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Cinematic lightning in his grip

The Original 'Kong' Was Laden With Depth. Can Peter Jackson Continue The Evolution?

November 06, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"LISTEN," says tough-talking filmmaker Carl Denham, and everybody does. "I'm going out and make the greatest picture in the world, something that nobody's ever seen or heard of. You'll have to think up a whole lot of new adjectives when I come back."

Denham didn't come back with a movie, he came back with a gorilla as big as the Ritz, but "King Kong," the motion picture Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made about Denham's fictional adventures, came surprisingly close to fulfilling that bombastic promise.

A sensation on its release in 1933, considered one of the most successful films ever made and so popular it inspired a rushed sequel ("Son of Kong") that came out later the same year, this black-and-white item continued to enrapture viewers well into the era of wide-screen color.

In 1970, for instance, a 9-year-old boy saw "King Kong" and locked in his career plans right then and there. "I owe 'King Kong' a huge debt personally," Peter Jackson has said. "I truly don't think I would have been a filmmaker if I hadn't been exposed to that movie on TV in New Zealand."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
"King Kong" character -- An article in the Nov. 6 Calendar section about the movie "King Kong" referred to the Jack Driscoll character as fictional filmmaker Carl Denham's cameraman. Driscoll is first mate of the S.S. Venture, which took Denham and his leading lady on their adventure.

With the monstrously successful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy behind him, Jackson will repay that debt with a brand new version of "Kong" starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody due in theaters next month. So with fans counting the days until the Dec. 14 release, not to mention the 1933 film's American DVD debut a month earlier, this would be the time to examine the factors that made that original version potent enough to enthrall viewers to this day. And maybe glance back at what went famously wrong with 1976's feeble remake starring Jessica Lange in her film debut.

To understand the 1933 version's success, you have to start with how close two of its key characters, director Denham (the irresistibly intense Robert Armstrong) and cameraman Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), were to producer-directors Cooper and Schoedsack. In fact, as related in Orville Goldner and George E. Turner's "The Making of King Kong," when Cooper hired his wife, tyro writer Ruth Rose, to do the final polish on the "Kong" script, he told her flatly, "Put us in it .... Give it the spirit of a real Cooper-Schoedsack expedition."

For with Cooper as the driving visionary and Schoedsack as the unflappable director-cameraman, these two were adventurers before they were filmmakers. As related in a new Cooper biography, "Living Dangerously" by Mark Cotta Vaz, the two had made a pair of successful ethnographic documentaries in faraway places -- "Grass" in what was then Persia, "Chang" in Siam -- that fully lived up to Cooper's celebrated determination to keep his films "distant, difficult and dangerous."

In fact, when Denham complains that critics are always bemoaning the lack of a love interest in his films, he's echoing what was actually said about the Cooper-Schoedsack films. And the language Rose created for the natives of Skull Island was based on the idiom of the Nias Islanders, near Sumatra, whom she and Cooper had visited. Fearful that disguised indecent language might sneak on-screen, the Production Code Administration reportedly insisted on a translation of all Skull Island dialogue before giving the film its approval.

Though Cooper had been dreaming of a giant-ape movie for years and even thought of pitting his ape against other species after reading W. Douglas Burden's "Dragon Lizards of Komodo," others had put gorillas in movies before him. These included the 1932 jungle documentary "Congorilla" as well as the infamous and eventually banned 1931 exploitation film "Ingagi," a fake documentary described by Thomas Doherty in "Pre-Code Hollywood" as dealing with "the racially and sexually charged promise of a carnal union between African women and jungle apes."

Cooper's interest in the gorilla equation was in the considerably more poetic "beauty and the beast" element that still resonates today. It runs through the entire film, from the fake Arabic proverb that opens things (written, naturally, by Cooper) to Denham's closing line pooh-poohing the attacking airplanes (which had Cooper and Schoedsack behind the controls) and exclaiming, "It was beauty killed the beast."


MORE than simply coming up with the idea, Cooper was instrumental in hiring the right people to bring it to the screen. Making a film like "Kong" succeed completely is the equivalent of pulling off a complicated pool shot; as critic David Thomson puts it in his "A Biographical Dictionary of Film," "Kong" stands as a "great testament to collaboration, serendipity, and blind chance."

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