Thursday, December 29, 2011

Into The History Books

There was a surprise treat for the New Beverly audience at the recent screening of THE BAD NEWS BEARS during the Wright Stuff III festival. At the very end of the 35mm print, past the credits, past the Paramount logo, past the MPAA card all of a sudden there was a short, silent teaser for what at the time of BEARS’ release was the upcoming remake of KING KONG, simply consisting of a COMING FOR CHRISTMAS tag, a shot of the famous early teaser poster and a crawl including the famous “Dino De Laurentiis presents the most exciting and original creation of all time…” spiel. A definite reminder of how much that film was being pushed back then—looking up the dates, THE BAD NEWS BEARS came a full eight months before KONG’s release—but also how for some people, including myself, that ad campaign may live in the memory more than the actual film.

I’m a few years too young to feel nostalgia for the actual experience of seeing the film at the time but I guess we need to blame my parents on this one for not taking me. I do, however, have vivid memories of that actual poster, the design of which has its own fascinating history, particularly the sight of a giant billboard for it which may have been in Times Square though even that part of it is hazy. You don’t get marketing images like this anymore and the evocativeness of the poster remains slightly haunting for me even now, partly because of the particular location of where Kong is, partly because of how the extravagance of the image doesn’t in any way match up with what occurs in the film but also partly because of the sheer detail in it that means I could easily gaze at the thing for hours. Maybe because of how vivid this image remained in my brain it wasn’t until years later I realized that aside from chunks seen on TV through the years I’d never seen the actual film in full from start to finish. I’ve seen it several times by now—oh, if only to see a 35mm print of it though—and I have a fondness for the movie even though I’m still not sure of just how good it is. It’s one of those offshoots of the 70s as well as a display of the madness of its producer that makes the insistence on what will make everything about it spectacular not just bizarre but endearing. Is this version of KING KONG an embarrassment or just a curiosity? Has the world chosen to divide their KONG allegiances between the other two versions? Would people simply prefer to forget about the associations they have with where the final sequence takes place? It’s safe to say that it’s my second favorite King Kong movie of all time, but I’m well aware that I may be in the minority in this matter. I can only speak for myself.

Petrox Oil exec Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) sets off from Indonesia on a chartered vessel in search for a mysterious Indian Ocean island where he is convinced no human has ever set foot and he will discover an unlimited supply of oil for his company. But he doesn’t account for stowaway Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) a paleontologist who believes he knows something about the history of the island and that it contains something else altogether. Matters are made even more difficult by the discovery of a life raft containing aspiring actress Dwan (Jessica Lange), a beautiful blonde who is the sole survivor of a yacht that exploded out on the water. Wilson is insistent that nothing will stop him from finding his oil on this island but when they get there they find something else entirely—a giant wall and a tribe of natives who in fact worship the beast Prescott was referring to…the one and only Kong (um, Rick Baker or, as I suppose I should put it, "WITH SPECIAL CONTRIBUTIONS BY RICK BAKER).

As directed by John Guillerman, the ’76 version of KING KONG comes off as a combination of craftsmanship and showmanship that is at times truly majestic presented in a widescreen, old-school way that doesn’t really exist any more. Guillermin certainly knows how to compose a shot, even if it does feel a little like his actors are left to figure out their characters on their own—unlike the movie star archetypes of THE TOWERING INFERNO which he co-directed this time he has actors who seem willing to disappear into the characters they’re playing and even if part of the reason he was hired was due to the success of that film—“Hey, let’s get the guy who just made something else with a really tall building!”—this time he has a producer in De Laurentiis who seems more interested in making the production value seem as sumptuous as possible, not quite always so soundstage bound. But mixed in with that undeniable epic scope are a number of elements that give the end result an overall effect of at least a partial ha-whaa??? response from anyone watching it. You can feel how much money has gone into this production and the location work always utilizes every inch imaginable of where they were shooting in Hawaii, New York and wherever else. Having said all that there’s the matter of Kong himself, the creation of Carlo Rambaldi and portrayed by Rick Baker in a monkey suit which plays as if the filmmakers wanted to do something much grander but ultimately couldn’t come up with a better idea.

There’s also a giant 40 foot robot portraying Kong, spotted when he’s unveiled for the crowd in New York which apparently was a big part of the ad campaign at the time, but he’s seen so briefly that it just plays as awkward as if the crowds of people are running screaming from, well, a barely mobile giant mechanical gorilla. Whatever the true intentions behind building it were it seems to have just worked for publicity. I’m no Japanese monster movie expert but no matter how slick the photography by Richard H. Kline is—I’m particularly impressed by the scope of some of those fog bank shots—it’s hard not to think that we’ve suddenly stumbled into a film with a much skimpier budget and you could probably say that, no matter what, a guy in a monkey suit is always going to look kind of like a guy in a monkey suit. To be totally fair, the monster isn’t at all without character but when Kong finally enters the frame after his prolonged buildup the effect is so incongruous that it’s almost baffling (apparently Mario Bava, unwilling to travel to American, turned down the effects job which sounds like a potentially fascinating alternate history), making the entire experience that much more unique all by itself.

Combined with the presentation of the title character there’s the odd effect in the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. that combines the myth and majesty that the basic KING KONG story is for all of us, that 1933 movie I watch almost in a trance every single Thanksgiving trying to recreate my lost youth, with an odd tone of satire from simply the name Dwan (“like Dawn except that I switched two letters”) to its focus on making the oil crisis of the time such a central plot device to the point that I’m honestly not sure what the overall precise tone is supposed to be. It’s a remake where the jumping off point is a character setting off for the glory of oil as opposed to the glory of picture making, which makes it already more cynical even before the title has come on screen—Fred Wilson is just about the schmuckiest bad guy in the history of movies, unable to go for five seconds after making a proclamation without somebody correcting him or otherwise being proven wrong and a clear representation of all the evils of Nixon-Ford-era capitalism with little patience in the people around him who are actually interested in the facts (Greg Ferrara at Cinema Styles once took an enjoyable look at this element of the film. Based on the banners seen when Kong is about to be unveiled, the film is basically saying that Petrox and the U.S. are one and the same in what they represent, plundering far off lands for the destruction of all that is good in the world. Along with the cynicism there’s the feeling that the film trying to make the story more “realistic” by discarding the dinosaurs of the original so Kong just fights a giant snake this time around but I’m not sure a version of KING KONG that focuses aesthetically believable satire is the wisest way to go. Incidentally, this is the one KONG movie where we actually see him on the boat after being captured on the island, being brought back to the mainland, actually showing us something that maybe didn’t always make complete sense in the 1933 original but it also might be the most forgettable stretch of the film.

Comparisons to the ’33 original don’t need to be dwelled on--the story approach is such that there’s not much in the way of direct hommages aside from a version of the log scene and (I suspect) the abducting of Dwan from that deserted bar she and Jack stop in. But I wonder, when different people think of KING KONG, in their minds do they focus on the part on the island or the New York finale? Maybe because of my own Thanksgiving associations with the original when I was growing up in New York I’ll always flash on that stuff first (I imagine that with Peter Jackson it’s the exact opposite and I never got the idea that the New Zealander was at all interested in the city beyond being able to present his own fanciful version of the place) and when this Kong hits the Big Apple it’s responsible for some of the most memorable sequences in this version as well. There is some awkwardness to the pacing that makes me wonder about scenes that were cut out late in the game to get it down to 134 minutes--after the steady buildup towards introducing Kong it seems to rush through everything on the island with him and Jessica Lange’s Dwan in only a handful of scenes—maybe without any dinosaurs there’s just not as much to do with him there. And when we hit New York it feels like there’s more of a conscious attempt to keep things hurtling towards the climax that everyone knows is coming—I don’t have much of a desire to spend a lot of time observing the inner workings of the New York Mayor’s office but this stuff does feel truncated and reading up on the network TV version which apparently contained an extra 45 minutes there may be some truth to this. Makes sense that they made these cuts and, after all, who would ever want to sit through a three-hour KING KONG? As for the climax at the World Trade Center it’s obviously not what’s seen on that poster but in some ways it’s even more haunting, even with a few close-ups of Kong gazing at Dwan that I think are the least successful in the film.

The implications of everything surrounding this climax are so great that I almost hesitate to say too much about it. We all have our own feelings when we see the World Trade Center, of course. But I can’t help but think about how we have a movie where everything ends up bad in the end without even any “Twas Beauty Killed The Beast” moralizing--the title character is left sprawled on the pavement, one of the leads is never referred to again after he’s killed off, the island has been abandoned with the natives left to become burnt-out drunks as Jack Prescott predicts and the media (not to mention thousands of New York extras) swarms around everywhere at the base of the Twin Towers like the vultures they clearly are. And suddenly this movie that maybe has always been looked at as kind of a joke by people doesn’t seem so goofy after all. “No one cry when Jaws die,” said De Laurentiis to Time about his Christmas present to the world several months before it was released. “But when the monkey die, people gonna cry.” That quote has become somewhat legendary partly due to turning up in a Saturday Night Live sketch around the time featuring John Belushi as the producer. I don’t cry, but when he stands up there at the top of the WTC and pauses to look up at the moon I feel for the guy, remembering that his love for Dwan works out the same as it does for every girl I’ve ever fallen for so I suppose I remain haunted by this KONG in a way unlike any of the others. It’s the ’33 that I’ll continue to watch once a year and any other remake doesn’t really matter to me. This one has a soul. It may be a spectacularly flawed soul but in the dark of night you ultimately respond to what haunts you and what will remain forever swirling around somewhere in a subconscious that you’ll never fully understand.

As for the leads, you can’t say that De Laurentiis wasn’t at least a little original in the casting of his grand epic. Jeff Bridges makes his hippie paleontologist intelligent and likeable, never playing any of this as a goof at all. He sells you in his total belief of this monkey. Charles Grodin may be playing a moron, but an oddly endearing one as well maybe because never once is he allowed to be right about anything. How can we hate him when he’s never much of a threat? He’s not evil, just a massive putz. Maybe this sort of bad guy was only allowed in the seventies. Jessica Lange, playing the one person in the world whose life was saved by DEEP THROAT, is beautiful and totally committed but the performance has a slightly odd effect as if she’s playing an actress who is playing this ditz in a movie being made in a movie. Regardless, it’s pretty clear why Kong falls for her. When she quietly offers a toast to all the sons and daughters of King Kong she’s totally endearing. Backing up this trio, clearly one of the stranger in film history, is a strong supporting cast (hey, remember character actors?), even though by necessity they’re all basically dropped once the film leaves the island. Rene Auberjonois with his pipe and booze is particularly enjoyable as if he’s making up the character for his own amusement and John Randolph has some nice moments as the captain. Ed Lauter, Julius Harris and Jack O’Halloran are in there too. As Kong, Rick Baker is probably the unsung hero of the film and is clearly doing everything he can to sell the effect but one thing that helps him is certainly John Barry’s score which staunchly avoids any archness that might be in the air to concentrate on the adventure of it all, as if all he’s decided to do is focus on the ludicrous majesty seen on that poster and he’s more responsible than anyone for selling the tragedy at the end. Plus I always enjoy listening to “Kong Hits The Big Apple”, the source track on the album for when the ape is introduced to the New York public. It’s pretty cool.

Is it all right that I like this movie? Maybe I’m still dreaming of what I see when I look at the poster, remembering what it was like to gaze up at that billboard many decades ago. Not that it matters, but I was one of the few people who actually saw KING KONG LIVES in a theater when it opened ten years later—has there ever been a more forgotten sequel? KING KONG, on the other hand, is remembered even if it is as an oddity for any number of reasons, including how it was an attempt at an effects extravaganza just half a year before things really did change with the release of STAR WARS, the success of which no doubt baffled the old world ideals of producers like Dino De Laurentiis. Times were changing and it made this KONG that much more of an instant relic. Since there’s been another version of it since with effects that really were state of the art, it’s even more of one now. But as long as there’s that poster, that John Barry score, the sight of Jessica Lange and every other ludicrous moment that combined makes this movie into the oddball, endearing experience that it is then, at least for me, this particular Kong will always live.


le0pard13 said...

Wonderful write-up of an underrated and under-appreciated film, Mr. Peel. This is easily my favorite remake of King Kong. Namely, for its 70s roots and earnestness, and the key points you so eloquently make, as usual. I tried re-watching Peter Jackson's recent stab at this and I just couldn't get through it -- too many moments of cool kid pretentiousness in story and over-used CGI SFX that haven't aged well ruin it for me. Give me Rick Baker's old school effects, New York City of the 70s, and the whole in story and crew, and I'll take this one every time. Though, to be truthful, the one-sheet for the film remains irksome for getting the scale all wrong for just about every object in the graphic. If this is your last piece for '11, it's a fine one to close out the year, my friend. Thanks.

The Soul Pilot said...

Great write up. I sorta take issue with the idea that there may not have been much interaction between KONG and DWAN on the island but the overall reflection by you is very agreeable to me. Also, I too saw KING KONG LIVES in the theater upon it's release and laughed my ass off! So bad. Also again, I think it's important to point out that the GREAT WALL holding KONG back was constructed on MGM's famous back-lot (Lot 1)and was one of the last productions to use the lot before it was bulldozed and lost forever. Thank You Mr. PEEL.

Adam Ross said...

Very good look at one of the most forgotten blockbusters ever (was there ever a special edition DVD? Will there be a blu-ray?). I'm also fascinated by the one-sheet, specifically the wording. Adding the word "original" seems odd (since it's clearly a remake), but maybe it would make more sense if they added a comma: "The most exciting, original motion picture event."

Don Mancini said...

Where to begin? Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about a childhood favorite that I love to this day. I thought the oil expedition was clever; you're probably a bit too young to remember the ubiquitous "energy crisis" of the '70s. The idea of a greedy oil corporation exploiting -- almost randomly -- this natural wonder for greed and profit seemed very timely (and just as timely now), and I love your mentioning the surprisingly dark, satirical cynicism inherent in the Kong "circus" making the consumers (that is, US), rampaging for a glimpse of Kong, seem utterly grotesque. Semple's script is very breezy and clever, but it's also sometimes SILLY, and I think that turns off a lot of people. I personally find Kong's evident lecherousness (as well as his affectionate sweetness) for Dwan goofily funny, and very specifically '70s -- much like the early cheesecake montage of Dwan trying on various skimpy outfits. Back in those days, before the availability of internet porn, this sort of ultra-soft-core cheesecake was fairly de rigger; it was one of the few sources for teenaged boys of images of nearly naked girls.

What else? Kline's beautiful, Oscar-nominated photography; Barry's wonderful score (I especially love the eccentric recurring organ motif)...and Jessica Lange! To me, she seems so instantly terrific, displaying such sturdy comic chops, and overall is so damn electric on screen that I'm always astonished that people generally are so derisive about her work here. The occasionally shoddy FX work, and occasionally sub-par sets (like that awful ravine with the log!) don't much interfere with my enjoyment, because, as you pointed out, Kong himself emerges as a full-fledged character with a real personality. Who cares if it's an ape suit? And why do people make such a big deal about that awful 40-foot robot? It's only on-screen for like 10 seconds of total screen time! If anything, I, like you, find the FX work a fascinating artifact of its particular, pre-STAR WARS era.

Anyway, thanks again for this review. What a great Xmas present. Happy New Year, Mr. Peel!

Bob said...

"King Kong" was our big Christmas release at the little Doraville, GA theater I worked. Played to packed houses for the most part. I have fond memories of the film (great cast), but it couldn't possibly live up to its advance hype from hype-master, Dino. And those shots of the mechanical ape, oof! It is the lost Hollywood blockbuster, isn't it? "King Kong Lives" didn't help that's for sure.
Thanks for one more excellent essay, Mr. Peel and I wish you a very Happy New Year for 2012!

joey a. said...

Yes, a great writeup. I saw this again recently, and was surprised how much I liked it. (and I only bought it because I happened to see one with the original art and not the lame photoshop reissue. Thought it was worth having on the shelf just for that.) I think the perception of this movie would be a bit different if only some of the Ape effects had been better, it's far from an embarrassing failure, it's quite nicely done for the most part. (I know "effects don't matter if we're caught up in the blah, blah etc.) But this movie just needed those money shots to look better, no getting around it.
As much as I hate special editions and revisionism, I'm also a hypocrite so I'd love to see the most unlikely, never-will-happen "special edition" ever: Give Rick Baker a chance to build a new, ultimate kong suit and have a do-over for do some shots. The last hurrah for a man in a suit or mask.

Fred said...

A very evocative write-up of one of my favorites, Mr Peel.