This is going to come off sounding dismissive, and I apologize, but I didn’t really care for King Kong. That is not to underestimate its importance as one of the first uses of stop motion animation and rear projection with live action. I mean, we’ve got a big-budget movie (Frankenweenie) coming out this week that is stop-motion, so the technology hasn’t gone away, and how many other things from 1933 can you say that about?
There have been two notable remakes of King Kong, in 1976 and 2005 (sorry, that one was called Peter Jackson’s King Kong). I haven’t seen the 1976 version, and the 2005 version was so forgettable that all I can come up with from my memory is that I was wondering why Adrian Brody was in it (answer: getting paid, because independent film pays squat) and being inundated with lots and lots of post-Gandalf CGI. Fuck CGI. Get some puppets and entertain me, Peter Jackson.
Anyway, the one thing that sticks out in my mind from the 1933 version is Robert Armstrong. A few weeks after watching King Kong, I watched a movie called The Mystery Man (1935), which was a strange bird of a movie where he plays a newpaper reporter named Larry Doyle. He breaks a big story and then sort of runs away from the paper after getting a raise and lots of praise but then insulting his boss after getting drunk. He ends up in St. Louis and meets this girl, Anne. They are both broke at a coffee shop at the train station, and he devises this really kooky (there’s a word I don’t get to use often) scheme for the two of them to pretend they are newlyweds so they can get the honeymoon suite at a ritzy hotel (recall this is in the middle of the Great Depression). On the story he broke, the police had given him, as a show of appreciation, a gun. Doyle hocks the gun in order to try to get money to buy food, and the gun is used in a crime. Implicated, he tries to solve the crime and break the story. It was such a far-out, weird-assed, implausible plot with awkwardly-contrived twists and turns that I kept watching (and it was only an hour and two minutes) just to see what sort of lunacy would come next. Just weirdness after weirdness, like listening to a five-year-old make up a story as he goes along.
There’s also the intrinsic racism that exists in early cinema where white man goes to Africa or thereabouts and deals with the Unga-Bungas. Really makes me appreciate Paul Robeson and the fact that he starred in a movie two years earlier. And of course the sexism of the era where woman equals stupid and/or sex object and/or victim, which makes me appreciate Joan Crawford a little bit more (but not much). Denham’s assertion at the end that it was “beauty killed the beast” is an awkward one to unpack. So Kong was attracted to Ann? Er … that’s all kinds of wrong. Kong eats people. He didn’t eat or kill her, and protected her when all the other dinosaurs were out to get her. So what was Kong’s end game? Oh, boy.
But what is fun is some crackerjack lines, the kind that are pretty much every line of The Thin Man. No one writes like that anymore. That is a redeeming quality of a lot of these early movies – intelligent writing. Critics are all stuck on the decline of the romantic comedy (not that King Kong is one), but that’s because it’s either too bawdy or low-brow. You don’t have to make fart jokes to be funny, and I don’t know anyone who makes them to be romantic. It’s the writing, the mental sparring and tango before the two people get together. You need writers for that.