King Kong (1933)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 1/5/06
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Music: Max Steiner
Special Effects: Willis O'Brien
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot

An astounding groundbreaking film that defined new standards for visual effects, sound design, and music scoring. Eccentric filmmaker Carl Denham (gruff Robert Armstrong) charters a boat to an uncharted island in order to film what the natives refer to as Kong. He needs a leading lady for the film, and grabs a broke and helpless girl off the street named Anne Darrow (beautiful Fay Wray). The crew of the ship are none too happy about having a woman onboard, nor are they happy about the large supply of illegal explosives that they're carrying in the hold. Upon their arrival at Skull Island, they witness the natives performing a sacrifical ritual for Kong. Their presence spoils the proceedings, and the chief takes an immediate interest in Anne. Refusing to turn her over, Denham's team returns to their boat, only to have Anne kidnapped in the middle of the night by the sneaky natives. Attempting to save Anne, Denham and his men witness King Kong up close in all of his fury. He grabs Anne and runs off into the jungle with her. Denham gives pursuit, only to discover that the island is populated with dinosaurs and other giant beasts. Only Denham and first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) survive the onslaught, and Driscoll continues to follow Anne's trail while Denham retreats to the boat. Anne is miraculously rescued and Kong is knocked into submission by Denham's powerful gas bombs. From there, Denham transports Kong back to New York as a side show freak, but Kong manages to break free when he sees Anne on the stage. Kidnapping Anne, Kong runs rampant through New York City and eventually climbs the Empire State Building to escape persecution. Sadly, fighter planes are dispatched and Kong is eventually felled after a touching farewell scene with Anne. It was truly beauty that killed the beast.

This film pioneered so many things that we take for granted in modern cinema, including stop-motion animation, sound design, rear projection, travelling mattes, optical printing, matte paintings, and thematic music that ties directly to the action and pacing. Willis O'Brien's stop-motion work is amazing, even by today's standards. The amount of detail and soul in the characters is wonderful, and their movements are very realistic. The interactions with Kong and the live action characters is also quite convincing. By a stroke of luck, the DVD release contains the original 1933 cut of the film, and not the edited 1938 cut. Unfortunately, the fabled "Spider Pit" sequence is still lost.