JIM LICHNEROWICZ
Still the Eighth Wonder of the World
King Kong King Kong

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I don’t update this page very often but when I do it’s an event, at least it is for me so please pay attention and read on. As I devote this latest installment to Kong, the reigning King of Hollywood’s fantasy/adventure film genre you’re probably wondering, what? Another column devoted to a monster movie? Universals’ Horror Classics were the subject of the last column! So why would I throw myself out there again and gush over an old B&W relic of Hollywood’s early days? Because it’s King Kong of course, and this year the big guy is celebrating his eightieth birthday.

It was in 1933 that the world first got a glimpse at this cinematic landmark, and quite frankly, the world hasn’t been the same since, at least the world of movies, that is. I remember seeing the film for the first time when I was ten, sitting there spellbound with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. I marveled at the dinosaurs, thrilled to the exciting escapes, and moved by Kong’s last desperate attempt to escape the madness of his concrete jungle. Try putting yourself in the time and place and think of what a thrill it must have been seeing this film for the first time with its lavish sets, stunning special effects, riveting music score and a breathless pace that left audiences gasping for relief. The groundbreaking work of special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien and the original story and direction by Merian C. Cooper made for a perfect blend of fantasy, horror, and just plain action adventure, creating a standard that has been emulated for decades. The film’s thrilling climax with Kong and Fay Wray atop New York’s Empire State Building is a quintessential cinematic moment in time, and an image that has been forever etched onto our cinematic memory banks. Many have tried to imitate its success but none have surpassed or even equaled the original 1933 feature’s sheer spectacle and pure originality.

Recently the Fox Pomona Theater celebrated the 80th anniversary of this monumental movie moment with a special screening to show fans how it would have played on the big screen, and audiences were amazed at how well the big guy has held up over the past eight decades. To supplement this special afternoon, the Friends of Fox invited film historians and Kong aficionados who praised the film’s many assets offering their opinions on why this film has withstood the test of time. There were props and models on hand made by artists who were inspired enough by “Kong” to pursue special effects or make-up as a career, and a panel discussion provided context and insight into why we hold this film in such high esteem. Few films from the thirties still resonate with this much power and passion. The simple adventure story combined with the classic “Beauty and the Beast” angle made for a winning combination that has captivated generations of fans for decades. There have been many sequels and remakes many of which weren’t so kind to the big guy’s reputation. Adaptations like the 1962 Toho-produced “King Kong VS. Godzilla” had the two iconic monsters battling for world domination. The 1976 Dino De Laurentiis production famously resurrected the genre and brought Jessica Lange into Kong’s furry palms. Though a poor substitute for the original, this version did have its moments and famously played up the “Beauty and the Beast” storyline which was only hinted at in the original. Thanks to some state-of-the-art robotic effect which gave Kong realistic facial expressions, and a poignant and uncredited performance by makeup wizard Rick Baker, the 1976 “King Kong” paid tribute to the original without poking fun at it or deflating its legendary mystique. Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic remake was a tour de force of technical wizardry that paid homage to the original in many subtle and not so subtle ways. This version expanded Kong’s story to three hours, fleshed out his primeval universe and enhanced the story as never before, but despite its technical brilliance and a two hundred million dollar budget even it fell short of capturing a magic that could never be duplicated. Eighty years after its release, the original 1933 version still remains the best of the bunch.

Shortly after I saw the film for the first time I remember obtaining a “King Kong” comic book. It was published by Gold Key Comics and featured a vivid adaptation of the 1933 film with striking visuals and color panels, making every picture come alive with graphic intensity. This was certainly one of the earliest graphic novels I can recall and it could hold up well against today’s contemporary comic books. I wore out the cover reading it and re-reading it between TV airings of the feature which played on local Chicago movie stations during special themed weeks like “Gorilla My Dreams” and “Go Ape Week.” The comic book kept me safely in Kong’s world in between the infrequent TV airings offering a kind of solace not unlike what Kong must have felt on his island domain. Much has happened in the decades that have passed, and technology has surpassed the original feature’s ability to wow today’s attention-challenged youth. But every once in a while I dig out my DVD and find myself returning to Skull Island to relive the comfort and security of a primordial realm where natives were savage, dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, and Kong was the undisputed King.

To see the “Out & About” segment covering the 80th anniversary of “King Kong” consult the “Schedule” link of the “Out & About” website or view it on line at SCVTV.com