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DVD Review: King Kong (1933)

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There has never been anything like King Kong. Not the remakes, not the cartoons, and certainly not any book. It’s a visual treat, even now over 70 years later, and a testament to what can be achieved on film.

While there are certainly those moments in Kong that can be seen as comedy (the giant ape’s emotion creates a character capable of more expression than most of the human cast), it also achieves incredible horror. Censored for many years, sequences of the creature rampaging through a native village are spectacular; there’s nothing like Kong munching and stomping on people in a furious rage.

Oddly, what’s most spectacular about Kong is the pacing. It can be argued there isn’t any, but the entire second half of the movie is nothing but one long, never boring special effects sequence. It takes 45-minutes for the title character to make an appearance, and build up is one of intrigue and mystery. Even with the acting style of the 1930s, it’s easy to buy into the characters, especially Carl Denham, filling in for the real life Merian C. Cooper. Much has been written on how the director inserted himself into his own film, and it’s a perfect role for the movie.

There’s also credit for Max Steiner and his brilliant, groundbreaking soundtrack. It’s one of the first to ever use music for an extra emotional pull, in sync with each frame of film. The themes fit with anything happening on screen, and Kong’s unforgettable three-note piece is raised or lowered depending on his actions.

King Kong is such a classic, it’s one of those movies that has been annoyingly over analyzed. Some people won’t accept that it’s a “giant ape that eats people movie” and try to find other reasons for their enjoyment. There’s no need for it, as Kong on its surface level is enough to provide movie fans with 70 years of entertainment. (***** out of *****)

It’s always been difficult to analyze Kong from a special effects standpoint. Time was not kind to the film, but on DVD for the first time, it’s stunning. The detail, down to each piece of Kong’s fur, is now digitally preserved with few issues. Obviously with the age, there is expected grain and scratches. Most of these are minor. The clarity is what makes this a treat.

However, while it sounds harsh, it’s hard to believe more couldn’t have been done. Looking at the DVD for Son of Kong, the difference is incredible, and entirely in favor of the sequel. While it’s the print(s) that’s the most likely culprit (the original has certainly had its share of showings over the years), it’s hard to imagine how films separated only by one year can look so radically different. Now begins the inevitable wait for the HD-DVD version. (****)

Likewise, the sound has also taken a beating, presented here in mono as expected. Steiner’s soundtrack strains even the best speakers when it hits its peak, and there’s a layer of static over everything. Dialogue is washed out, though how badly depends on the scene. It’s not bad enough to fall out of the expectations for 70+ year old movie, and it’s more depressing that a movie of this caliber wasn’t kept in better condition. (***)

When putting in either disc of this two-disc collection, you’ll need to have a lot of time on your hands. Disc one contains the new print of the film, along with a new commentary from Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston. Harryhausen spends plenty of time discussing the stop motion process, while Ralston adds details about the rest. They also talk about how they were influenced. There are also archived audio clips from Fay Wray and Merian C. Cooper. They’re more focused on their personal experiences.

Disc 2 is where things become crazy, and it’s the two and a half hour RKO Production 601: The Making of King Kong, the Eight Wonder of the World that makes this set special. This documentary covers everything, from pre-production, special effects, personal anecdotes (both Fay Wray and Max Steiner provide information from older interviews), and complete recreations.

Peter Jackson and his special effects team painstakingly made the lost “spider pit” sequence, shown only a few times in 1933 until audiences declared it was too shocking to stay in. It was pulled and never seen again. It’s all done in stop motion, and the monsters are taken either from photo reference or the script. There is also some discussion on the scene itself, but the majority of this segment is taken up by showing the progression of the new scene, done entirely in the style of the day.

The second feature, this one running just under an hour, is I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. This is obviously more focused on Cooper’s life and career, far more so than Kong. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it presents the man in a fascinating light that makes it worth watching. There’s also a trailer gallery of Cooper’s other films.

The final feature is a five minute clip of Creation, Willis O’Brien’s project before starting on Kong. It’s obviously a test reel, the non-optional Harryhausen commentary providing background information as it plays. It’s still an exciting few minutes of film, even in this unfinished form.

Is there anything missing? A little actually. Kong was originally supposed to fall from the Empire State Building from an overhead viewpoint, and the footage exists. It was cut when completed because it was too easy to see Kong transparently (a special effects flaw due to multiple elements), and this is not included. There’s also nothing on the restoration that has taken years to finish, and this might have made the print seem a little more acceptable if an explanation was given. (*****)

King Kong is available in two different editions. The stand alone 2-disc set is fine, but for the true fan, they’ll need the gift set. Inside, there are six small poster reproductions (twelve if bought at Best Buy), an offer for a full size poster, and a reprint of the film’s original program. All of that is dwarfed by the spectacular embossed metal tin it comes in, detailed front and back. The only complaint is that it’s too big, and the actual case the DVDs come in moves around.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.
  • Steve

    Interesting article, having seen the three versions of “King Kong”, I still prefer the 1933 original.