April 7th, 2008

carole lombard 01
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"Kong": 75 years of going ape

Seventy-five years ago today -- Friday, April 7, 1933 -- Americans were settling into the governmental and economic changes brought on by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, which had been in power for slightly more than a month. Others were awaiting the start of the major league baseball season, which would begin in less than a week.

And a film that would both change movie history and rescue a foundering studio opened nationwide. That film was...

"King Kong" has become a Hollywood perennial -- twice remade (Dino DeLaurentis' horrid 1976 version, Peter Jackson's more respectful 2005 version), regularly revived, still beloved for its adventurous story and memorable scenes. And most Americans saw it for the first time 75 years ago today.

(Its actual premiere had come in New York City on March 2, as RKO took the unprecedented step of running it at two midtown Manhattan palaces -- Radio City Music Hall and the even larger Roxy a few blocks away. A total of 50,000 tickets were sold on that first day.)

"Kong" was a triumph for producer Merian C. Cooper, who had filmed several notable and popular exotic documentaries in the 1920s. (He named the title creature, as "kong" is Malaysian for "gorilla"; RKO head David O. Selznick added "King" for commercial purposes, but otherwise had little to do with the film.)

"King Kong" works for a variety of reasons. The giant ape is both horrifying and sympathetic, often simultaneously. The special effects, primitive by today's standards, nevertheless set the proper tone for the film; they never descend to the 1930s equivalent of camp. Max Steiner's music is magnificent. And above all, there's Fay Wray, the object of Kong's desire.

Fay Wray -- a bright woman whose husbands included writers John Monk Saunders and Robert Riskin -- had a long and successful career, appearing in all sorts of films. (If you've never seen one of her early movies, Erich von Stroheim's "The Wedding March" from 1928, by all means rent it; she is exquisite, and so is the film.) Over the years, she worked with the likes of William Powell and Gary Cooper. But remove "King Kong" from her resume, and she'd be on the level of a Sylvia Sidney, recalled by relatively few. While it didn't catapult Wray into the top rank of actresses, it at least kept her remembered and beloved, even beyond her death in August 2004, a month or so before her 97th birthday. In "Kong," the ape is larger than life, and in a way, the film had the same effect on her.

And yet, Wray nearly didn't get the chance to don a blonde wig and play Ann Darrow. Cooper's first choice for the part was none other than...Jean Harlow, who turned it down. (She was then under contract to Howard Hughes, and had yet to sign with MGM.) While Harlow evolved into a wonderful actress, she was probably right in rejecting this part; she probably wouldn't have been able to convey the texture that Wray -- who already had a few "scream queen" parts under her belt -- brought to the film. (For more on one of these movies, "Doctor X," please see http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/2008/04/pre-code-horror-doctor-x-actors-often.html.)

Tonight, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is commemorating the anniversary of "Kong" by showing it at 8 p.m., followed by several other notable films from 1933: "Dinner At Eight" (10 p.m.), "Little Women" (midnight), "42nd Street" (2 p.m.) and "Queen Chrstina" (3:45 a.m.).
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