“From thy wedding with the creature who touches heaven, lady God preserve thee.”
Kong at the wall. Richard Powers illustration
Kong at the wall. Film capture
Kong at the wall. Promotional still
Most film blogathons are actor, actress, director, sub-genre themed. If you’re trying to branch out, if you just haven’t had a chance to write about something you love yet, they’re efficient opportunities for some post subject variety. Even though I rarely write about films I’ve seen before and instead am often writing about films one can skip, it’s a great way to maintain some perspective. Film viewing has always had a hard shell to its bubble.
In the fifteen years since I started blogging, I’ve wanted to keep my film blogging bubble pliable. Even before I realized why it should be pliable, I knew it had to be; after college but before grad school—when I started The Stop Button in 2004—I was in a film snob limbo. In 2003, intellectually fueled by foreign films from Netflix, Buster Keaton, and being Pianist perplexed, I gave up on new movies. I ended up taking a two or three year break and never got back into the theatergoing experience as much. Except for fine arts theaters and movie series. Even though I don’t have any of the posts anymore, the first year of Stop Button posts were all about Sam Fuller and whatever else we saw at this film series. And I’d moved on from Netflix to Nicheflix, since I’d had to go region-free very, very early to get films like Larger Than Life (the Bill Murray one) widescreen or Gance’s Napoleon at all; Nicheflix is where I discovered Korean film. Nicheflix was great.
I also had this (probably annoying) thing where if someone recommended a movie to me, I’d watch something else from the same director. Same writer-director. It wasn’t like someone said to watch The Conversation so instead I watched Jack. But new indie auteurs, I’d go in real suspect.
But I never wanted The Stop Button to be too focused on a genre or sub-genre.
Things have veered Classic Hollywood over the last couple years, but it’s mostly because blogathons and lack of film blogging time.
Mutually exclusive but concurrent is my Film—capital letter—philosophy. What I think and why, which almost always figures into how I write about individual films. And this capital Film philosophy didn’t start with The Stop Button or in undergrad film snobbery, or playing Clerks after high school, or having themed overnight movie marathons with friends during high school, or going to movies with summer camps before high school, or going to movies at birthday parties before middle school. Not to mention just watching VHS tapes because it was so cool to watch a movie at home. And if that thrill ran out, letterbox and LaserDisc.
My Film philosophy is changing all the time, usually because of a film. And I’d never thought about what I’d consider my most influential film. The one with the most permanent ramification for my capital Film philosophy. So definitely not the latest big “changer” either; it’s an intellectual fad—a justified one, I hope—but still something to be developed upon. And also understood with that eventuality. There’s no end-all-be-all movie to see. The Day the Clown Cried is not going to make all other film narrative superfluous.
So what about something I’ve consciously considered for a long time. Last summer, through a blogathon, I discovered the movie I had spent years thinking was Vertigo but wasn’t; I had avoid Vertigo because this film memory had scared me so much I refused to do a “close your eyes” exercise in kindergarten because I thought it would make you into a monster. Young and Innocent; different Hitchcock; thirty-five year-old movie mystery solved.
So would Young and Innocent be the most influential movie in those thirty-five years? No. Not any more than how I was convinced Monster Squad had a candle blowing out for foreshadowing and no one—of middle school Monster Squad fans–believed me. It does, of course; they pan-and-scanned it out for video. So Monster Squad, even for those few years it stayed active in my mind?
Nope, no, heck no, hell no. Ew Monster Squad.
Also I’d forgotten about the candle blowing out mystery by the time I did see Monster Squad widescreen again.
I was a Star Wars kid. Big time. Was it Star Wars? No. Star Wars was more than brand loyalty. Brand franchise loyalty, actually. Superman? No, not back then as much. What else did I watch a lot as a kid?
I mean, I was a monster kid. What about Frankenstein? I did a paper on Boris Karloff in grade school.
And then… Kong.
Of course. King Kong.
“The airplanes got him.” Concept art
“The airplanes got him.” Film grab
“The airplanes got him.” Richard Powers illustration
“The airplanes got him.” Promotional still
Blamin' it all
The 1933 version of King Kong is responsible for my childhood fascination with New York City, which lead to various family trips over the years. Kong is why I had to have Empire State Building memorabilia. Kong is partially why a lot. Kong is why New York is why Empire State building is why Art Deco is why thirties history why history is why undergrad major.
I don’t remember the first time I saw it. If I’m guessing, three at the latest? Because I know I saw Empire in the theater and I would’ve been two and a few months. And Raiders. I saw Raiders a little too young for head-melting. Kong would’ve been TV or video. I’m pretty sure we copied it from the library’s VHS. Once in-home VHS copying was a thing.
I know I watched Kong with my friends. Made my friends watch Kong is probably more accurate, since it was middle school before one of them ever stood up for black and white movies. The eighties and nineties were wanting for a lot. But I don’t remember who or when or if we did Kong marathons. Maybe? I know a family friend was a Kong buddy but only because people reminded me about it later. I have no memory of the actual movie watching, just the reminders.
I also know I watched Kong '33 less as I got into high school. Because my high school capital Film philosophy involved how special effects ought to be integrated and while Kong ’33 has singular special effects, their integration didn’t have as many modern applications as Kong ’76. I got to be a practical effects absolutist in late middle school. But less Willis O’Brien and more Phil Tippett. Then Jurassic Park killed stop motion and I dug in on practical. It’s only the last six years or so I’ve evened out that hill.
But I watched some Kong ’33 in college. And after. It’s been a while, but I know when I wrote about it for Stop Button eleven years ago I gabbed about it to my podcast cohost in a pre-show. Kong’s gotten to the point whenever I do get to ruminate on it, it’s a memorable rumination.
I do remember getting the Nostalgia Merchant VHS. It was one of the first items in my VHS collection. Kong helped get me addicted to media. I never replaced that Nostalgia Merchant copy, which was the uncut version (for the first time on home video). I have this vague memory of getting both it and the uncut Frankenstein in some big box store in the late eighties. We might have been on a family vacation because not many stores around us had sell-through VHS sections yet. Or, if they did, they were limited and always list price.
A few years later, Turner did an official release, as well as a colorized. I still haven’t seen the colorized version. Both VHS boxes were terrible and not the kind of thing you wanted to be seen picking up in a video store in 1990. The 1993 sixtieth anniversary edition box was better but I didn’t upgrade my Nostalgia Merchant. Not until—sometime in the late 1990s—I got the Criterion CLV version. There was CAV, which allowed frame-by-frame pausing, and CLV, which did not. Either the CAV was out of print or I didn’t want to spend $100 on a Kong LaserDisc. So I got the CLV.
Before getting the DVD—I waited for the official DVD release, even though it was available overseas (and possibly through Nicheflix) because RKO movies weren’t Warner overseas—I got at least one other copy of Kong on LaserDisc, because it had a different audio commentary. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any Kong audio commentary. I sort of think I have, but I’m not sure. It’s likely. Ish. But I sure had a lot of them.
I actually don’t have the Blu-ray. I didn’t even realize it had been released. By the time I did, I was able to just it digital; 1080p. Frame-by-frame pausing. Finally.
I’ve had easy access to Kong for almost thirty years.
But I’m forty. Those ten years before having a TV in my room, I had a different kind of access to Kong. One with an authoritative but a complicated, somewhat specious footing in reality. And it did take a toll on me and Kong.
“And what do you think the Marshall will say to these new gas-bombs?” Promotional still
“And what do you think the Marshall will say to these new gas-bombs?” Film grab
“And what do you think the Marshall will say to these new gas-bombs?” Richard Powers illustration
More than King Kong the movie, I grew up with King Kong the movie as related in a book. Ian Thorne’s King Kong book for Crestwood House, published in 1977. It was a whole “Monsters Series” by Thorne where he summarized the film, talked about how it was made, talked about its legacy. The Kong one talks about Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, King Kong vs. Godzilla, the 1976 Kong. And Queen Kong. I’d been wanting to see Queen Kong since I was four.
The book series was a reading life-changer for me. My mom frequently told the tale of how I had zero interest in reading until Crestwood Monsters, then becoming a voracious reader of all things. Including other monster books featuring Kong.
Except they rarely, if ever, really featured King Kong. Instead, they use the touched-up promotional photographs RKO did back in 1933. Kong appears more “realistic” in some of them. In others he appears to be from one hundred to five hundred feet tall and have a rather peculiar cone-shaped head. The conehead gave other monster kids an excuse not to like Kong, even though the images don’t accurately represent the Kong of the film at all. So even before I slowed down on watching Kong ’33 before I was focusing on my theories of practical special effects applications, I stopped talking about it because of social pressures.
The colorized version probably didn’t help things.
But it isn’t just the studio retouch artists changed the shape of Kong’s head, they changed his whole body. They also changed scenes. While audiences in 1933 might have understood a lobby card wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the film’s onscreen content, I was checking out a non-fiction book fifty-some years later. Not just non-fiction. I got adult non-fiction books too. These books were the real thing.
Only not at all.
And not just the look of Kong, but the scenes in the film. There’s no triceratops in King Kong. The T. Rex fight doesn’t go down this way. There’s no long shot of Kong on the Empire State Building with a half dozen biplanes in frame. The pterodactyl doesn’t have teeth. The retouch artists changed the expectation of the action beats. It’s great marketing. Exceptional marketing. But also rather annoying because it means I don’t quite remember what’s in Kong.
It also means there’s surprise every time I do watch it.
Pterodactylus. Concept art
Pterodactylus. Film grab
Pterodactylus. Richard Powers illustration
Pterodactylus. Promotional still
Back before TCM, back before AMC, Kong didn’t lead me to a lot of other films. Son of Kong, sure. Mighty Joe Young, at least once. But Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, and Robert Armstrong didn’t go on to much an eight year-old would see. We didn’t watch Westerns when I was growing up, so no occasional Cabot or Armstrong appearances in a John Ford movie. I don’t even remember seeing Armstrong in anything else until The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, which our video store did carry, but I would’ve watched it after The Thin Man series and I didn’t get super into Thin Man until at least 1990.
Even when I was watching classics en masse (AMC, then TCM), it was usually only Armstrong who’d show up in some supporting role. Fay Wray I never saw on AMC or TCM. I’d gotten The Most Dangerous Game in 1995 on LaserDisc—same filmmakers as Kong, same jungle set—and she’s the female lead in it, but otherwise, nothing.
Bruce Cabot… I can’t even remember the first time I saw him in anything else.
Directors Schoedsack and Cooper? I mean, I did get to see Blind Adventure (reuniting some Kong and Son of Kong cast and crew) a few years ago and that’s good, but Last Days of Pompeii? I’ve been meaning to watch it for ten years and just never get around to it. I haven’t seen Mighty Joe Young since high school when it didn’t impress me and I loathe Most Dangerous Game these days. While Kong got me very interested in film—and filmmaking—it didn’t directly lead to much.
Neither did any of my favorite classic monster movies as a kid. Little did I understand studio contracts back then.
When I wrote about Kong for The Stop Button in 2008, I had come back to it after getting an MFA in writing. I had a completely different set of examination tools. It had already gone through the history BA toolkit and the anti-CGI toolkit and the pro-CGI toolkit (I was tentatively onboard with CGI until the 1998 Godzilla or so) and whatever else going back to age three. Kong, as always, excelled no matter how I understood Film. No matter what I thought the film was supposed to do, what it needed to do, what it couldn’t do, what it shouldn’t do.
And more than excelling, it further informs, further clarifies, further focuses the all-important capital Film philosophy.
Because it’s undeniable. It’s King Kong.
THIS POST IS PART OF THE FILM THAT STARTED IT ALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CAZ OF LET'S GO TO THE MOVIES.