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King KongKing Kong on DVD

by Jim Bray

Finally on DVD (just in time to cash in on the release of Peter Jackson’s recreation), the first big monster movie of the talkie era is far more than just a special effects extravaganza. It’s also a great yarn, a classy retelling of the beauty and the beast tale – and that’s why it has lasted in the hearts of fans for more than 70 years.

Not that it isn’t a special effects bonanza. There’s so much in this movie that was innovative that it’s a cornucopia for movie buffs. Willis O’Brien’s work on King Kong is known to have inspired special effects genius Ray Harryhausen, who in turn went on to inspire new generations of filmmakers including the likes of Peter Jackson (who, undoubtedly not coincidentally, plays a big part in the supplementary material on this DVD).

Released in 1933, King Kong is the tale of movie showman Carl Denham, whose latest true life adventure project is the search for a monstrous and legendary beast few have hear of. It’s just another day in the office for Denham, except that this time he’s bringing along a woman to star in his film, reacting to feedback that his movies need a love interest.

Enter Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, a down on her luck looker who signs on for the adventure and ends up being the spark that brings the mighty Kong down in flames.

Their journey takes them to Skull Island, home of a primitive native tribe that keeps a lost world of dinosaurs and other giant beasties at bay with a huge wall and regularly sacrifices girls to appease their God Kong. Well wouldn’t you know they’re smitten with blond Ann when she shows up on the island with Denham and his crew and offer to trade her. When they’re turned down, they sneak aboard Denham’s ship and kidnap her and before you can say “Kong’s your uncle,” she’s trussed up to a trellis and offered up to the giant ape.

But Kong isn’t just a big dumb beast. He has a soul, and in a heartwarming scene after he’s defended her life a few times the monster tickles his new lady friend while partially undressing her – a wonderful moment that really humanizes Kong to the audience. Kong’s reaction isn’t surprising: Every red blooded boy in the audience was probably imagining themselves doing the same thing to the lovely Ms. Wray, and Kong also shows his mettle by proving that he isn’t prejudiced against small, hairless primates.

Which makes us wonder how Kong would propagate his species, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Of course Ann is rescued and Kong is captured and brought back to America to be put on theatrical display like a Rockette undergoing forced labor. And it looks as if he’s going to be a big hit, especially since he’s chained securely and, according to Denham, has had some of the fight taken out of him since his capture (fortunately, those scenes of his supposed taming aren’t in the movie, or PETA would undoubtedly be fighting the release of this DVD).

Denham’s big mistake is bringing Ann Darrow to the premier and letting the media loose near her and Kong. The smitten monster thinks the photographers’ bulbs are an attack on his woman, and he breaks out of his shackles and sets into motion a series of events that see him wreak havoc upon the people and materiel of New York City, culminating in the heartbreaking battle atop the Empire State Building.

And when Kong falls and the film cuts to a long shot of the ape slamming into the building as he drops, it still brings a lump to the throat after all these years.

King Kong is a wonderful movie, undoubtedly the “Star Wars” of its day, and it’s about time it was released on DVD. And this DVD release is almost everything a Kong (or cinefantastique) fan could want.



Warner Home Entertainment has tried to do Kong justice with this two disc set. Disc one features the movie itself in, as the box says, “Glorious Black-and-white newly restored and digitally mastered.” And parts of the movie do look arguably as great as a 70+ year film can. On the other hand, there’s plenty of grain and in places you can see lines going up and down the frame that are so obvious it almost looks as if they’re strings holding up a marionette Kong (which of course wasn’t how Kong was done).

It’s too bad. The film deserves a loving, frame by frame restoration and if this is the best they can do it’s a darn shame. It very well could be the best possible, and if so then I guess this is the best we’ll get. But we remember the restoration of “Lost Horizon,” where they actually reconstructed broken and torn frames, and were hoping for better.

Still, we’re delighted to have the granddaddy of monster movies on DVD in the first place, and there’s so much other delightful stuff in this package we’re willing to cut the producers some slack.

And those extras are great. For example, disc one features a running commentary by the legendary Ray Harryhausen himself, with Ken Ralston (who became famous to film buffs for his work with George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) and clips from interviews with producer Merian C. Cooper and star Fay Wray. There’s some fascinating insight here.

Disc one also features a series of trailers for Merian C. Cooper movies.

Disc two is a delight. First up is an interesting documentary “I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper,” a profile of the man behind the beast. It culminates with a fascinating section on Cinerama, for those who love to learn about the technology of movies. It’s a neat counterpoint to the Todd AO feature on Fox’ new Oklahoma release.

The best feature is a full length (And then some; it runs over 2.5 hours!) documentary “RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World.” This dynamite documentary features Ray Harryhausen, Peter Jackson, Joe Dante, and many other luminaries of cinefantastique and not only gives a wonderful look at the creation of the groundbreaking film, but also gives us a chance to watch Jackson and his gang indulge themselves by recreating (using the techniques of Willis O’Brien) a lost giant spider scene that, in the grand scheme of things, was just as well left on the cutting room floor.

Fortunately, the scene hasn’t been edited back into the movie on disc one, which Jackson acknowledges as well. But it’s a great documentary that gives good insight on the Cooper, the studio, Willis O’Brien, matte painting, stop motion animation, Max Steiner and the film’s score, and much, much more. Kong fans will love it!

And as if that weren’t enough, there’s also some test footage from Willis O’Brien’s earlier and uncompleted epic “Creation,” some of which found its way into King Kong. This footage is accompanied by a Ray Harryhausen commentary, and who better to do such a play-by-play than the man himself?

Okay, this version of King Kong isn’t perfect. We’re disappointed that the video quality of the feature isn’t better. But we understand the problems of a 70 year old movie and, as mentioned, are so happy with the package as a whole that we’re (reluctantly) willing to cut Warners some slack here.

King Kong, from Warner Home Entertainment
104 min. full frame (1.33:1, not 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital mono
Starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
Written by James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose
Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

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Updated May 13, 2006