Going Ape for King Kong: The Oldies But Goodies

With King Kong: Skull Island rekindling our love for monstrous apes, we thought it would be fun to go back in time to the classic King Kong movies.

There have been quite a few cheapie King Kong knock-off movies (the great ape vs. Godzilla in a 1962 Japanese flick, for example) but the following three are the best and most genuine stories of the glorious beast and his amazing adventures. Great for a movie marathon you can enjoy with your kids:

King Kong

1933, G

Prior to King Kong’s release in 1933, amazing and breathtaking spectacles on screen were not entirely unheard of — Howard Hughes’ aerial adventure Hell’s Angels was out the year before, and faux dinosaurs had already been glimpsed in The Lost World in 1925. But there was something special about this “beauty and the beast” epic that was not only special, but magical.

The brainchild of co-directors (and longtime collaborators) Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, King Kong was one of the first scary movies to sympathize with the monster. Filmgoers actually felt sorry when Kong met his demise, and that was an unfamiliar twist. Sure, it looks dated now and sounds a little silly at times, but like any true classic, it stands the test of time because it is a good, entertaining story.

The action opens in Manhattan, where flamboyant filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hires a down-on-her luck aspiring actress named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his new motion picture, which will be a variation on The Beauty and the Beast. He charters a ship and crew (first mate Jack Driscoll, played by Bruce Cabot, doesn’t have much use for women, but quickly falls for Ann — “Hey, I guess I love you,” he says) and sets sail for the legendary Skull Island.

As soon as they arrive on the island, they happen upon a sacrificial ceremony where a young native girl is to be offered up to the gorilla-like god, Kong. But when the chief sees Ann, he decides that she’d make a much niftier sacrifice — “Blondes are scarce around here,” Denham admits — and offers to trade several of his women for her. The offer is rebuffed, but that doesn’t stop the natives from kidnapping Ann, tying her between two giant posts, and letting Kong have at her.

The massive gorilla comes crashing through the jungle, swipes his screaming prize, and disappears through the trees. But he doesn’t live happily ever after — all the dinosaurs on the prehistoric island suddenly want a piece of Ann, and Carl, Jack and the rest of the S.S. Venture crew are after her too. Her piercing screams lead them to her. Kong fights dinosaurs and giant snakes to protect his bounty, but he’s no match for the men’s handy gas-bomb that puts him out and allows them to ship him back to New York.

The rest is cinematic history. Aside from the character development and detailed story, King Kong was also groundbreaking in that it was the first film to have an original score written for it (by Max Steiner). The stop-motion special effects (by Willis O’Brien) were truly astounding, and are still surprisingly seamless.

Not much was commonly known about apes, so Kong’s human-like eyes and mostly biped gait are forgivable. To our modern sensibilities, they make about as much sense as the stilted dialogue and the mile-wide plot holes. But to think about all those things is to miss the point of this delightful old monster movie — it’s a rip-roaring fantasy adventure, and always will be.

King Kong

1976, PG

The first significant remake of King Kong was updated to present day, and even had the titular blonde babe utter this dialogue to her hairy, overgrown captor: “You goddamn chauvinist pig ape!” (Even though the 2005 remake is rated PG-13, I personally find this PG 70’s cheese-fest a lot racier… This movie is definitely better-suited to older kids).

The names have been changed, perhaps to protect the guilty, but a guilty pleasure it is nonetheless. Ann Darrow is now Dwan (“Like Dawn, but I switched the ‘a’ and the ‘w’,” she says, proving that she can least spell monosyllabic words), a literally washed-up actress played by Jessica Lange; impresario Carl Denham is now called Fred Wilson, and he’s an oily oil tycoon played by Charles Grodin; and Jack Driscoll is Jack Prescott, a long-haired, bearded environmentalist by Jeff Bridges. Kong is still king (wearing a crown and all — I kid you not), but he’s no longer a rabbit-fur covered claymation creation… He’s special effects, Oscar-winner Rick Baker in a gorilla suit.

Much of the film is the same as the 1933 classic we know and love — the three human protagonists wind up on Skull Island, Kong takes the blonde for his bride, the blonde screams a lot, is rescued, and the beast is finally conquered and taken back to New York to be put on display for the paying masses. Kong goes ape and paints the town red with blood.

A couple of major differences are the exclusion of the dinosaurs on Skull Island (Baker could only wear so many costumes, I guess), and the swapping of the Empire State Building for the World Trade Center (the twin towers resemble the altar where Dwan was tied and left for Kong).

King Kong is silly. The dialogue is often hilarious (“Oh, come on Kong,” Dwan says, “Forget about me. This thing’s just never going to work.”). Many of the scenes are beyond cheesy (there’s even a musical montage!). Kong’s red eye balls and white sclera are more creepy than scary (and his hands look like latex).

There’s no arguing this King Kong remake is second banana to the others — but it’s not without its monkey-shines. A fun, spirited creature feature without a dull moment, it’s definitely worth a peek.

King Kong

2005, PG-13

Although director Peter Jackson made his bacon on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the movie he most wanted to do was King Kong. He saw the 1933 original on TV as a kid in New Zealand, and never forgot it. While the newest King Kong remake is undoubtedly a labor of love, it’s not your typical nearsighted, precious homage: This version will appeal to those monster movie fans who are thoroughly familiar with the story of the beauty and the beast, as well as to youngsters who have never seen a King Kong flick.

King Kong, set in the 1930’s, begins by introducing the central human characters: A flamboyant but floundering filmmaker named Carl Denham (Jack Black); a gorgeous but penniless vaudevillian actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts); and a talented up-and-coming playwright who’s just breaking into films, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody).

The three converge and find themselves filming a clandestine movie aboard a tramp steamer called the S.S. Venture, headed for the legendary Skull Island. The supporting cast includes Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Englehorn and Jamie Bell as his mysterious surrogate son; Colin Hanks as Denham’s long-suffering assistant; and Kyle Chandler as preening leading man actor Bruce Baxter. Andy Serkis plays both Lumpy the cook and King Kong.

Once the Hollywood types and the salty seafarers arrive at their mist-enshrouded jungle destination, they barely have time to drop anchor before things go terribly wrong. Ann is kidnapped by the local natives and offered up as a sacrifice to their resident bogeyman, the giant ape we all know as King Kong. Carrying the fragile blonde in his huge dark hand, the beast takes the beauty back to his lair. There lay the bones of not only another giant gorilla (A rival? A mate?), but the remains of many other human sacrifices. Ann decides to run for it, but she doesn’t get far.

Meanwhile, Ann’s companions sally forth into the depths of Skull Island to find her. Denham takes every opportunity to film his movie along the way, naturally incorporating the enchanted island’s indigenous dinosaurs into the plot (much to pretty-boy Baxter’s dismay). Here we get to know a lot more about the peripheral characters, and then we get to watch them die horrible deaths at the claws, teeth, and tentacles of some rather nasty prehistoric creatures (hence, the PG-13 rating… But it’s no more gruesome than an episode of CSI).

Long about now there is a spectacular sequence involving Kong, Ann, and a T-Rex. While comparisons to Jurassic Park are inevitable, it’s interesting to see the different styles between Spielberg and Jackson in similar chase scenes. Jackson’s action can’t be beat, but he is sorely lacking Spielberg’s mastery of suspense — while the chain of events is indeed eye-popping, it’s seldom scary or edge-of-your-seat.

The mighty Kong is eventually caught and subdued and shipped back to Manhattan, where he is touted before an oohing and ahhing audience as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. Tuxedoed impresario Denham’s dreams of cash are dashed when the angry ape breaks his chains and takes a bite out of the Big Apple.

The movie does go on and on, yet a lot is left out. For instance, the restless natives serve their purpose in offering Ann up, and then despite the time the crew spends on the island, we never see them again. Kong goes from dopey captive on Skull Island to dolled up stage star in the blink of an eye. How is he secured on the ship? Who sets the course back to civilization? Does anyone ever find out about the dinosaurs? And so on.

The pacing, at 3+ hours, is a slow climb — practically crawling at first, then there’s a carrot-dangling midsection, and finally a bang-up climax as Kong reaches the apex of New York’s tallest skyscraper. While a good 30 to 40 minutes could easily have been tossed out, the movie still works. It is a huge extravaganza with a gently beating heart, and that’s not an easy feat to pull off properly. (Remember when I said in the beginning these movies would make up a good triple-feature marathon? I was not kidding on the “marathon” part.)

Watts is a good choice for a feistier, less victim-like Ann Darrow. She’s pretty and petite yet shows her mettle with the right balance of fear, wonder, gratitude, and sympathy for the embattled ape. Black is such a larger-than-life person, it’s hard to watch the movie and forget that he’s “Jack Black”, but he ultimately works as the flashy showman with a Pomade Marcel wave who eventually sees the error in his greedy ways. Adrien Brody’s writer could be likened to an early edition of Arthur Miller — a studious but strong man who attracts the girl with brains (while Kong saves her life with brawn). Serkis is, of course, the real star of the show, and as he did with Gollum in Jackson’s Tolkien movies, he manages to bring wholly believable humanity to a computerized character. It’s great to see Serkis playing the crusty cook Lumpy, as well as the title character. Kong’s actions and facial expressions are certainly flawless, but so are the external things like his silverback fur, his finger-pads, his jaggedly broken fang, and his battle-scars.

2005’s King Kong is a colossal creature feature for sure, and a fun complement to the latest big adventure King Kong: Skull Island.

Which one is your favorite King Kong flick? (Is it the Godzilla one? We won’t judge!) Let us know in the comments below!

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