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Free Form Friday: Kong-a-thon!

Free Form Friday is my weekly non-Bowie feature. If you want more Bowie, come back tomorrow for an excellent interview with British musician W3st, who I discovered because he did an excellent cover of “Starman.” We’ll talk about that, Bowie and much more. But meantime let me tell you about watching all three version of King Kong…

I was living in Buffalo around 20 years ago when I saw a notice in a local arts paper that Fay Wray was going to appear in nearby Rochester to talk about King Kong (1933) and introduce a screening of the film. Fay Wray, in the 21st Century? Yep. She was still alive. In fact, she remained active until close to her death at age of 96 in 2004. So, of course I was going to go. And I went. And… the paper had the wrong date for the event— it had already happened. Fay Wray died about a year later. Missing this event is somewhere on my list of great regrets.

Fortunately, King Kong himself is alive and well. In fact, these days he doesn’t even die at the end of his films. The Godzilla-sized Kong that’s (who’s?) been appearing in the so-called “Monsterverse” movies has little to do with the comparatively tiny version that fell in love with Wray’s character back in 1933, but it’s good to see that Kong lives.

And— I even enjoy the new movies. They appeal to the seven-year old that still resides within me. When I was actually seven, Kong was starring in a remake of the first film. He had already made his first appearance in a Godzilla movie, in 1962, but that was neither a remake nor a sequel. Actually, Kong was a replacement for Frankenstein’s monster. The 1962 movie was supposed to be Godzilla versus Frankenstein. No, really. If you’ve ever seen the movie, and noticed that Kong gets rejuvenated from lighting, that’s a leftover from the idea of a giant Frankenstein monster.

But the 1976 movie was a genuine remake. It had to have been one of the earlier movies I had seen in a theater. I remember wondering who would win a fight— King Kong or Jaws. To this day I still don’t know, but I’m guessing the answer would have in part to do if the battle took place on land or in the ocean.

At the time, the 1933 movie really wasn’t terribly old. It was a lot older than me, but most things were. As I write this, Kong is 91 years old. 91 might as well be 100, and 100 seems like a very, very long time ago. So long, that it’s more than past time to watch King Kong again. Both versions. Plus the 2005 Peter Jackson version. It’s time for a Kongathon!

Here’s my quick take on the three versions of King Kong: First of all, that the 1933 movie exists verges on the unbelievable. The stop-motion animation is so artistic, so mesmerizing to watch that it almost seems unreal. I don’t mean that the dinosaurs and Kong and airplanes and whatnot seem unreal— all that is not realistic in the same way that CGI is— I mean the art form itself. Stop motion animation has always seemed special to me, and nowhere is it more so than Kong. That this type of special effect is about a century old seems impossible, and for no other reason, it makes the movie worth watching.

But the special effects are so fascinating that every other time I’ve ever seen this movie they have distracted me away from some of it’s other features that are equally almost unbelievable. All three Kongs have incredibly attractive women playing Ann Darrow (though the character had a different name in the 1976 version). But Fay Wray is the most overtly sexual. Her actual acting job is remarkably good. She acts with her eyes, her facial movements, her breathing. And her garb is more provocative than those of either of her successors, Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts. I don’t think much of her performance could have survived the Hollywood censorship code that would be self-imposed by the industry the following year.

It wasn’t just sex— the original Kong had monsters gushing blood, humans being stomped and chomped to death by Kong and a pretty massive body count. Kong is a misunderstood monster, but he’s not cuddly. Life— human and otherwise— is cheap in this movie, and the sense of danger is real.

As for the other two movies — the 1976 version, with future Oscar winners Lange and Jeff Bridges is better than its reputation and the 2005 version is slightly worse, but actually they are both pretty entertaining films. The ‘76 version has the worst special effects and its attempt at an update— shifting the actors’ motivation from filmmaking to oil exploration — didn’t age especially well. But the Kong costume (it’s the only movie of the three featuring an actor in a monster suit) isn’t that bad, and the acting, especially from Lange, is better than it usually gets credit as being. This was Lange’s debut— she beat out Meryl Streep for the role— and it is sometimes depicted as an inauspicious beginning to an accomplished career. I think this is because the character is basically a dumb blonde. But the thing is— Lange is portraying a dumb blonde. She was convincing not because she herself is dumb, but as we would learn over the years, because she can act. And Jeff Bridges is Jeff Bridges. If you liked The Big Lebowski, you might like this movie because he essentially plays the same character.

The 2005 movie is spectacular and emotional. Its slightly worse than its reputation in that, now having seen it three or four times, it does seem a little CGI-heavy, and little things stick out like, the ecology of Skull Island is harder to believe than the idea that there’s a giant ape somewhere on the planet. Giant animals die at such a rate there that they wouldn’t have time to grow to be giant animals in the first place. On the other hand, the other thing I noticed more this time were many of the direct references to the 1933 film, sometimes “remediated” (a new word I recently learned). For instance, some of the actual dialogue from the 1933 movie was used as dialogue in the movie the characters were filming in the 2005 movie. Meanwhile, the Skull Island natives in the 2005 movie more resembled Jackson’s orcs from Lord of the Rings than the racial stereotypes from the 1933 movie. But the doomed Kong-on-Broadway show featured actors portraying natives dressed and dancing like the ones in the 1933 movie. Clever. Yeah, so the movie maybe isn’t quite as good as its reputation, but its still pretty good.

There’s been nearly a century of essays on the themes and symbolism of King Kong and I don’t know that I have much to add, other than what I got out of watching all three movies recently. I would have liked to have seen Fay Wray in person. That moment is lost in time. But Kong has the sense of being timeless, a connection between generations that will likely resonate long into the future. Kinda leaves me curious about what the next remake will have in store…


One last thing… there is a Bowie connection to King Kong. The songZiggy Stardustappears in the 2017 movie, Kong on Skull Island. Though more of a reboot than a remake, that’s the “MonsterVerse” movie that comes closest to the original.

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