Given the coming morning music, it is a delight to announce at on this day in 1933, King Kong premiered at Radio City Music Hall. Something did indeed go wrong for Fay Wray and King Kong. But here’s the thing: I own all three versions of King Kong. That first one holds up pretty damned well. But it is a very silly film. What the hell is going on at that island? Dinosaurs and a really big gorilla? Think about it. If you knew nothing of film history and someone pitched this idea to you, you would think that Plan 9 From Outer Space was a better idea.
It’s amazing to compare the 1933 King Kong to the 1976 version. The problem isn’t just that they took a really silly classic and decided to treat it seriously. The truth is that the film technology really hadn’t gotten any better in the four decades between the two. If you haven’t watched the films much, you probably think of the big battle on top of the tall buildings. This is because those are the scenes that people show. But if you watch both films all the way through, what you most take away is King Kong mooning over Ann (or, inexplicably, Dwan, in the 1976 version). I just want to smack that stupid ape. I mean Fay Wray and Jessica Lange are pretty enough, but come on!
I seem to be alone in thinking that Peter Jackson’s 2005 version is a cinematic masterpiece. I don’t mean that people dislike it. Pretty much everyone I know liked it quite a lot. But they don’t seem to recognize that it is exactly the film that everyone wanted to make but couldn’t. And yes: there are problems. There are times when the CG is notable. But this is more than compensated for Walsh and Boyens’ densely packed Great Depression setting. And the re-rendering of Carl Denham is brilliant, because let’s face it: the “good guy” in the 1933 film would never have done what he does at the end of the film. But Jack Black’s Denham would absolutely have done that.
It’s such a great film, I think I’m going to go watch it right now. And not just any version, either. I’m talking the special three and a half hour version. Although, I’ll be honest: I may skip the insect pit. It’s hard for me to watch Lumpy die that way.
But each version has it’s advantages. The 1933 version was an amazing achievement for its time. And the 1976 version showed that Jeff Bridges really is at his best when selling cars.
Afterword: King Kong Remakes
I like this video comparison. I don’t fully agree with it. It suffers from my typical complaint of critics. The worst he has to say of the original is that it is dated, which is not really a criticism but an objective fact. And his complaints about the 2005 version are made up. He’s decided that one level of excess (1933) is perfect and another (2005) is not. But in the end, he’s right: you should watch the 1933 King Kong because it is cinema history. You probably shouldn’t watch the 1976 version, unless you are like me and you like dorky films. And you should watch the 2005 version because it is great. And I’ll bet you anything that you cry at the end.