Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s winter film series Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Most of the time, old science fiction films are viewed as quaint because of their primitive visual effects. They’re respected, but only because of what they were harbingers of. This is not the case with King Kong, the 1933 masterpiece from directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. King Kong ‘chief technician’ Willis O’Brien invented a lot of the effect techniques that are even still used today, utilizing rear projection, forced perspective, integration of stop-motion creatures with live actors, and the superimposing of matte paintings behind live footage. These techniques formed the basis for everything the legendary Ray Harryhausen would later do, and even Dennis Murin and the teams at ILM and now everything they and Weta and other digital effect houses use. The fact that he did all of this revolutionary work on a picture that is also so good is all the better.
King Kong. . .is a master’s class in how to integrate special effects into a narrative, make them essential but not distracting, and make the lead character an effect that can elicit actual emotions from the audience.
The story is that of Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a film director who has always specialized in adventure pictures in exotic locations with all-male casts. Denham decides that for his next picture, he’ll capitulate to popular demand and work a love story into his adventure format. An agent refuses to find him a girl, so he goes to find one himself. He stumbles upon Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a woman deeply affected by the Depression and on the verge of stealing an apple when Denham rescues her from certain arrest, buys her a meal and offers her the lead in his picture, but she has to decide right away because they sail the next morning.
She signs on, only to spend what must be months at sea, traveling from New York to a long distance past Sumatra to the possible mythical Skull Island which is a kind of Lost World where all sorts of creatures escaped extinction. When they finally arrive, the natives kidnap Ann to offer her to Kong, who is revealed to be an 80-foot-tall gorilla.
What follows is a master’s class in how to integrate special effects into a narrative, make them essential but not distracting, and make the lead character an effect that can elicit actual emotions from the audience. The marvelous thing here is that the effects hold up these 82 years later and are still worth studying.
Willis O’Brien had been working in special effects since 1915 and had done the stop-motion work on what could be considered King Kong’s precursor The Lost World from 1925. His work on Kong is astounding because of how detailed it is, not just for its time but for all time. Realism wasn’t much of a concern when making the picture, so making Kong (as well as the Brachiosaur) a carnivore was added to make him even more dangerous.
The effects would be worth the price of admission alone, but the story is just as compelling. Denham’s thrill seeking through cinema is easy to identify with, not to mention first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) falling in love with Ann, because it’s hard not to fall for Fay Wray. All of the live action sequences alternating between daring, exciting or tenderly romantic.
Cooper and Schoedsack were well versed in death-defying camerawork, having previously gotten face-to-lens with a man eating tiger for Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness in 1927. They composed the chase sequence, where Ann and Driscoll are running away from Kong, in a brilliant fashion, holding close on the two people with the fear that Kong was right behind them, even if you couldn’t see him.
The human miracle of the picture is Wray. She brings a tenderness and shyness to Ann that endears her to the crew, most notably Driscoll, and she also brought a great physicality to Ann in the way she showed her terror in addition to her marvelous scream — a scream that horror actresses have been chasing for 82 years.
They also managed to get some very good performances out of Anderson and Cabot, though Cabot was pretty wooden at times (something of a byproduct of the style of acting in early talkies). The two of them hold their own against a character that wasn’t there and was often acted out by director Cooper. The human miracle of the picture is Wray. She brings a tenderness and shyness to Ann that endears her to the crew, most notably Driscoll, and she also brought a great physicality to Ann in the way she showed her terror in addition to her marvelous scream — a scream that horror actresses have been chasing for 82 years. Her style is unaffected and more natural than many of her era, more suited to the screen than others who had come from the stage. Perhaps that is because she started off in movies as an extra when she was young and progressively got bigger parts. She is comfortable with the camera and how to modulate her voice for the sound equipment instead of the last row of the balcony.
Then there is Max Steiner’s brilliant score. Each section of music perfectly underscores what is happening in the film, never telegraphing or ordering us to feel a certain way, but always there to punch up a sequence and make everything more thrilling. Compiling theme after theme, it was one of the most sophisticated film scores of the early sound days and really set the stage for what was to come later.
And that brings us back to Willis O’Brien. It is always astounding, no matter how many times you see King Kong, how well the effects are integrated into the live action. Through rear projection, gorgeous matte paintings that blend in so well it’s hard to believe they aren’t shooting on location, expert stop-motion animation (something that very few were doing at the time) and extremely high attention to detail, O’Brien managed to create the first special effect that was not only a fully realized character, but one that elicited genuine pathos and sympathy. Kong was nothing more than a foot-tall rubber gorilla, but on screen he’s real and he’s a terror when he’s mad.
According to legendary stop-motion special effects artist Ray Harryhausen, director Cooper ‘just wanted to make a damn good piece of entertainment’ and in that, he succeeded and more. King Kong stands as one of the landmark special effects pictures and is still impressive today. But it’s more than an effects picture, it’s a great film, one that has stood the test of time decade after decade and still inspires people to this day. We would never have had The Lord of the Rings without King Kong, or any Star Wars or Jurassic Park or Avatar…the list goes on and on. Cooper, Schoedsack and O’Brien (affectionately called OB by Harryhausen, who worked with him on Mighty Joe Young in 1949) made a rare film that, despite advances in technology, doesn’t age. It just continues to amaze and inspire.
We would never have had The Lord of the Rings without King Kong, or any Star Wars or Jurassic Park or Avatar…the list goes on and on. Cooper, Schoedsack and O’Brien (affectionately called OB by Harryhausen, who worked with him on Mighty Joe Young in 1949) made a rare film that, despite advances in technology, doesn’t age. It just continues to amaze and inspire.