Saturday, May 14, 2011

Last Remaining Seats

King Kong - The Eighth Wonder of the World

King Kong, 1933

As a member of the Program Sub-Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Last Remaining Seats Committee, I prepared the program notes for King Kong. Having seen it first as a child and many times again as an adult, for me, it demonstrates the wonders of movies - the ability to create a total unreality. It will be shown at the Los Angeles Theater on June 15.

Special guest at this showing will be Pauline Wagner (who is 100 years old). She was Fay Wray's stunt double in the film. Below is a recent interview with Pauline Wagner, as well as some scenes from King Kong.

My Program Notes

Ray Bradbury called it one of the “greatest films ever made” Andrew Sarris disdainfully dismissed it as a “B” picture. There is no question that King Kong, can be viewed as an iconic masterpiece of special effects filmmaking. It has been remade, imitated, and bastardized while at the same time generating a genre that has flourished ever since its release. Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings said, “Watching that film propelled me into a love of making movies and learning how to do visual effects, the very stuff of movie magic.”

The creative force behind the film was Merian C. Cooper - adventurer, explorer, filmmaker, journalist, prisoner of war, studio executive, technical innovator and war hero all rolled into one. Leading man, Carl Denham, could be seen as a personification of Cooper.

Prior to making King Kong, Cooper had traveled to the South Seas and Africa aboard The Wisdom as a member of Captain Edward A. Salisbury’s expedition. Its purpose was to create documentary films and written records of their explorations. Ernest Shodesack, who later became Cooper’s collaborator and co-producer, joined The Wisdom expedition in Sumatra. Cooper and Schodsack later made documentary films in Siam (Thailand). They released two: Grass (1925) and Chang (1927).

Cooper and Schodesack came to the making of King Kong with considerable experience in exotic cultures. They amalgamated that with the wizardry of Willis O’Brien’ s technical effects.. The script is pedestrian good guy / bad guy with beauty and the beast throw in for good measure and love triumphing as the last scene fades out. What sets King Kong apart from all others is O’Brien’s special effects. O’Brien had pioneered the art of three-dimensional stop-motion animation for nearly twenty years. In reality, King Kong was not 18 feet tall weighing a ton. He was an 18-inch metal armature with articulated joints enveloped with cotton and string, coated with latex rubber and covered with rabbit fur. In order to achieve a sense of motion, the figures had to be manipulated and photographed frame-by-frame (24 frames per second, 1,440 per minute). Miniature jungle environments served as backgrounds and foregrounds for three-dimensional illusions including rear screen projections.

The derisive ethnic stereotyping common in motion pictures and accepted across the board in American society during the 1930s is viewed today as offensive. We see the tribal chief as an aboriginal caricature and the Chinese cook, Charlie, as a strange backward foreigner.

The film did not receive any Academy Award nominations. In 1975, it was named one of the 50 best American films by the American Film Institute. In 1991, King Kong was considered to be "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked it as number 43 on its list of the 100 greatest movies of all time.
As is the Hollywood practice, film classics are regurgitated time and again. Being a purist, I have never seen them.

l976 - Produced by Dino de Laurentis

King Kong (1976)

2005 - Directed by Peter Jackson 

King Kong (2005)

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