Then & Now – King Kong – By Dennis Grisbeck

The next installment of the "Then and Now" series examines what is undoubtedly one of the best known films of all time: "King Kong." The original version, released in 1933, was a desperate bid to save the RKO movie production company from bankruptcy. It starred a few known actors at the time, but it was the magical special effects created by the superlative Willis O’Brien that propelled the film into its deserved position as one of the great film classics.

Dino De Laurentiis’s remake, made 43 years later in 1976, is a typical De Laurentiis production. Made for the exorbitant sum of $24 million (for 1976 at least), the movie was a financial success (running up over $80 million world wide), but a critical failure. De Laurentiis, renowned for his "extravagant" film productions (i.e., bombs… such as his killer whale "epic," Orca (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Dune (1984)) remakes Kong into a farce. (As a side note, Dino toyed with the idea making a film in which Kong battles the killer whale from Orca. Unfortunately, he dropped the project… ah… one can only dream of what that would have been like!)

Opening Credits:

Original Release (1933): Bold lettering graces the screen, illuminated by streaks of light suggestive of spot-lights, elegance, and excitement.
Remake (1976): Simple title using what I think is a rather smallish font with which to present the "Eighth Wonder of the World". The small print beneath the title, "….By Dino De Laurentiis Corp.", should set alarm bells off in the alert viewer’s head.

The Heroes:

Original Release (1933) – Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong): Carl Denham: adventurer, photographer, and showman. Denham comes across a map showing the location of an uncharted island. On this island purportedly lives a giant beast, and I think you know who I mean… Denham initially sets out to simply film the creature, but ends up gassing Kong and taking him back to New York for exhibition… with disastrous results.
Original Release (1933) – John "Jack" Driscoll (Bruce Cabot): The ship’s first mate, initially skeptical of having a woman on board, he eventually falls in love and becomes engaged to the beautiful Ann. After Kong runs off with Ann, Jack risks life and limb in the dangerous jungles of Kong’s island in his efforts to rescue her.
Remake (1976) – Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges): In the remake, Jack is cast as pseudo-hippy environmentalist cum primate paleontologist. Jack stows away on the petroleum exploration ship, "Petrox Explorer", to see if the rumors of a "giant beast" are true. To nobody’s surprise, Jack butts heads with the Evil Capitalist / Environmental Rapist exhibition leader, Fred (Charles Grodin), while eventually falling in love with Dwan, the Damsel in Distress.

The Beauty :

Original Release (1933) – Ann Darow (Fay Wray): Denham finds the lovely Ann, desperate and broke, wandering the streets of New York. He convinces her to come along on the expedition in order to star in his newest and greatest production (although he doesn’t tell her who the films true ‘star’ really is, until it’s too late…)
Remake (1976) – Dwan (Jessica Lange): The aspiring actress (and air-head) Dwan (no, not ‘Dawn’, she switched the two letters so it would be more memorable… um, ok.) is found floating on a life raft in the middle of the ocean by the crew of "Petrox Explorer." She tags along to the island, gets captured by natives, and eventually is snatched up by the amorous Kong.

The Beast:

Original Release (1933): Through the talents of special-effects artist Willis H. O’Brien, the 18-inch doll comes to life and takes his rightful place in cinematic history. Using the newest special effects technique, stop-motion photography, the movie audiences at the time couldn’t believe that Kong was not real: it was even reported people actually fainted in the theaters!
Remake (1976): The "new" Kong, created by Rick Baker, is alas, a man in a monkey suit (albeit a very advanced monkey suit). Although Kong’s facial expressions were impressive at times, it’s impossible not to forget that, well, it’s a guy in a suit smashing up a bunch of miniatures. The new Kong also had a more sinister look about him, as opposed to the original, whom I felt had a certain wild naivety, which led to a deeper feeling of sympathy and compassion when he was gunned down at the end of the film.

"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead" Old Arabian Proverb The opening words to the original King Kong portend a tale of "beauty and the beast," but a tale of such magnitude and impact as was never seen before. In 1933, the US was still reeling from the Great Depression, and the people desperately needed a way to escape the terrible memories of the previous years. One film production company, RKO Pictures, was on the brink of bankruptcy. The company was in desperate need of a success in order to survive; a film that would appeal to the public’s imagination and need to escape reality, even if just for 90 minutes. Writers Merian Cooper and Edgar Wallace had just the solution: An adventure story of gigantic dimensions, a tragic love story of beauty and the beast, and last but not least, a horror story to frighten and awe the audiences. Enter "King Kong."

The original film featured daring adventurer and film maker, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), traveling to an uncharted island in search of a legendary giant creature. His goal: make a film with the monster and a beautiful woman, thus ensuring him the greatest block-buster movie the world has ever seen. Denham finds the perfect girl for the part, Ann (Fay Wray), standing in a soup line (a sight not at all unfamiliar to moviegoers at that time). Denham convinces Ann to come along on the adventure, but doesn’t reveal their destination or the nature of the "creature" until they are well at sea.

Upon reaching the island, Denham and the others discover a gigantic wall. In front of a massive gate in the wall, a group of natives are about to send a reluctant virgin to whatever awaits her on the other side. When the natives spot Ann, they eagerly try to "purchase" her from Denham and Co. When Denham refuses, the natives get belligerent and Denham wisely beats a hasty retreat back to the boat.

Later that night, the natives sneak up to the boat, capture Ann and deliver her to Kong. Instead of eating her, Kong becomes infatuated with Ann and carries her back to his lair. Back on the boat, the Chinese cook, Charlie, discovers that Ann has been abducted and a rescue party is formed. The party storms the native’s village, force open the gates, and make their way into the jungle. Various fights with all types of dinosaurs and other beasties ensue, before the ship’s first mate, Jack, steals Ann away from Kong and returns to the others.

Realizing that his treasured beauty has been stolen from him, Kong gives chase and is captured after being knocked unconscious by one of Denham’s "gas bombs." Kong is (somehow) taken back to New York where Denham intends to tour the world with him and Ann. (You can almost see the dollar signs in his eyes.) When photographers rush the stage to take pictures, Kong believes the flash bulbs are harming Ann. Then Kong goes into a rage, and breaks free of his bonds.

As Ann escapes in the chaos, Kong raises hell in downtown New York before finally finding her. Kong sweeps her up in his giant hand, and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Once Kong is precariously perched at the top, the air force appears and an exciting air battle ensues, resulting in Kong being mortally wounded by machine-gun fire, and plummeting to his death on the street below. The film ends with Denham standing beside Kong’s bloody remains and saying the films famous closing line: "No, it wasn’t airplanes… It was beauty killed the beast."

The remake, is broadly faithful to the original story, but with some differences. The daring adventurer Denham is replaced by the egotistical, greedy oil company executive Fred Wilson (Played with great relish by Charles Grodin who chews the scenery with obvious pleasure). Fred travels to the island in search of new oil reserves and it’s just by chance that they stumble upon Kong. When Fred discovers that the oil deposits are worthless, he decides to take Kong back to New York to try and recoup his financial losses. After Kong breaks free in New York, Fred meets his early demise at the bottom of a Kong’s foot when he gets stomped into pulp. (Well, you know that no 1970’s oil company exec can go unpunished!)

The "damsel in distress" is played quite well by both Fay Wray and Jessica Lange. Jessica received a lot of criticism for her "air-headed" portrayal of Dwan. In fact, Jessica didn’t appear in any other film for over 3 years after King Kong because of the negative reviews the film received. She is certainly not a bad actress, in fact, she has 2 Oscars and numerous other acting awards. (Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie (1982) and Best Actress for Blue Sky (1994).) However, her character is a bit, well, too air-headed in the Kong remake, with lines that propel her character into the realm of disbelief. For example, asking Kong, "I’m a Libra, what sign are you?" or saying to Kong that "It’s a sign of insecurity… when you knock over trees." Although these crappy lines are not Lange’s fault, it certainly doesn’t bring much credibility to either her character or the film itself.

I believe that Jeff Bridges did a decent job playing the love interest, Jack. However, in the remake Jack is an environmentalist who roots for Kong (even cheering when Kong destroys some attack helicopters), while in the original, Jack sees Kong as nothing more than a wild, dangerous beast.

My biggest complaint with the remake is its lack of imagination and enthusiasm. Yes, Kong does what he’s suppose to do: stomps people, fights a monster (a rubber snake, more on that soon), smashes some buildings, climbs a really tall building, and gets shot down. However, the new Kong seems to just be going through the motions; you can almost imagine him taking taking a cigarette and banana break whenever the director yells "Cut!" The original Kong had an aura of savage, uncontrollable power about him: He was a no-nonsense, dinosaur-killing, cop-stomping, train-smashing SOB that was never going to be tamed. Take for example the two different ways that Kong was presented to the public once he was taken back to New York:

In the original, Kong is shown chained to what is almost a crucifix: A draconian steel structure with massive bars and chains designed for only one purpose: to try and contain the ferocious Kong.

Compare this impressive entrance with the display shown in the new Kong: Kong is draped in a giant gasoline pump and is wearing a goofy golden crown on his head! The nerve! The original Kong would have never gone for that! The indignity!

Another difference that I noticed in the 2 films was the total lack of atmosphere on Kong’s island in the remake. Take the original "King Kong": Kong battles a tyrannosaurus rex, a giant snake, and a pterodactyl, all in beautifully choreographed fight sequences. (In fact, the famous fight scene between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus was choreographed by an ex-wrestler, thus giving the scene a wonderful sense of realism and excitement.) An interesting side note to the original film: The well-known scene where Kong shakes the sailors off of a fallen tree and down into a chasm originally contained scenes of giant spiders and scorpions devouring the hapless victims at the bottom of the ravine. However, the audiences found the scenes so horrible that they either ran from the theater or talked about the scenes for the rest of the movie and didn’t pay attention to the remainder of the story! Cooper, the film’s director, immediately cut the scenes for the re-release. Unfortunately, these cut scenes were lost and have never been located.

In the remake, the sailors make their way through the jungle and meet no monsters whatsoever! (Kong does however rack up a kill count by shaking sailors into a canyon in the "fallen tree" scene, but alas, they plunge into a river instead of a giant-spider infested chasm. Boring!) In fact, in the original Kong had to battle no less than three separate vicious beasts on the way back to his lair, while the new Kong only meets one monster: a silly looking red-eyed giant snake. The "battle" is perfunctory, boring, and looks like exactly what it is: A man in an ape-suit rolling around with a rubber snake.

Passing judgment is easy on this one. The original King Kong is a beautifully crafted masterpiece, full of excitement, atmosphere, emotion, and tragedy. The remake is a Dino De Laurentiis production.

Need I say more?

Dennis Grisbeck

Further Comparisons:

"King Kong " (1933)

"King Kong " (1976)
Run Time 100 min 134 min
Tagline "The most awesome thriller of all time!" "The most exciting original motion picture event of all time."
Director Merian C. Cooper John Guillermin
Starring Actor Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin
Starring Actress Fay Wray Jessica Lange
Monster’s Demise Shot down by bi-planes from the Empire State Building Shot down by plastic G.I. Joe helicopters from the World Trade Center buildings.
Kill Count Three dinosaurs, numerous villagers and New Yorkers. One rubber snake, one greedy oil executive, and numerous New Yorkers.
Budget $670,000 (1933) $24,000,000 (1976, est.)
Trivia The model for King Kong was only 18 inches tall.

There are no men in ape suits in the entire movie.

To show their disappoint at Dino’s decision to have Kong climb the WTC, employees of the Empire State Building picketing the WTC dressed in monkey suits.

Barbara Streisand was originally considered for the part of Dwan.