This is one of the most-requested genre discs ever, and the major reason given for its delay was a desire to "do it right". A more curmudgeonly sort might grumble that it is also to glean some money from the high-profile Peter Jackson remake… but it’s Christmastime as I post this, so let us at least admit that in the "do it right" category, Warner Home Video has largely succeeded.
Major showman Carl Denning (Robert Armstrong) has a terrific hook for his new adventure docu-drama: a map to an uncharted island, a literal starving actress, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) for a box office draw, and one word - Kong. The map leads to a much larger subject than expected: a 50 foot ape that takes an immediate fancy to the blonde actress. Subsequently gassed into submission (after the island's saurian fauna has killed off half the crew), Kong is displayed in New York City as "The Eighth Wonder of the World", naturally escapes, and with Ann as an unwilling traveling companion, climbs the Empire State Building for his last stand against the technological marvel of the age, the biplane.
From this far remove, it is almost impossible to appreciate what an impact this movie had on audiences in 1933. When I finally saw it on a big screen nearly forty years later, I was acutely aware that this hulking monster was, in reality, only 18 inches tall – but in its time, this movie was an unparalleled technical achievement, not only in its Willis O'Brien-directed visual effects, but in the realm of sound editing and musical scoring as well. To make a rather ham-fisted comparison, it was arguably the Star Wars of its day. A lot of filmmakers –including the aforementioned Jackson – got their initial shove into the field by a viewing – if not by repeated viewings - of this movie.
When I say they've done it right, I mean it – this is a beautifully restored print of Kong, with fine grain, lush grays and deep blacks. There is some flutter evident in a few scenes, but this is mercifully kept in check through most of the film. Audio, though low, is free from the hiss that has been the bane of other editions of older films. Disc One opens with a playful, sepia-toned faux newsreel introducing the menu - producer Cooper, on whom Carl Denham is based, would likely have approved.
Most of the "Do It Right" extras are to found on the second disc: Two lengthy, specially made features. The first, I'm King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper, is a bio of the Hollywood producer and legend, who could also list war hero and adventurer amongst his many achievements. The feature finds its firmest footing when speaking of his filmic legacy, including Kong, many of the John Ford classics, and – this was a surprise to me – This Is Cinerama. When the subject is Kong, the feature drifts dangerously close to becoming a mini-doc on Willis O'Brien, but this is understandable.
The second, RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World, takes a deep, yet somehow meandering, look at the evolution of Kong. Though it retreads some of the material in I'm King Kong, it does so lightly, and seemingly touches on every aspect of making the movie. There are a couple of false notes, however – there is a reading of the film treatment for Creation, the O'Brien movie which was cancelled (but most of its assets moved to Kong) which overstays its welcome, and there is a section where Jackson and his cohorts, using period technology, attempt to recreate the infamous Lost Spider Pit Sequence. Ultimately, this section should have been spun off into its own featurette, as it also recreates the effect that caused Cooper to excise the scene in the first place – it brings the story to a dead stop.
It is also possible to watch the reconstructed spider pit segment and the small amount of footage completed for Creation with commentary by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.
It was to be expected that the movie on Disc One would also support an audio commentary by none other than Harryhausen himself (one of those impressionable children who sat through Kong in a first-run theater, and later worked with O'Brien himself on the beloved Mighty Joe Young) and FX supervisor Ken Ralston. Unfortunately, here is where the Did It Right factor falters, as the track simply fails. That both men love this movie is beyond denying, but gems of wisdom and technical knowledge are few and far between, with the track basically running to "oohs" "aahs" and "BAM!"s. Tape recordings of the late Cooper and Fay Wray surface occasionally, with Wray so bright and well-spoken that one positively yearns to hear more from her.
Disc One ends in a stellar manner, however, for fans of movie trailers, with a Merian C. Cooper Trailer Gallery, which nets us previews for King Kong, Son of Kong, Flying Down to Rio, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, Mighty Joe Young, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers (what? No Quiet Man?)
Warner has also released this disc set in a Collector's Tin which includes a reproduction of the original movie program, postcards and a mail-in offer for a poster reproduction; and as part of a three-movie box set which also holds Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young. Any of these would please a genre film fan... but it must also be admitted that King Kong, at least, deserves a place in the collection of any film buff, especially with this fine edition.
Dr. Freex, 12/25/2005