Thursday, November 22, 2012

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

The most important part of Thanksgiving has been lost.

It isn’t the arrival of Santa, the warm up for black Friday or ancient Football rivalries.

It is what we all gathered together for in my Grandmother’s house in the Bronx for many of my younger years.

Don’t worry; I haven’t gone all soft and sappy. I’m also not talking about sharing good food, bonding with family members or reflecting on all of life’s blessings.

The most important part of Thanksgiving was the screening of King Kong, provided for years in the New York area by WOR Channel 9.

One of the very first thing’s I owned (along with a Fonzie mirror) was a poster of the giant gorilla given to me by a special cousin.  While a tad beat up, and personally modified to fit in with my grandfather’s old black light posters that decorated my room for a while, it still holds a place of honor at the entrance to the comic room.

Kong has been part of my life as far as I can remember, due to my excellent upbringing.  In the years before DVDs, on demand, and even VCRs - the Thanksgiving appearance was the only one that could be truly counted on. Seeing My Favorite Monkey any other time of year required judicious tracking of the ABC 4:30 movie for “Monster Week”.  (Although this was actually pretty easy since I was already looking for Harryhausen week and Planet of the Apes week most of the time.)

From 1976 to 1985 WOR gave us a giant pile of Giant Apes.  The list changed a little here and there, but starting with the addition of the Toho films on the following day the second year, we normally got King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young on the holiday.

The1933 film was ground breaking for its special visual and sound effects, which have stood the test of time for generations due to the performance Willis O’Brien coaxed out of his stop motion figures.  It was also ground breaking in other cinematic areas, not the least of which is music.  Kong was one of the first movies to use fully scored incidental music throughout the film, which adds immeasurably to the emotion and tone when compared to earlier efforts.  Because of these elements, King Kong affected and inspired mountains of viewers, a great deal of whom went on to be accomplished film makers in their own rights.
This occurred for DECADES and included: Ray Harryhausen, John Landis, Rick Baker and Peter Jackson. (More on them later.) 

With legions of others I was completely mesmerized even through the commercials.  This was not because I needed to know:

Or even that Play World was:
“A world of toys, great for girls and great for boys.
Play World where prices gooooo, so low low low low looooooooooow.”

The reason I stayed mesmerized through the commercials was that every so often, between the hundreds of airings of the other two, there would be a third one. The commercial was for a make-up kit that would allow a child at home to create what appeared, in the ad, to be John Chambers quality ape makeup.  In and around those Thanksgiving films was the only place I, or anyone else in the family, ever saw it. This despite feverishly looking in every store and catalog I could get my Christmas List writing hands on.

OK, sorry. Lost the point for a minute there, but the ape makeup was way cool.

The films themselves were by far the biggest draw, the two “also showings” each with their own appeal.

Son of Kong was by no means the same caliber as the original, but wasn’t intended to be. Knowing they couldn’t duplicate the masterpiece, the same film makers steered the sequel, with Robert Armstrong and several other returning cast members, in the comedy direction instead of action/adventure. 
More impressively, they wrote-casted-shot-edited-and released a stop motion effect major motion picture in only NINE MONTHS!
Take that George “Three years between Star Wars films” Lucas.

Mighty Joe Young, another Schoedsack and Cooper giant gorilla picture, once again starred Robert Armstrong.  This time Willis O’Brien’s ape (animated by Ray Harryhausen) was smaller nicer and more loveable than then Kong had been sixteen years previously (It was also one of my Dad’s favorite films, especially the “Beautiful Dreamer” scene.)  The film is full of fun, adventure and feel good moments, as well as being educational. 
Any time I tried to lift something too heavy, my Italian grandmother would accuse me of thinking I was “Primo Carnera”. Thanks to the tug of war scene, I knew who he was.

Both movies were successes in their ways, but neither could hold a candle to the original King Kong.

It is a great testament to the story telling done by all the cast and crew, and specifically the emotiveness of O’Brien’s work that Kong is as well-loved as he is, even more so than his son, and Mighty Joe.   My guess is audience sympathy for the Big Monkey is what inspired Schoedsack and Cooper to make Kiko and Joe sweeter.  Kong has had years of audience sympathy and compassion.  This despite the fact that he spends much of the movie eating some people, vindictively stepping on others, and casually tossing quite a few to horrible deaths.
Yes, all those things are awesome, but not necessarily the type of heartwarmyness that leads to sympathy and compassion.

To completely mangle some metaphors, the ape is only the tip of the iceberg. 

The dinosaurs are based on Charles R. Knight’s famous AMNH paintings, giving them believability, if not true scientific accuracy.

The settings and environments keep the film visually interesting even when there are no creatures on screen, especially the impressively giant wall on the island, which was burned down six years later to make an equally impressive giant fire in Gone with the Wind.

Denham’s passion and drive is palpable and almost bursts off of the screen.

And of course, Fay Wray. 
No one screams like Fay Wray.

I have spent much of my life watching sci-fi, horror and monster movies. 

Yes, there have been scores of scream queens since she defined the role.
Yes, it is possible you have seen more films than I have.
Yes, you may think you have a better example.

But you are wrong.


Screams like Fay Wray.

From the opening fake Arabian proverb-
Through the famous Empire State Building climax (where Schoedsack and Cooper themselves played the biplane pilots)-
Up to the famous ending line:
“Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

King Kong was one apenormous pile of awesome.

Sadly, the Big Monkey had a rough spell for a very long time after that.

Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young, though not the King Kong himself, were the highest points for decades.

In the 1960’s Kong’s movie appearances were handled by Toho studios, under direction of Tomoyuka Tanaka and other creators "inspired" by Harryhausen's Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to create Godzilla, and then the rest of the inhabitants of Monster Island.

Looking into those films in detail is for another time and place, but I will touch on a few points.

The Kong that fought Godzilla in 1962 became much larger, but also much dopier, less expressive and more suitimated than his original version.  Also, likely due to the movie starting as a Frankenstein idea (that eventually led to Frankenstein Conquers the World and War of the Gargantuas) Kong was somehow powered by electricity. Although the apparent victor of the fight, (in both the US and Japanese versions, don’t be fooled by that urban legend) and being called a “Thinking Animal” by the oddly inserted satellite based scientist in the US version, he still came off looking like a “big, drunken, dumb, brutish American” compared to the more sophisticated and complex Japanese Godzilla.

Toho tried again in 1967 with King Kong Escapes, a weird combination of a remake and a live action version of a King Kong cartoon that was on at the time.  The film was co-produced by Rankin-Bass (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Year Without a Santa Claus, etc.) which tells all you need to know about this masterpiece.  Not only were all the Japanese actors dubbed in the American version, but Susan was as well (by animation voice actress, Julie Bennett), even though American model Linda Miller spoke fluent English while filming.
Think about that for a minute. 
The annoying screech of her calling “Koooooooooooooooong!” over and over again was CHOSEN by the American dubbing team. 

The one high point of King Kong Escapes was the “live action” introduction of the cartoon’s Mechani-Kong.  There are very few things cooler than a giant gorilla in the mind of a little boy, but a giant ROBOT gorilla is definitely one of them. 
Mechani-Kong led to the creation of Mecha-Godzilla in the Tohoverse, and led to me walking like a robot while making odd mechanical noises years before Robocop premiered. (He said, dancing away from the point, again.)

Mercifully for the American Ape, Toho stopped before they made a follow up, and Kong’s role was inherited by Godzilla in Ebirah Horror of the Deep, along with his penchant for snoozing on an island and powering up via electricity, confusing the hell out of me for a long time until I learned of the switch.

At least the Sixties’ Japanese adventures of King Kong were goofily entertaining; it got much worse in the Seventies. First of all, there were several songs, including  “The King Kong Song”  by none other than Abba. Also, there was this catchy, if stupid, disco song by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, which amazingly threw in both references to the kid aimed King Kong Escapes and suggestive lines about Kong’s “size”.

More importantly there was the 1976 remake, produced by Dino De Laurentis.  I do enjoy most of Mr. De Laurentis’ B-movies as much as the next guy...

Well, honestly probably WAY much more than the next guy.

But the King deserved a great deal more respect. 

With Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange starring, the quality should have been up a few notches.  Sadly, Bridges was hidden under ridiculous Seventies hair and beard, and as for Ms. Lange…
Well, let’s just say the Oscar winning actress’s abilities hadn’t exactly peaked yet when she made that one.

Moving the setting to modern times, but keeping the plot the same made Kong woefully underpowered compared to the military forces used against him.  It stripped the Big Monkey of much of his majesty.

Aside for nitpickers - that I’m sure I’ve given aneurysms to by now:
Yes, I KNOW he’s an ape and not a monkey, but to borrow from Kevin Smith, it’s more fun to say monkey.

Another problem is the removal of other prehistoric life from Skull Island.

A giant snake?
That’s all you got?

Obviously they wouldn’t want to have dinosaurs running about because they were trying to make a realistic movie…

About a giant gorilla that eats people - except for the one girl he falls in love with.

The 1976 King Kong lost much of the majesty and wonder that gives the original the power it has.

Behind the scenes was an even bigger disaster than on screen:
production problems, budget issues, and a nearly full scale animatronic Kong…
That didn’t work…
At all.

This is a multiple leveled tragedy. 
Imagine if the thing worked and ran amok?

How incredibly AWESOME would the “Based on a true story” film of that make?
Giant Robot Gorillas FOR REAL, man!

Despite the chaos, there were two very good products of the 1976 remake.

1) Rick Baker was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time in the uncomfortable suit that he was disappointed in the look of. (Though he was proud of the impressive mask and hands designed by him and cabled up by Carlo Rambaldi.) 

This pushed him in his later career to design better and better gorilla suits until he reached levels of the masterpieces in Gorilla’s in the Mist and the remake of Mighty Joe Young. 

It also led to the bad tempered, set wrecking gorilla with male performance issues that Baker played in pal John Landis’s Kentucky Fried Movie.
The beast’s name, in a metaphorical monkey middle-finger to his previous producer, was Dino.

2) Ten years later (probably due to Godzilla 1985), some lunatic in Hollywood decided the remake deserved a sequel and King Kong Lives put the ape’s stamp (or stomp) on the Eighties with the tag line:

“America’s biggest hero is back…

I need to pause for a silly, personal aside here.

Because I do that.

A lot.

After cheering the film in the theaters, we needed to rent King Kong Lives and watch it again as soon as it was released. (This was back in the heyday of VHS rentals.)  We planned on getting it with another film we enjoyed in the theater, but when we asked the woman at the desk, she misheard the contraction.
Therefore she informed us that she had no knowledge of a movie called:
King Kong Lives with the Three Amigos!

I still have dreams about how awesome that flick would have been.

Some movies are bad.
Some movies are so bad, they’re good.
Some movies are even worse than that, and stop being good.
And some movies, like King Kong Lives push the badness light years beyond the last barrier to the realm beyond good and bad, to simply INSANE.

It’s a typical romance story from Eighties action movies, where:
Action Gal and Action Guy kick some butt separately.
Action Gal and Action Guy meet and fall in love.
Action Gal and Action Guy get separated and defeated so that Action Gal can be captured.
Action Guy goes on an incredible rampage of violence to rescue Action Gal.

The only non-typical part is, in this case, Action Gal and Action Guy are fifty foot tall gorillas.
(Or at least fifty foot tall people in gorilla suits who look to be having a great deal of fun pretending to be fifty foot tall gorillas.) 

Some of the Awesome Insanity of this film defies description, but here are a few examples of what it included to get the flavor.

Kong survived the fall from the towers, but was injured and required surgery.  The surgery was performed with ENORMOUSLY oversized equipment that the doctors could barely lift.

The scenes of romance and flirting between Kong and Lady Kong were played completely, totally honestly and straight, which makes them completely, totally and honestly hysterical.

Kong took out a group of cruel redneck hunters in a highly humorous fashion.

Kong took out the “evil army” in a display of savagely awesome asskickery that comes close to redeeming the ridiculousness of the rest of the film.

Linda Hamilton flashed a boob very briefly in one scene.
(Give me a break, we were teenage boy Terminator fans, it was a big deal at the time...and no, there's no image.  Grow up.)

Basically, any scene that could inspire a watcher to say:
“Right, don’t tell me. Next this will happen…” followed by a description of something assumed to be incredibly foolish, crazy and over the top, shortly lead to EXACTLY that happening in the next ten minutes of the film.

Sadly, “Bad beyond the realms of sanity” is not everyone’s cup of tea. King Kong Lives forced our favorite gorilla out of theaters for almost two decades.

Until 2005 when Peter Jackson brought us his version of King Kong.

Jackson’s version excels in showing how to remake a beloved film. The idea is to recapture the experience, involvement and emotions remembered from watching the movie. It is not simply to set the events in the modern day (like the 1976 remake) or slavishly prove how much the original is loved by trying to copy scenes, images and sounds without taking advantage of modern advances or adding strange twists to the story  instead of adding depth and details. (I’m looking at you Superman Returns.)

Jackson recreated more than the movie that we all saw on those Thanksgivings past, he recreated the movie that lived in our minds and hearts.

The 1933 King Kong has an epic feel to it. Not because of sitting through interminable lengths of Playworld and Crazy Eddie commercials, but because of its story and imagery.  The new version’s three hour running time allows that epic feel to occur without rushing through any segment of it.

Part of the magic of the original isn’t only the introduction of the wilderness of Skull Island. For many of us, it was the first exposure to the equally amazing world of 1930’s New York, where everyone wore cool hats.  By allowing the time for the story to develop, the city could be more fully explored.

As far as world creation goes, the folks behind the cinematic Middle Earth made a stunning achievement with Skull Island, bringing to life the incredible ecosystem we all expected existed from what we saw of the original, and what we imagined was just outside of our field of vision. Modern knowledge of gorilla anatomy and behavior was studied and used to develop a more organic and natural Kong.  Modern knowledge of paleontology was studied, tweaked, danced around, and ignored when necessary, to create an ecosystem of dinosaurs that were natural and believable, but also resembled the forms and types seen in the 1933 King Kong.
The inhabitants, creatures and landscape all were given detailed back stories which added to the realism of the technical accomplishments on screen.  Fortunately for us fans, those back stories are accessible in Weta’s “natural history” book. (And for an equally good set of back stories that are completely different, try Strickland and DeVito’s book.  See, inspiring the artistic for DECADES.)

Elements that don’t really translate for modern day audiences (or would be somewhat unfortunate or embarrassing) either were left out or referenced in jest.  The stage show that was supposed to be in poor taste - mimicking the 1933 savage’s village - is a good example of this. Bonus points are also awarded for the biplane cameo being done again; not only with Peter Jackson and other crew members, but letting Rick Baker get a shot in at the ape he suffered through wearing as well. 

Meanwhile items that formed the emotional core of the film were highlighted and amplified by modern day film making techniques, while the cast chosen did an amazing job of capturing both the period, and the grand epic adventure.

I definitely owe Jack Black an apology in this public forum. When I first heard of his casting, I was concerned he wouldn’t be worthy of one of my favorite films, and could ruin it. I am happy to say I was completely incorrect, likely because I didn’t take into account that the original probably affected him as well.  Black owned the overwhelming passion and drive of Carl Denham, and his portrayal was something that really cemented the film for me.

The emotional depth of Kong, and his relationship with Ann lived mostly in our heads as we watched the original, suggested by the quality that O’Brien’s work displayed. The 2005 remake, with its far advanced effects, created a Kong with the full range of feelings, hopes and dreams that we knew the Giant Ape had all along.  Naomi Watts’s highly impressive reactions to what was mostly not there during filming carried the relationship to an even higher level.

But they did reuse Fay Wray’s scream instead of having her record her own…

Because no one screams like Fay Wray.

The DVD release of the 2005 film was nicely timed to coincide with the purchase of our home.  This allowed me to have my first new piece of artwork in the house match the subject matter of one of the first pieces of artwork I ever owned.

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you all now remember the Greatest Thing about this holiday.

Hail to the King! 

Kong 2017

Apes Index


longbow said...

You know, there's a tremendous amount of good female screaming in the BSG reboot. Just sayin'

I love mech-anythin. I especially love how upset flesh & blood Kong and flesh & Godzilla get upon meeting their mecha counterparts.

Wish I could find the vid for this old sketch. I remember the burn on Streisend.

Jeff McGinley said...

I assume you're referencing the South Park Mecha Streisand...that was awesome.

The sheer offense Kong and Godzilla take to their duplicates in all incarnations was epic.

And to reiterate:

NO ONE screams like Fay Wray.

That's why they used her scream for the doorbell in MURDER BY DEATH.

Thanx for posting

Antonia said...

Thanks for the great trip down memory lane! I haven't thought of Mighty Joe Young in years, and I watched it countless times. And King kong too. Great post!!

Jeff McGinley said...

You're welcome. Every year, the women would be in the kitchen, and I'd be in the living room with all the men (who I guess were more monster that football fans.) Grandpa liked to watch TV with the lights off which made the already great films seem more cool and theatrical.

thanx for posting.

longbow said...

I was referencing this SNL skit,

but forgot to paste the link

Jeff McGinley said...

Good link, hard to top Ackroyd and Belushi.