods, and "Aeroplanes" sounds for all the world like real planes in action. As an aside, those fans interested in the music alone can find John Morgan's reconstructed soundtrack on an outstanding (and inexpensive) Naxos CD, with William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

But of all the people responsible for the success of "Kong," it's probably the movie's chief technician, Willis O'Brien, whom we should single out as the genius who helped pioneer the use of stop-motion animation. He began working in films in 1915, and prior to "Kong" his greatest success was in creating the prehistoric animals for Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World." His King Kong may not display the fluidity or grace of today's digital inventions, but whatever the creature loses in ultimate polish, he more than compensates for in sheer personality. There's more character in Kong's eyes and facial expressions than in many of today's live actors. It's hard not to love the big, hairy lug.

Almost everybody knows the story, but in the event you're among the few who missed it, here's a run-down. A big-time director of action-adventure movies, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), runs across a map to an uncharted island, Skull Island, supposedly inhabited by a ferocious demon. Sensing a hit movie, he hires a film crew and heads for the place. But before he does, he decides he needs a pretty girl in the picture, too, somebody unknown, so he finds a lead actress, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), literally off the streets of New York. Denham says he wants to play up a "Beauty and the Beast" angle. On the voyage to the island, Ann falls for the ship's tough-but-likable first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), and their romance blossoms as the story goes on.

The movie doesn't actually have a lot going for it until Kong shows up. Then he easily steals every scene he's in. Still, we have to wait almost halfway through the story before Kong makes his appearance. Once on the island, the adventurers meet the native tribesmen, who want to sacrifice Ann to their god, Kong. But little do they know that when Kong sees Ann, the beast has no intention of killing her. Instead, he falls in love with her! Thus, we get a movie that at its heart is an old-fashioned love triangle: Ann, Jack, and Kong.

Anyway, Kong grabs Ann and takes her away with him to the interior of the island, with Denham, Jack, and some of the ship's crew in hot pursuit. There they meet further perils from prehistoric beasts, the Wife-O-Meter feeling sorry for a hapless stegosaurus that gets shot to death for simply being in the way. Later, after much derring-do, Denham captures Kong and brings him back alive to New York City to show him off on the Broadway stage. You saw Mel Brooks parody this gambit in "Young Frankenstein."

Yeah, "King Kong" can look dated. Of the stegosaurus, Denham says, "It's something from the dinosaur family." ("Close, Ward. Close." --"1941") A ticked-off brontosaurus is entertaining to watch. Kong's fights with a T-Rex and later with something from the giant-serpent family are also fun and generate a fair amount of excitement. But it's mostly touching to see how fiercely Kong will defend his new love. I might add that Kong's defeat of the T-Rex, breaking open its jaw, is rather brutal even by today's standards. O'Brien's miniatures also work better than the several full-scale model hands, arms, and faces the filmmakers use, which are rather clunky. And one can only politely term the acting in the movie as wooden. Yet in spite of these drawbacks, the movie still has more than its share of charms and is able to work an almost mystical enchantment on its audience. The concluding sequence of Kong on the Empire State Building remains classic, and, yes, the sexual implications are still as relevant as ever.

Moreover, you can't say RKO didn't get their money's worth out of the "King Kong" sets. They used the Skull Island backdrops simultaneously for "Kong" and "The Most Dangerous Game," then in "The Son of Kong" and "She"; eventually Selznick/MGM used the great gate as a part of the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind."

Besides, how many filmmakers today would have the guts to begin an action-adventure movie with a four-minute musical overture? "King Kong" stands as an innovative trailblazer, to be sure, but mostly it continues to be just plain fun.

Warner Bros. used a VC-1 codec to transfer the film in its theatrical aspect ratio, 1.37:1, from a restored, 35 mm, black-and-white print to a dual-layer BD50. The picture displays a good deal of natural film grain, especially in outdoor footage such as the foggy shots at sea, which really do look like pea soup. The studio could easily have filtered out much of the grain in the transfer, but the result would not have looked like the original print. As it is, the picture probably looks just as it did in 1933 on the first day of its showing. The restoration cleaned up most telltale evidence of age--scratches, blemishes, smears, spots, and flecks--and the high-definition picture points up the B&W contrasts pretty well, while maintaining excellent black levels. In its best scenes, the image quality looks about as good as most of today's best B&W photography, and I doubt that anyone alive has seen the movie look any better, grain or no.

There's not a lot one can say about the film's 1.0 monaural sound, even mastered in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. It comes up about as well as one can expect for a film made a mere half dozen years into the talkie era. The sonics are obviously not very dynamic, yet they convey a good sense of being on the spot, with a reasonably smooth midrange and an exceptionally quiet background. For its age, the sound is remarkable.

The Blu-ray edition carries over most of the bonus materials found on WB's two-disc DVD edition, a few of the extras now in high definition. The biggest advantage, though, is having them all on a single BD rather than on a second disc. The bonuses begin with an audio commentary by visual effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with interpolated interview excerpts from Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. It's one of the most fascinating commentaries you'll hear because of the diversity of its participants.

Then there are the documentaries, starting with "I'm King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper," a fifty-six-minute documentary that outlines the career of the famous filmmaker. It's divided into twelve chapters and narrated by Alec Baldwin. Turns out, Cooper was a real-life Indiana Jones, an explorer and adventurer who would be the actual inspiration for the Carl Denham character in "King Kong." Cooper and his friend, director Ernest Schoedsack, would cross the globe in search of sensational stories to film, just as Denham and Driscoll do in "Kong."

The next bonus item even more monumental. It's a documentary called "RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World," that's over two-and-a-half hours long. It covers virtually every aspect of the film's creation and features interviews and commentary by a host of people--directors, historians, authors, technicians, and such--including director Peter Jackson and the late Fay Wray. The massive production comes in seven parts: "The Origins of King Kong," "Willis O'Brien and Creation," "Cameras Roll on Kong, the Eighth Wonder," "A Milestone in Visual Effects," "Passion, Sound and Fury," "The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence," and "King Kong's Legacy."

After that, we again get the lost "Spider Pit" sequence (HD), which Peter Jackson and his crew reconstructed; and about four minutes of O'Brien's original test footage for "Creation" (HD), another "Lost World" type film that the filmmakers never completed, with commentary by visual-effects specialist Ray Harryhausen. The extras on the disc conclude with thirty-five scene selections; English, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken language; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Finally, since this is a Blu-ray Book edition, the disc comes housed in a thirty-six-page hardbound book, colorfully illustrated with pictures and text, the disc fastened to the back cover via a Digipak clip. It's an elegant affair.

Parting Thoughts:
At first blush "King Kong" may seem outmoded, with its exaggerated histrionics, stilted dialogue, and wooden acting, but then there's Kong, and how can you not still love him? When he falls from the Empire State Building, he takes us all with him. Yet we know, thanks to the magic of movies, that he'll be back, again and again, better than ever in high definition, whenever we want to see him once more. People didn't call him "King" for nothing.

"Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."


Film Value