by Alan Rode
And Still the Eighth Wonder of the World…King Kong (1933) reigns supreme at the Egyptian Theatre
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The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre resurrected the apotheosis of the fantasy genre, King Kong (1933) for a special 70th anniversary screening this past Saturday.
Judging by the queue that snaked from the front of the Egyptian Theatre, through the courtyard, and onto Hollywood Boulevard, one could be forgiven if it seemed more like the original 1933 opener of Kong. Although that storied event occurred down the street at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the special screening of this timeless classic was clearly one of the highlights of the Cinematheque’s fourth annual horror, fantasy and sci-fi festival that runs through August 27th. The rare opportunity to view a new 35mm print of this behemoth of adventure on the big screen clearly made the Eighth Wonder of the World the hottest weekend ticket in L.A.
Head programmer Dennis Bartok revved up an already enthusiastic sell-out crowd when he quickly handed his microphone to the legendary sci-fi, horror, and fantasy maven, Forrest J. Forry Ackerman. Ackerman, known to millions of kids who grew up during the 1960’s (including this writer) as the publisher of ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ magazine has probably viewed King Kong more often than any other human being, living or dead. Having recently recovered from a serious illness, the octogenarian publisher acknowledged a standing ovation, and by way of introduction, related a series of amusing vignettes about the original Radio picture that was produced by the legendary David O. Selznick. From recreating the sound of the 1932 radio promos, to discussing the monstrous (and censored after the initial sneak preview) spider at the bottom of Skull Island’s ravine as well as attending the Chinese Theatre premiere, ‘Forry’ remains fixated on Kong, seventy years after his initial viewing.
Despite having seen King Kong countless times on television, I found the film still fresh and startlingly good. The print quality was excellent, the legendary Max Steiner musical score riveting and the frequently sappy dialogue spouted by Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, etc. delightful and amusing. Roll in the wholesome screams of Fay Wray (Miss Wray, incredibly, is still around, at age 96!) amid the non-stop action and you have what Kong hunter, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) would call, a swell picture.
Oh yeah, the special effects. Well, they’re still special. Although stop-motion animation is largely a historical relic in this digital age, no one did it better than the legendary Willis O’Brien. O’Brien, who was the Godfather for a succeeding generation of cinema animators including the great Ray Harryhausen, turned out some classic animated scenes in this film that have simply never been equaled. Kong’s fight with the Allosaurus on Skull Island, his encounter with a New York subway train as well as his fatal amble up the Empire State Building are timeless pieces of film. It is hard to comprehend that these sequences were done with the technical equivalent of stone knives and bearskins—they still hold up extremely well.
King Kong is timeless because it is at heart, a unique story of unrequited love. No matter how improbable or bizarre, no matter how many people are brutally done in by Kong during the film, the innate sadness of his hopeless obsession with Fay Wray that culminates with his ultimate demise remains curiously compelling. It was beauty killed the beast. could be the most appropriate closing line in motion picture history.
Films such as King Kong endure because audiences then and now appreciate nothing better than a great story.
Alan Rode is a film historian and writer who lives in San Diego, California.
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