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Volume #1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006
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The Thunder Child: DVD Review: King Kong 1933

by Roy P. Webber

Many times the word �classic� has been applied to a motion picture to express the viewer�s sentiment it is an excellent and important piece of cinematic work. Indeed, there have been many excellent features throughout the silent and sound film era, but the term has unfortunately become overused to the point where it is often trite and cliched. Only a few movies are truly classics in their profound effect on not only how future offerings are judged, but also actually how they are set about to be made.

King Kong is one of these rare films which had such a seminal influence over many adventure, fantasy and special effects based productions that were to follow. Additionally, it inspired many future filmmakers to follow a similar path, who later would bring epic features with stunning visual content to the big screen.

King Kong was noticeably absent from DVD for years after this format became popular, but its November 2005 release (to coincide with the Peter Jackson remake) was well worth the wait. Time Warner gave Kong an appropriately deluxe treatment in coming out with this title as a two-disc set. The first disc is naturally the main course, a digitally restored version that is extremely clear both in sight and sound.

Even though it is obvious that great amounts of time and money were lavished upon this print to make it look as clean as possible, there are a few small scratches, which remain throughout though they aren�t really �bothersome� at all. One thing that is truly a big improvement in this edition are the various clips which were expunged for the censored 1938 re-release of Kong (i.e. the brontosaurus attacking the sailors, Kong peeling off Ann Darrow�s wardrobe, rampage through native village).

Since the master for this DVD is (very fortunately) an uncensored British print, these normally inferior-looking shots now look exactly like the remainder of the movie that was left intact at that time. Another good thing that can be said about this restored incarnation of King Kong is the fact that no effort was made to �rewrite history�---all the artifacts of the stop-motion process (surface gauges, braces supporting Kong in the frame image etc.) remain in place as interesting special effects nuances. So, from the opening iconoclastic images of the colossal RKO radio tower rotating above the Arctic region to the concluding Cast of Characters list, this edition of King Kong is by far the best one to date. It even surpasses both the Criterion and Turner laserdisc versions, the latter of which also includes The Son of Kong.

Disc 1 does have a limited amount of special features for the viewer to access. One of these is actually within the feature itself and presented �matter-of-factly� but is actually an extra: the four minutes long musical �Overture� which precedes the opening credits.

This apparently was never in the release print of King Kong but is included in the DVD to make use of some unused piece of Max Steiner�s wonderful score. The major bonus feature here is an audio commentary track done by special effects genius Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) and Ken Ralston (Star Wars), with archival dialogue added in from producer Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. Unfortunately, most of these stubbed-in bits prove far more interesting than anything Harryhausen or Ralston have to say. Even though Ray and Ken both express unbridled enthusiasm for this feature, they mostly offer comments about what they �like� within Kong (along with some humorously cheeky quips) instead of useful information. So one is left wanting about such things as the spectacular T. rex (Cooper termed this dinosaur an �allosaurus� instead) � Kong battle and finale atop the Empire State Building if this commentary is sought out as a source of wisdom. Sadly, therefore, the content suffers greatly in comparison to the excellent commentaries on laserdisc done by Ron Haver (Criterion edition) and Paul Mandell. There is a trailer gallery of eight Cooper productions, which include this picture, The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young to round out the disc.

For those looking for background information on how King Kong was made as well as several of the key principals, Disc 2 will prove to be a delightful wealth of data in this area. There are two featurettes comprising the supplements, both of these being brand-new documentary productions. The first one is the hour-long program I'm King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper, which first aired on Turner Classic Movies the day of King Kong�s DVD release (the titles indicate this had been produced by Turner Classic Movies).

Starting from his early childhood, it follows Cooper�s storied and remarkable life through his two main channels of career involvement: aviation and filmmaking. We discover that Merian C. Cooper had been shot down by the Germans in a WWI air battle, shot down again defending Poland a few years later and ended up in a Russian prison camp (and later escaping), served in the Flying Tigers based in China during WWII and was a director of Pan American (Pan-Am) Airlines. His noted filmic achievements include ground-breaking documentary films (Grass and Chang) with long-time associate Ernest B. Schoedsack, partnership with famed producer John Ford on several classic Western features, championing cinematic innovations such as three-strip Technicolor, and of course King Kong.

This retrospective look at Cooper ends, most fittingly, with the first screening of the widescreen Cinerama process breathtaking shot with a special camera mounted in the nose of an airplane. I'm King Kong!, hosted by Alec Baldwin, stays on track with plenty of archival footage, appropriate quotations taken from Merian C. Cooper himself and interview clips from a number of people which include Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Terry Moore, author Paul M. Jensen, and biographer Mark Cotta Vaz.

RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World is the other component of Disc 2 and is made up of seven parts: 1) �The Origins of King Kong� looks at how the early influences and experiences of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack worked their way into this movie.

2) �Willis O�Brien and Creation� focus on the development of stop-motion pioneer responsible for King Kong�s visuals and his unrealized RKO production that was largely budgeted into the 1933 picture. Also in this section is a detailed plot synopsis of Creation illustrated with storyboards and original conceptual art.

3) �Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder� takes up production aspects such as principal photography, casting, scripting, and also how the use of The Most Dangerous Game�s actors and jungle sets helped sell the project to studio executives.

4) �A Milestone in Visual Effects� is actually the aforementioned hour-long biopic on Cooper that is included here again.

5) �Passion, Sound and Fury� covers the revolutionary aspect of this early talkie�s audio composition, focusing on Murray Spivack�s wonderful sound effects and Max Steiner�s superb score.

6) �The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence� showcases the famous sequence cut before theatrical release and Peter Jackson�s re-creation of these horrific shots (see related article).

7)�King Kong�s Legacy� discusses its cultural impact and influences upon future films and filmmakers, and subsequent projects that many of the principal creators were involved with.

There is also a stand-alone version of �The Lost Spider Pit Sequence� and �Creation Test Footage with Commentary by Ray Harryhausen� following RKO Production 601. In general, all this material is well produced though it is lengthy and features even more interviewees with some relationship to Kong spliced in throughout. Although one can detect some minor inconsistencies here and there, and due to its over two and a half-hour length there is a high degree of overlap across sections, it is a great resource about all aspects of this legendary motion picture.

Overall, King Kong has been brought to DVD in a fashion befitting this wonderful and influential piece of cinematic history. It is obvious the people who contributed to this set truly love this seminal offering, and this sentiment clearly flows throughout both discs. With its only significant shortfall being a noticeably weaker commentary track compared to earlier versions on laserdisc, this King Kong is an easy choice to make for fans of special effects and fantasy.

Besides the regular two-disc version, there is also a special �collector�s� edition which comes in a molded tin package and also includes a re-creation of the March 24, 1933 souvenir program from Grauman�s Chinese Theatre, postcards featuring advertising artwork and a mail-in offer for a free reproduction of the one-sheet theatrical poster. King Kong also comes in a collection that includes the other Cooper-Schoedsack-O�Brien giant ape films, The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young.

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