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KING KONG 1933 SPECIAL EDITION
(Very highly recommended)
DVD Review by: Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Region
: Unknown
Audio Commentaries:
Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston with Merian C. Cooper, Fay Wray
Number if Discs: 2, Released: 11/22/05.
MSRP: Starting at $14.95
With its 1933 release of King Kong, RKO saw that it had a huge hit on its hands and as a consequence, had considerable confidence in its choice of Merian C. Cooper as the studio's new production chief. The film was the culmination of a dream by Cooper (and his close friend Ernest Schoedsack who co-directed the film) and also the vindication of his faith in the concept when most of the Hollywood establishment refused to back his idea. The "beauty and the beast" story of a giant gorilla found on a remote island and brought to New York as an entertainment attraction for the masses seemed to strike a chord with moviegoers due both to the film's shock value as well as the sympathetic manner in which Kong was portrayed. The film returned $2 million on a cost of under $700,000 and occasioned a re-release only five years later.

Viewed some 70 plus years after its initial release, King Kong might seem like just another monster flick to the uninitiated. But it's far more than that. Filmgoers had never seen anything quite like Kong on the screen. Oh, actors had dressed up in ape suits for both horrific and comedic effect before, but the end result was just what you might expect - unconvincing at best and laughable when it wasn't supposed to be. Kong was different. He looked big; he looked real; and he looked scary. He had a personality of his own and he projected human characteristics that a viewer could identify with as well. Yet Kong was never more than an 18-inch flexible doll (except for a few scenes that required the construction of a giant-sized head, a hand, and a leg).

What brought so much of it all to life was the magic of stop-motion animation. It was animation that basically involved setting up the desired action on a table that included the model of Kong amongst whatever scenery was called for and then exposing one frame of film. Adjustments were then made to the Kong miniature on the special effects table to reflect the next step in the desired action and another frame of film was exposed. With film passing through a camera at 24 frames per second, one can appreciate how long it would take to get even one minute of completed filming and the degree of exactness and patience in working that was required. Fortunately, RKO had Willis O'Brien on its staff. O'Brien was the pioneer of stop-motion work and had previously had some success with it in 1925's The Lost World. He was now experimenting with more elaborate effects for a film that was to be called Creation. It was never completed, but the work that O'Brien was doing on it did serve as inspiration for many of the Kong effects and techniques.
The special effects work on Kong went far beyond the basic stop-motion activity. It included elaborate miniature sets that combined the stop-motion tables with matte paintings behind them and paintings on glass in front. In addition, live action footage of the film's human stars was shot and later projected on miniature screens placed within the stop-motion sets. Thus were created many of the scenes that show Kong interacting with those characters.

In addition to the realistic visual effects, Cooper and Schoedsack were also looking for the right sounds to enhance the spectacle. Murray Spivack was tasked with producing all the sound effects for the film and he found himself developing new ways of creating and mixing sounds that would become industry standards. For the first time also, an entirely new motion picture film score was created especially for the film incorporating many of the music score forms that would also become standard procedure in later years - for example, themes for each of the main characters that would recur at appropriate times throughout the film. For this, credit goes to composer Max Steiner who would come to be recognized as one of the giants of motion picture scoring.

With all the attention to Kong, one can tend to overlook the flesh-and-blood actors in the film. Robert Armstrong plays the adventurer and showman, Carl Denham, who brings Kong to New York. Denham was obviously modeled on Merian Cooper himself, just as Ernest Schoedsack had himself immortalized in the cast as the Denham's co-adventurer Jack Driscoll, as portrayed by Bruce Cabot. Fay Wray, of course, is the best-remembered member of the cast as Ann Darrow who gets captured by Kong on the island where he is first found and later finds herself carried to the top of the Empire State Building by Kong. Armstrong and Wray particularly give reasonable portrayals, given their clichéd parts, that for the most part manage to avoid the rather mannered performances that tended to dominate more than a few early sound films. Viewers should keep their eyes open for Cooper and Schoedsack themselves, as they make cameo appearances as the flyers of the plane that's responsible for the film's climactic moment.

Warner Bros.' two-disc release of King Kong on DVD has been a number of years in coming as the studio tried to find the best possible elements to work from. It's an understatement to say that the wait has been worth it. Although the film's original elements no longer exist and a version edited to fit the needs of the Production Code in the late 1930s had been the standard available for many years, Warners was able to utilize various versions of film available domestically and abroad in a thorough restoration that recreates the original film quite majestically. The full frame image offers very fine image detail and moderate film grain that gives a very film-like viewing experience. Contrast is good with blacks being very deep and whites acceptably clean. This is far and away the best I have ever seen the film look. The mono sound is in great shape offering clear dialogue and nicely-defined sound effects. There is some minor background hiss, but it's never intrusive. Max Steiner's score sounds fine and the film's overture is included. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.

The set's supplements are superb. The first disc contains an audio commentary by visual effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with comments interpolated from past interviews with Merian Cooper and Fay Wray. The commentary is an entertaining one, using what's on the screen to prompt memories that result in great reminiscences or anecdotes rather than providing in-depth analyses of methodologies and the like. Cooper and Wray's comments are limited, but usually pertinent. The other supplement on the first disc is a trailer gallery of eight films with which Cooper was involved. The titles are: Flying Down to Rio, King Kong, Son of Kong, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, Mighty Joe Young, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers.

Disc two contains three supplements. The first is a detailed profile of Merian Cooper prepared by Kevin Brownlow's Photoplay Productions, entitled I'm King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. Clocking in at just under an hour in length, this gives good insight into Cooper's career utilizing plenty of film clips and comments from various film historians and Cooper biographers. Even more impressive is a two-and-a-half hour documentary in seven parts that conveys everything you could possibly want to know about the making-of the film. RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World is accessible by play-all or individual chapter options. Its highlight is the section dealing with the re-creation of "The Spider Pit", one of the film's sequences that was cut from the final version because Cooper felt that it slowed down the action. Peter Jackson, director of the new forthcoming King Kong theatrical feature, along with his associates managed to recreate the sequence using existing historical information on it and stop-motion techniques replicating the original methods. The resulting six-minute sequence (which is included on the disc) is amazingly faithful to the look and feel of the original feature. It was obviously a true labour of love and is almost worth the price of the disc alone. Rounding out the second disc is original footage from the Willis O'Brien Creation film, accompanied by narration by Ray Harryhausen.

KING KONG © 2006 Turner Home Entertainment Company.
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2006 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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