From a modern movie-going point of view, the idea of a giant gorilla falling for a beautiful blonde sounds rather corny and silly, maybe even somewhat schmaltzy. But that's precisely the concept of 'King Kong (1933)' — a beauty and the beast tale with an adventure-fantasy-horror angle. From today's digital perspective also, the special effects appear more charming and quaint than astonishing and sensational. But released at the height of the Great Depression, this other-worldly spectacle of a herculean ape battling ferocious dinosaurs offered exactly the sort of visionary escapism the American public needed. For a moment, hardworking individuals paid to forget their economic hardships and retreat to a mythical island with wondrous beasts, turning this RKO production into a massive box office smash.
Beyond the film's simplicity and public reception, there is also more going on with 'King Kong.' The Eighth Wonder of the World lives up to its moniker by being the forerunner and granddaddy of the creature feature. The film, in effect, kick-started the monster movie craze that flooded theaters up to the late 1950s, when the genre moved into Z-movie grade. 'Kong' is also a landmark film in terms of its special optical effects and a stunning, pioneering achievement for the wizardry of Willis O'Brien, whose protégé, Ray Harryhausen, would later become a big name during the aforementioned 50s craze. As charming and quaint as they may be, the stop-motion animation remains a fanciful, visual feast of escapism, enhancing a film ripe with symbolism and imagination. After almost 80 years, Kong remains the king of the monster movie.
The film covers a variety of themes. Particular emphasis has been by some critics to the issue of unbound nature versus modern civilization and humanity's endless conquest to control the natural world. Even in the expedition of director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), we see a man of the 20th Century looking to exploit an undiscovered land for profit. When that doesn't work, he quickly replaces the plan by taking a piece of the island for public display on Broadway, shackled and defeated. After Kong breaks free of his subjugation, he scales the Empire State Building — a man-made structure of technological marvel at the time — as if to suggest his triumph over the synthetic, unnatural and confining jungles of New York. By this point, it's indicative that humanity's greatest achievement — flight — should be the tool to bring the beast down.
Another aspect which always captures my imagination is how 'King Kong' works as a commentary on itself, and to a further extent, the act of filmmaking as a whole. At the time, what was essentially the beginning of the Golden Age of Hollywood, audiences were already familiar with a minor sub-genre of jungle adventure features, such as 'Tarzan of the Apes (1918)' and 'The Lost World (1925),' another movie with special effects done by O'Brien. In fact, Kong-creator Merian Cooper and co-director Ernest Schoedsack were known for their previous films 'Grass (1925)' and 'Chang (1927),' a mix of fiction and documentary where audiences could watch exotic, far-away lands. And although 'Kong' keeps to this same plot device, the film does something a little different.
As legend has it, the final shooting script written by Schoedsack's wife, Ruth Rose, was done with some personal experience behind it. Denham, in many ways, was modeled after Cooper while Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) took after Schoedsack and Rose. Early on the S.S. Venture, Denham is seen talking to the ship's captain, a talent agent and Driscoll, making comments about the criticism he's received for his previous films, possibly reflecting Cooper's own sentiments. Throughout the rest of 'King Kong,' suspense builds while viewers are continuously reminded of cameras and Ann being an actress. Most telling is that the jungle adventure flicks were basically about bringing the wilds of nature to American audiences, but the second half of 'Kong' literally has them experiencing nature's most chaotic and untamed representation.
A further benchmark in the history of 'King Kong' is Max Steiner ('Casablanca,' 'Gone With the Wind'), the man affectionately known as the father of film music. His original score continues to be a delightful and outstanding complement to the thrilling suspense and action of this adventure classic, virtually a first of its kind. The film is an imaginative and innovative piece of movie-magic history that remains just as effective and highly entertaining today. What makes this Cooper-Schoedsack collaboration so special is that it can be enjoyed with the production's historicity in mind or appreciated it for its intelligent script ripe with symbolism. Whatever the case may be with each viewer, Kong lingers in our collective memory of movie icons and a true classic of Hollywood's Golden Age.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'King Kong (1933)' to Blu-ray in an attractive DigiBook case that includes an exhaustive essay by film historian Rudy Behlmer. The BD50, Region Free disc goes straight to the main menu at startup with the standard selection of options.
In 2005, Warner Home Video released 'King Kong (1933)' on DVD for the first time in a two-disc Special Edition and a cool, tin Collector's Edition with a wealth of goodies. The story behind that release is of great interest (at least to me, that is) as it's a tale many years in the making. The first restoration effort in 1993 was made from a censored, poorly maintained, fine grain release print, so part of the work was in returning missing footage — such as the one where sailors fall to their deaths — to the original runtime while also cleaning the print of dirt, bumps, and vertical scratches.
A few years later with the advent of DVD, the studio revisited the results and wisely concluded that the film could benefit from another restoration, particularly the deleted scenes, using modern technology. But rather than simply reuse the same damaged print, they endeavored to make a whole new master from the best possible elements. A worldwide search led to the discovery of a 35mm nitrate negative in the United Kingdom that was in excellent condition. The internegative was then used to make a 4k scan to be meticulously cleaned one frame at a time with special consideration to the film's visual effects. It's from this remaster that the 2005 DVD was made, and the results were marvelous, giving film fans the best video presentation ever of 'King Kong.'
For this Blu-ray edition of the Cooper-Schoedsack adventure classic, Warner uses the same improved HD master, but it appears the print has received another minor touch-up as further specks and negligible scratches are completely missing. And while the differences in quality between the formats are not overwhelmingly convincing, this high-def picture still offers an appreciable improvement, especially in terms of clarity and resolution. The 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.37:1) shows wonderful definition of the finer objects in the background and the grain structure is better resolved, looking natural and unobtrusive. Textural details in the shadows and facial complexions are clear and as distinct as an almost 80-year-old film could afford. Viewers can make out separate hairs on Kong's coat and see the individual lines which make up the foliage in jungle scenes.
The several sequences of softness are surely native to the negative, along with a few instances of pulses, likely due to some decomposition, but they don't distract too much from the film's enjoyment. Much of this softness is the obvious result of the special optical effects and compositions, the use of stop-motion animation and rear projection mixed with live action. And yet, the quality of the video in these moments is an upgrade despite the techniques being made more apparent by the higher resolution. The biggest and most observable boost comes by way of an enhanced grayscale, an excellent balance in contrast and brightness. While whites are bold and crisp, black levels are rich and often intense with very good gradations. Overall, the image exhibits some magnificent dimensionality and a sharp depth of field (this only concerns live action scenes, of course).
Although it may not be a night and day difference or the sort of high-def picture some might expect, this Blu-ray is the best 'King Kong (1933)' has ever looked on any home video format, a presentation fans will surely appreciate.
The original mono sound design also saw a full restoration along with the video, and the results are highly entertaining for a film of its age. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack shows excellent fidelity detail and wonderful stage presence. Although sound is perfectly well-centered, there is plenty of activity and movement with subtle background motion and clear, precise dialogue reproduction. Voices on occasion seem a bit high pitched, but the mid-range is sharp and stable from beginning to end. Whether we're deep in the jungles of Skull Island or the bustling city of New York, the mix displays lots of action and delivered with great detailed transparency. Most impressive is a low bass which provides the film with good depth and personality. The audio on this Blu-ray of 'King Kong' is fantastic for a sound recording from an era when talking pictures had only become a Hollywood mainstay four years earlier.
This Blu-ray edition of 'King Kong (1933)' may not come with any exclusive material, but all the supplements ported over from the previous DVD releases are still a great addition. The material is extensive and in-depth, and fans are sure to appreciate the loving-care taken to make this package possible.
Nearly 80 years since its original theatrical run, 'King Kong (1933)' remains one of the true classics of Hollywood's Golden Age. Immensely entertaining and intelligent, this Cooper/Schoedsack production is a landmark film, recognized for its massive influence in film history and on future filmmakers. Warner Home Video finally brings 'Kong' to home viewers for the first time fully restored, as it was originally seen in its theatrical premiere. This attractive DigiBook Blu-ray edition comes with the best possible audio and video presentation which cinephiles will surely appreciate. The supplemental package, too, is excellent and worth the price alone, as so few movies are ever examined this thoroughly. Overall, 'King Kong' on Blu-ray comes highly recommended and is a must-own for fans of classic, legacy-making films.