King Kong Collector's Edition DVD Review

Written by Sham

DVD released by Warner Home Video

Directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Ashmore Creelman & Ruth Rose,based on an idea by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper
1933, Region 1 (NTSC), 104 minutes, Not rated
DVD released on November 22nd, 2005

Starring:
Fay Wray as Ann Darrow
Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham
Bruce Cabot as John “Jack” Driscoll
Frank Reicher as Capt. Englehorn
Sam Hardy as Charles Weston
Noble Johnson as Native Chief
Victor Wong as Charlie

Review:

“...one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one's own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.”

- Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist

Welcome to the movies.

King Kong is the greatest black and white film in the history of the cinema, and a sure candidate for the best movie ever made. It is a film that has become so mainstream, it has spawned countless imitations, many direct and indirect sequels, and even two remakes, one of which premiers on December 14 from acclaimed movie director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

And yet, with such an extensive list of films creditably influenced by Kong’s success, none have yet to display the horror, sentiment, and fantasy that made the 1933 film such a stunning achievement. (We’ll all have to wait and see how the latest remake compares).

Seventy-two years have passed since Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong debuted in theaters, and this was in a time when society still suffered from the Stock Market Crash and the Depression that resulted from it. Mind you, this was an era of complete desolation, when money was insufficient and jobs were meager. The entertainment industry (“talkies” of the late ’20s and early ’30s) suffered from the crisis as well. Movies weren’t making profit, and business far from flourished. Interest in movies, however, forever escalated. The general public, whether they had the money or not, desired to see these “talkies.”

King Kong was one of the first of the new generation of filmmaking. It began production only five years after the presumably first of the talkies, The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland in 1927, and popular for actor Al Jolson’s line “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

And audiences didn’t hear or see anything compared to what Kong accomplished. It required the use of large-scale creatures to hiss and roar, prey and attack, and live like actual characters, something audiences hadn’t experienced many times before, and not at all with sound. In a way, Kong would be known today as the Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a rip-roaring action adventure film with ancient monsters and inspired fantasy.

The plot was original for its time, and it still works marvelously today. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong – The Most Dangerous Game) is a passionate filmmaker looking for a leading lady for his next motion picture. He finds this lady in a woman named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray – Mystery of the Wax Museum), whose dazzling good looks and ear-piercing scream are perfect for the role.

With his cast and crew, he voyages to Skull Island and disrupts a ceremony of the island’s natives. These inhabitants take an extreme interest in Ann and offer six of their women in place of her. (This is a highly controversial sequence which many argue hints at an age of racial bigotry.) Of course, the filmmakers decline their proposal, but the natives take Ann anyway without consent or remorse. The filmmakers, discovering the kidnapping, come to realize that Ann is a bridal sacrifice, but not for the tribe – for the God of the island himself.

The giant ape. The legend. Kong.

The characters must endure many obstacles to save Ann as they fight prehistoric dinosaurs, oversized insects, and the maniacal giant gorilla himself. But is Kong really a menace, or an empathetic and misunderstood animal of the wild acting on natural impulse?

Special effects creator Willis O’Brien should leave you without any questions on the matter. His influential stop-motion animation is dated by the CGI standards of today, but they’re also extremely effective. O’Brien’s eighteen inch robotic Kong is an outstanding effect, whose facial features do a tremendous amount of work in setting up the film’s evocative and powerful climax. O’Brien isn’t the only genius here, though, as Max Steiner contributes to the movie’s impact by giving it a great score. When was the last time you saw a movie with a four minute overture in the beginning? King Kong’s score starts off sophisticated, builds to heart-racing, and concludes in melancholy, playing like a Greek tragedy by Sophocles or Euripides.

Actors turn in classy performances. Lines are delivered sincerely and promptly like most movies of the era. However, Fay Wray is excellent as Ann Darrow. One of the single best scenes in King Kong is when Carl Denham, played very hastily by Robert Armstrong, is directing Ann aboard his ship. He tells her to look upon something mysterious and horrible, and when he instructs her to “scream for her life,” she does – and your heart sinks and your face melts just as much as hers and every supporting actor on screen with her. Wray is a striking actress with physical onscreen dominance and vocal authority, and her performance here is — and will always be — known as the best she’s ever done. Wray passed away last year from natural causes, but her character, Ann, will long be remembered, much like the movie itself, and great movies in general.

Films, when done right, are immortal. They may sink into the shadows from time to time as other films obtain the focus of the movie going world, but they are not perpetually forgotten or disregarded. King Kong is such a film. “The Eighth Wonder of the World” rumbles out of the shadows and back into its rightful place in the spotlight with this 2-disc Collector’s Edition DVD.

Video and Audio:

King Kong looks better than it ever has in this standard version of the film that preserves its original theatrical exhibition.

This is certainly the least grain-filled, scratch-marked presentation to date. The picture is sharp and impressive, and certainly a fantastic cleanup job that must be seen to be appreciated.

Audio is presented in 2.0 mono. Everything sounds clean and precise. There weren’t any cases with hissing, popping, or alterations. The action and the dialogue go well together, too, and neither overpowers the other too much. Put the remote down — you won’t need it.

Special Features:

  • Commentary by Visual Effects Veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, With interpolated interview excerpts of Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray
  • Merian C. Cooper Movie Trailers Gallery
  • I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper
  • RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World
  • Original Creation Test Footage with Ray Harryhausen Commentary
  • Poster Recreations
  • King Kong’s Original Program
  • Tin Collector’s Case

King Kong comes fully equipped with two discs packed with commentaries, interviews, featurettes, trailers, and more — and the best part is it comes in an awesome tin collector’s case that opens like a book, complete with color poster recreations and the original program given out when King Kong was initially released.

The first of the many features is the commentary with Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, two successful stop-motion animation artists who were influenced by Willis O’Brien’s techniques. Most of what they talk about is they’re early experiences with King Kong as children and what they liked about it. Many times, Ray Harryhausen states how much he liked the score and the effectiveness it brought to the movie. The supplements of Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray are, while random, a nice addition to a very interesting commentary.

Following the commentary on Disc One is the Merian C. Cooper trailer gallery, featuring previews for Flying Down to Rio, Fort Apache, King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949), The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Son of Kong, and 3 Godfathers (1948). All of the trailers are good glimpses of the movies and are worth a look.

On Disc Two, we are first treated to I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. A fantastic 57-minute biography of one of film’s major influences, this feature illuminates the life of Merian C. Cooper. There are some interesting facts here about Cooper, including a fantastic story of how Cooper was believed to be killed in battle at one point, and also the obstacles Cooper endured to get King Kong made. Probably my favorite moment in the feature, however, is when a segment discusses the pioneer of colored films, using the process of two-color Technicolor, which would later lead to the development of the New Technicolor in the film Becky Sharp.

The next feature is actually a series of featurettes, compiling in at a whopping 157 minutes in runtime. This is The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World. Certainly one of the best featurettes on any DVD available in the market today, it also makes this excellent package one of the best DVDs available too.

The featurette begins with the origins of King Kong, both as a film and a character. Of course the character is a puppet — a well-conceived effect only eighteen inches high and operated through the use of stop-motion animation — but that’s the beauty of it all. It’s amazing how something so little could make a film that has become so big.

The next chapter stop is “Willis O’Brien and Creation,” an episode that reflects visual effects artist Willis O’Brien and his unmade film, Creation. It was a project by RKO Productions that would cost nearly $1 million to film. The studio never liked the idea of the movie, and, well, you get the picture on why it wasn’t made. Still, it’s an interesting segment, not only to see what Creation could have been, but what Willis O’Brien could have accomplished.

“Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder” is the third segment. This is definitely one of the better chapter stops, but also one of the shortest. Here, you’ll discover that the elevated train sequence wasn’t intended to be in the final version of movie, but was rather a last-minute scene added to give the film some extra running time. It also talks about a few of the visual effects in the climax of the movie when Kong goes on a rampage on the streets of New York City.

“A Milestone in Visual Effects” is an appropriate follow-up, which namely deals with — you guessed it — the visual effects of Kong. It’s interesting how the filmmakers never kept a thorough film record of how they conceived the effects. But yet, they had the time to make up an entire hoax to make people think Kong was actually a man in an ape suit, and Fay Wray was cut out and pasted into shots with Kong over and over again. I find an animatronics puppet of only eighteen inches tall much more interesting than a man in an ape costume. The interior designs of the animatronics are detailed and meticulous, and obviously a lot of effort was put in to making Kong come to life. The visual effects, while out-of-date, were obviously huge tasks for the filmmakers, and they’d put a lot of sweat into getting them to look as believable as possible.

“Passion, Sound, and Fury” is the fifth of the chapters, mostly detailing the sound effects and score used in the production of King Kong. The narrator says with precision, “Just a few short years after movies learned to talk, Kong had to roar.” And this was a huge task for the sound guys. But with this brief featurette, you’ll learn how the sound technicians accomplished what seemed to be the impossible.

“The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence” is easily one of the most captivating features I have ever had the pleasure of watching on a DVD. Coming in at a surprising 35 minutes, Mystery concerns the sequence in King Kong that was lost during re-release editing. The spider pit sequence, deemed too intense by audiences in 1933, was cut from the film and never seen again. So who better to try and recreate the film’s notorious sequence than its biggest fan? Peter Jackson, who helms 2005’s remake, has created an entire sequence with the technology available in 1932. No CGI. No computers. Nothing. Just the basics that Merian C. Cooper and friends had to work with. The sequence is an impressive achievement, and it alone is worth at least a third of the price of this DVD.

The last of the chapters is “King Kong’s Legacy,” a mandatory viewing if you want to understand the influence Kong had in the world of cinema.

The original Creation test footage with commentary by Ray Harryhausen is the next special feature. Harryhausen makes a very powerful statement when he says, “Who remembers the actors in The Lost World? You remember the dinosaurs.” To fully realize this quote, it takes a talented artist to make the “creatures” realistic and memorable, and Harryhausen talks about the idol that made it possible — Willis O’Brien — and his methods.

There is also quick access to Peter Jackson’s “Lost Spider Pit Sequence” if you don’t want to watch the behind-the-scenes of it.

The final features in this collection are the poster recreations and King Kong’s original program.

Grades:

Movie: 5 Stars – One of the greatest movies in film history. An absolute blast.
Video: 5 Stars – The picture is impressive with the cleanup of many artifacts and scratches.
Audio: 5 Stars – A very clean presentation; the best audio track to date.
Features: 5 Stars – An excellent and packed collection of bonus material. .
Overall: 5 Stars – One of the cinema’s very best films on one of the year’s best DVD’s.

Conclusion:

No film has ever had as much of an influence on the future of movies, and no film has matched the artistry and talent that made King Kong such an extraordinary masterpiece.

This is the ultimate movie in the ultimate DVD package — a collector’s dream come true.

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