Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Monkeying Around with a Classic!

It's customary to complain about cinematic remakes. I do it all the time (and always remember a quote I read once that said something to the effect of “Why do they always remake the good ones? They ought to go back and remake the bad ones!”) There are indeed times when a remake will meet or exceed the quality of the original, but that's a fairly rare occurrence. Certainly, today's movie, while popular, was reviled by nearly every lover of the original. However, with the hindsight of more than three decades (and the onslaught of so much junk since then, including still another remake), it really doesn't come off that badly, especially when viewed in widescreen high-def and not a pan-and-scan TV or VHS print.

One of the most memorable adventure classics of all time is 1933's King Kong, a startling, vividly rendered tale about a film crew who stumbles upon a gigantic ape, one who takes a liking to the film's leading lady and skulks off into the jungle with her in his hand! Later, once he's been captured and taken to New York City, he escapes, grabs her again and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building where a memorable finale ensues. A hit upon release (and re-release for years after), it was and is ingrained in the consciousness of movie lovers and is revered for its stop-motion effects, extraordinary at the time and impressive now as well.

Still, 43 years after its debut, it was decided that an expensive, widescreen, color update would make for a dazzling summer blockbuster in the vein of Jaws, which had soared to astonishing heights in 1975. Producer Dino De Laurentiis, who typically spent about $2 million to $3 million per picture, poured $25 million into creating a whole new King Kong, one that took its basic story structure from the original, but tweaked it here and there, contemporizing the elements and attempting to inject topicality and social commentary into it as well.
A woolly Jeff Bridges was cast as the male lead, a gutsy paleontologist who stows away on an oil tanker in order to travel to the ship's destination, an uncharted, fog-shrouded island in the Indian Ocean. The oil company executive in charge of the excursion (Charles Grodin) believes the island to be a direct connection to vast amounts of crude oil. Bridges, on the other hand, wants to explore the place in order to either prove or dispel a series of legends about the place. They immediately clash and Bridges is confined to quarters below deck. However, an unexpected arrival leads to his liberation.

A terrible storm and (resultant?) explosion has destroyed a nearby pleasure yacht and a sole survivor is spotted in a rubber life raft. The raft is recovered and inside it is a curvy, unconscious, scantily-clad, wet young lady named Dwan (played by Jessica Lange, in her movie debut.) Because of Bridges' brief stint in med school, he is called upon to treat her, following such exposure to the elements.
Once warmed up and dried off, Lange is taken to heart by the ship's crew. Their cast-off clothing is donated to her so that she can sew the articles into new, highly-revealing get-ups that grow increasingly ridiculous with each costume change. It turns out that she is a fledgling actress who was sailing with a hotshot producer and his guests with the promise of starring in one of his upcoming movies. The only reason she survived the catastrophe is because she opted to go up on deck rather than join the others in watching the “porn chic” classic Deep Throat!

When the ship finally reaches the fog-enshrouded island, Lange cajoles Grodin into letting her come along as one of the members of the landing party. They reach the shore and are greeted with dramatic and lush terrain, with Lange enthusiastically prancing ahead of everyone else until she is warned to be more careful. After hiking and trudging through the landscape, they come upon a gigantic wall, a startling sign that the island is not uninhabited as they initially believed. Somehow, they are able to merely circumvent this wall and come around the back where they witness a tribal ceremony in progress. Grodin is delighted to see pools of black liquid bubbling up through the ground.

To the rhythmic beat of drums, natives chant and dance and gyrate energetically (especially one who wears an ape mask and little else!) The fervor continues to build until the masked native spots the interlopers observing from some rocks above the celebration. Bridges is able to determine that the man wants to trade half a dozen of his own ladies for Lange, whose blonde hair is a strange phenomenon to the natives. The landing party has to make a hasty retreat back to the ship in order to avoid leaving Lange there to face whatever fate was in store for her. By the way, Lange came on board with nothing but the dress on her back and some Bulgari jewelry. So did a crewman have this white sweater and (more importantly!) the trashy romance novel she's reading here?!

Bridges explains to Grodin that the ritual they were witnessing was some sort of marriage ceremony preparation and that there must be some sort of rare primate on the island. The wall of the village was built out of fear. Grodin intends to simply destroy whatever it is and get his oil, leading Bridges to make plans to head there first and try to prevent it. Before either man can do anything, though, the natives canoe out to the ship and snatch Lange away!

Now drugged and duded out in revealing tribal wear, she is placed on a bier, with the masked man frantically gyrating and undulating all over the place, sometimes grasping one of the handles of her platform and fondling it! She is then carried outside the walls of the city, where she is led up a flight of stairs and tied to a pair of posts with some vines. Then, the natives begin to drum and chant again as trees topple nearby. The footsteps increase in volume and proximity until, before Lange, stands king Kong, the eighth wonder of the world: a 40-foot tall gorilla!

He looks over his new prize with curiosity and gorilla glee, snatches her up and heads off into the jungle. (Incidentally, it is 50 minutes in before Kong's first appearance!) Bridges, Grodin and crew arrive too late to save her from this, but Bridges takes a handful of men out to follow the (sizeable!) footprints and retrieve her. Grodin, meanwhile, though concerned about Lange to a degree, is far more interested in having the oil tested for viability by his right hand man Rene Auberjonois.
Kong, unlike most bridegrooms, goes straight to sleep once back in his home territory, with Lange unconscious nearby. After awakening, she tries to get away, but he'll have none of it. After falling into footprints and becoming splattered with mud, she is swooped up by the ginormous ape again and taken to a waterfall where she is thoroughly rinsed off. After a brief swim, he grabs her once again and brings her up to eye level where he proceeds to pucker up and blow dry her with his breath! Presumably, a gorilla's breath is not exactly minty fresh first thing in the morning, yet somehow this act has the effect of soothing, perhaps even mildly titillating Lange as she sits there being pelted with air.

Grodin has returned to the beach and is awaiting the results of tests on the black crude from the village. Once he receives the news that the gunk isn't going to do the trick for his company, he changes tack and decides that he can outdo his initial plans of “bringing in the big one” by actually bringing in a BIG ONE! He sets out to capture King Kong and return with him to New York as the figurehead of an ad campaign/publicity stunt.

Bridges and his men are very nearly caught up to Lange and her captor when Kong suddenly doubles back and catches them on a makeshift bridge, a fallen tree that crosses a cavernous gorge. In a fit of fury, he rolls and jerks the log until nearly everyone is dead. Bridges manages to slip into a crevasse on the side of the gorge, but comes close to being yanked out and tossed into the air like the others. Fortunately, the ape gives up and returns to his domain.

Kong's curiosity about his new wife reaches it fever pitch and he decides to take a look at what's underneath her already scant tribal gown. He nudges and picks at her jewelry and the top of her outfit until she is topless! (This bit garnered a lot of negative commentary, but I found it sort of amusing, much the way a child will look up Raggedy Ann's dress to see "what's up there.") Before he goes any further, he's puts her down, but is interrupted by a humongous snake that slithers in to swallow her! Thankfully, while Kong is busy with the serpent, Bridges is able to catch up and spirit Lange away. Kong gives chase, but they avoid capture by jumping off a cliff into the water below. The snake is one of the least convincing effects in the movie, but its demise is surprisingly gory nevertheless.

Kong is really miffed now and heads back to the village. However, Grodin, who has since arranged for an air drop of supplies and equipment, has set a trap for him there. He succeeds in capturing and gassing the gorilla, though it's not shown how the humongous primate is transported back to the ship! On board the ship, Kong rests deep inside the tank that was supposed to house all the newly discovered oil. He's angry and frustrated, his reactions nearly causing him to be destroyed on the spot, but Lange intervenes, having developed a strange dedication to him for risking his life against the serpent in order to spare her. (This, by the way, is one of the bubble gum cards that were sold to tie-in with the film's release.)

Cut to weeks later in The Big Apple. Grodin has arranged a glittering event with which to promote his product, reveal his big catch and recreate the fateful day that Lange was presented to Kong. In a truly tacky presentation, Lange, now gowned and coiffed to the nines, is tied with tinsel to a pair of posts as a towering gas pump (!) moves towards her. The pump is removed to reveal Kong, clamped and shackled into a cage that matches the shape of his body while a humiliating shiny crown is arranged jauntily on his head.

He's not happy to begin with, but when some pushy reporters seem to be harming Lange, he goes berserk and proves his strength by making mincemeat out of all the restraints he was under. What follows is a path of destruction throughout the city as Kong searches for Lange. He tears an elevated train off its track and opens the roof like a tin of sardines. When he finally finds Lange, he heads not for The Empire State Building, but for the still-new twin towers of The World Trade Center as their silhouette reminds him of a mountain range back on the island. Most of us know how it ends, with army helicopters coming in to stop the rampage.

There's something strangely comforting, believe it or not, in seeing Kong amidst the towers of The World Trade Center. It an unplanned valentine and memorial to their existence now that they are gone. We get several close up views of the plaza and the entrance areas. For the final scene, the producers had put out a call for 5,000 extras to help populate the melee on the ground. Anticipation for the film and interest in it was so great that 30,000 showed up! They threatened to crush the ground beneath them (which covered underground stories) and were dispersed after the main shot of the crush of people was caught on film. It makes for quite a sight.

I was a mere ten years old when King Kong hit theaters. I recall the famous poster being plastered on the back cover of many a comic book and the whole enterprise being highly anticipated. My grandmother took my step-sister (who was eight!) and me to see it and told us about how she had gone to see the original during a re-release when she was a kid. I thought it was absolutely amazing and extremely thrilling. I distinctly remember there being an intermission during the presentation, which I had never heard of as it was rare then and is still now. I don't know for certain, but I think it came after the capture of Kong, with the storyline resuming after 10 or 15 minutes back on the ship. Few people know that later, as a wee fag-in-training, I used to sometimes pretend that I was Lange, tied to two posts and writhing in abject terror at what was about to befall me! Ha!

The movie was rated PG (this was before such a thing as PG-13 existed) and contained a small helping of adult language, a very large helping of blood in the finale and even a few fleeting glimpses of nudity. Lange's wet evening gown was virtually transparent (see above) and she's seen showering through an opague window, then drying off (in a scene that was meant to have a crewman spying on her, though that was removed from the final cut.) Hey, that's some roomy (and clean!) oil tanker! Then there's the second or so that Kong knocks her top down. It's interesting what children could be permitted to see (without any parent or guardian) back then compared to now!

The film made more than three times its cost at the box office and was among the top-grossers of 1977 (having premiered the December before), but De Laurentiis had been anticipating even greater return and so was disappointed in the outcome. Considering the way some critics reacted to it and that some of the film's components were less than stellar, he's lucky he didn't lose his shirt on the whole deal! (Note the use of conceptual art for one of the lobby cards (!), a curious trend of the mid-'70s, promising so much more than can ever be delivered in the movie.)

For the title beast, a variety of effects were employed. Carlo Rambaldi, an Italian special effects artist, designed a life-size, mechanized version of King Kong that was riddled with problems. It was 40 feet tall, weighed 6-1/2 tons and cost $1.7 million. Its eventual screen time in the final cut of the film? Less than 15 seconds... (And it's never seen as up close as it's shown in this publicity photo.) More effective were a series of elaborate masks that he co-designed with Rick Baker (who had worked on both It's Alive and The Exorcist) that allowed for a variety of expressions. Baker also played the part of Kong for the bulk of his time on screen, wearing a suit that he and Rambaldi designed and sporting special contact lenses to give his eyes that gorilla look. I don't care what anyone says; real eyes, even those covered with contacts, do more to convey emotion than any mechanized or computerized effect.

Both men went on to far greater success in their field, with Rambaldi designing effects for E.T. and Alien (winning Oscars for both) as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dune. Baker also continued with a prolific career, working on Star Wars, The Fury, The Howling, Michael Jackson's Thriller video and more recent projects such as X-Men: The Last Stand, Norbit and The Wolfman.

The portrayal of Kong by a “man in an ape suit” has been derided many times over the years, but it has never really bothered me. I applaud the presence of actual eyes, as I said above, and a face that moves believably. The use of camera tricks to place Baker/Kong in the same frame as his opponents is generally well handled. I mean, I'm already suspending disbelief that there's a 40-foot ape in the story, so I can buy these effects. I find them FAR less distracting than over the top, video game-like effects such as what were put to use in the third version. That said, both makers of the suit were disappointed in it and credit the cinematographer for disguising many of its less admirable qualities.

Speaking of the cinematographer, Richard Kline, he did an outstanding job here, giving Lange some very careful lighting in her introductory scenes and beautifully capturing the island scenery. (In these days of CGI, it's easy to forget that before the days when someone could just whip it up with technology, locations often had to be chosen and photographed as interestingly and as artistically as possible in a real place! In this case, Hawaii.) Kline had been nominated for an Oscar for Camelot (Burnett Guffey won that year for Bonnie and Clyde) and was nominated again here (losing to Haskell Wexler's Bound for Glory.) He went on to photograph The Fury, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Body Heat before retiring in 1997.

King Kong also received a nomination for Best Sound, but that statuette went to the team from All the President's Men. The movie did take home an Oscar, though. It shared a special award for Special Achievement in Visual Effects with Logan's Run. This did cause a bit of a stir since so much of Kong was Rick Baker in a suit, but in reality there was also the (not entirely amazing) mechanical arm and the (quite impressive) mobilized face masks that allowed for so much expression in the character.

Though it wasn't singled out for any awards, special mention must also go to the haunting and plaintive score by John Barry. De Laurentiis may have produced some real drek over the years, but in producing King Kong, he hired some really solid talent in several key areas and this is one of them.

The director was John Guillermin, a veteran of British film and television from about 1950 on. He directed Tarzan's Greatest Adventure in 1959, one of the best non-Weissmuller installments, this one starring Gordon Scott. By 1972, he was directing Skyjacked, a pretty big hit, followed two years later by The Towering Inferno, an Underworld favorite. His next film after Kong was another personal favorite, Death on the Nile, but after that, there was a slide, first with the ghastly Sheena: Queen of the Jungle and then the 1986 sequel to King Kong called King Kong Lives, a movie that makes this one look like a Best Picture contender. He retired shortly after that and is still alive today at age eighty-six.

Bridges, the son of popular TV actor Lloyd Bridges and the little brother of Beau, made his screen debut at the tender age of just under two (alongside his mother and brother) in the 1951 film The Company She Keeps. His acting career didn't really begin, though, until he was a pre-teen when he would occasionally guest star on one of his dad's series. He scored an Oscar nomination in 1972 as Best Supporting Actor for the film The Last Picture Show (losing to costar Ben Johnson) and another in 1975 for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (losing to Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II.)

By 1976, he'd grown into a viable young male lead (he was twenty-eight here.) Though he worked pretty steadily, there were some dicey projects in the future. His very next film was the major fizzle Somebody Killed Her Husband with ex-Charlie's Angel Farrah Fawcett (the film was dubbed “Somebody Killed Her Career” in the press!) Then he was in Heaven's Gate, which was one of the biggest box office failures in cinema history, a legendary flop.

Still, his amiable persona kept winning out and from Starman to Jagged Edge to The Fabulous Baker Boys and others, he built a strong career. 1984's Starman resulted in a Best Actor Oscar nomination (F. Murray Abraham won for Amadeus.) Then, after a sixteen year Oscar dry spell, he was nominated again for 2000's The Contender in the supporting category (Benecio Del Toro won for Traffic.) Finally, he won the Best Actor Oscar for 2009's Crazy Heart and was nominated once more the following season for True Grit (with the award going to Colin Firth for The King's Speech.) His look in Crazy Heart was a return to the shaggy, bearded style he sported here thirty-something years before. He remains an active film actor to this day with several projects in the works.

In one brief scene, while hiking through the mountain terrain, Bridges has VPL. In case you don't know what that is, it's visible penis line. It's brief and faint, but it's there. If you look at the pictures here, you can make out the ghostlike shape of his head on the right side (his left) of his khakis. You know, in The Underworld I strive to cover only THE most important topics and aspects of a film. Ha!

Grodin had been kicking around in American TV shows and movies since the late-'50s, slowly building a reputation as a go-to guy for smarmy, confident yet neurotic, characters. His career prior to Kong had been fairly unheralded, though he did star in 1972's The Heartbreak Kid (with Cybill Shepherd) and 1974's 11 Harrowhouse (with Candice Bergen.) He had missed his really big chance in 1967 when a salary dispute kept him from playing the lead in The Graduate, allowing Dustin Hoffman to inherit the role (and the resultant fame.) Now seventy-six, he retired from screen acting in 1994 save one 2006 appearance in the Zach Braff comedy The Ex.

When De Laurentiis was preparing this movie, he tested a multitude of young actresses for the part of Dwan (the unusual, to say the least, name of the character was a tribute to prolific film director Allan Dwan, who'd worked from 1909 through 1961 and was alive still at the time.) Kim Basinger, Bo Derek (who might have been quite right!), Melanie Griffith and Valerie Perrine were just a few of the names that were considered. More eye-popping considerations included young Meryl Streep (who, according to the distinctive looking actress, was referred to as “ugly” by De Laurentiis!), Barbra Streisand (WHAT?) and Cher. Casting Cher in the part of an actress decked out in tribal gear might have aroused inappropriate memories of her “Half Breed” phase from just a few years prior! Two years after King Kong, she turned up in another out-there number, the gold get-up from her album “Take Me Home.”

In any event, after screen-testing three scenes, former Wilhelmina model Lange was selected. Initially, she was deemed too skinny, but on film she read more appropriately. An acting novice with no prior TV or movie experience, she was whisked into the world of King Kong much the way Tippi Hedren was encapsulated by The Birds. Only Tippi had Alfred Hitchcock as a tireless mentor and tutor while Lange had no such instruction or protection.

Upon the release of Kong, Lange was generally lambasted by critics for her acting. Seen today, it isn't nearly bad enough to warrant such criticism. In fact, she's often quite good. In fact, she actually won a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut! The thing is, there was almost no way to overcome the horrendously lame dialogue she was given to recite. Her character is basically a bubble-headed bimbo who was likely sleeping with a producer in return for an acting job when she was shipwrecked. She's also given plenty of stupid lines regarding astrology and male chauvinism. Considering this, and the tawdry way she's often dressed, it's a miracle that she comes off as appealing as she does! Oddly enough, two of the scenes that won her the part (her plea to come along to the island and her hysterical monologue to Kong) are among her less effective moments. She's much better elsewhere in the movie and certainly, as a former model, knew how to pose attractively in the clutch of Kong's hand (or in his palm as was sometimes the case.)

For her efforts during the production, she was knocked in the neck by one of the mechanical fingers, causing a pinched nerve. The exhaustive publicity tour that went along with the opening of the film was also a major ordeal. She then saw her fledgling acting career come to a screeching halt when people began unfairly comparing her to Faye Wray (the female lead of the original movie. As a side note, Wray wrote a trim, but engrossing, autobiography cleverly titled “On the Other Hand.”) Before the movie opened, she made the cover of Time Magazine. After the film opened, her pitfalls and career trauma were spelled out in the pages of People Weekly.

She really won the last laugh, though. After a nearly 3-year break, she returned to the screen with a small role in All That Jazz in 1979, followed by the ensemble comedy How to Beat the High Co$t of Living the following year. A steamy role opposite Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice (another remake, which was a dangerous thing for her to try!) came in 1981. Then she had the slam bang year of 1982, in which she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (for Frances) and Best Supporting Actress (for Tootsie) simultaneously! She won for Tootsie while Meryl Streep took home the Best Actress trophy for Sophie's Choice. Nominations as Best Actress followed for 1984's Country, 1985's Sweet Dreams and 1989's Music Box until she won a second Oscar for 1994's Blue Sky. (To be consistent, the ladies who won against her three previous nominations were Sally Field in Places in the Heart, Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. Can you imagine her sitting there, nervous as hell, and hearing, “...and the winner is... Jessica... (Tandy)?!”)

The opening credits list exactly three actors and that is it. Seeing the film as a child, and even revisiting it as a teen, the supporting players were generally unfamiliar to me, but now I find that I know a lot of them. The captain of the oil tanker was played by John Randolph, a busy character actor who played Rock Hudson's character prior to being de-aged in Seconds and was also the Mayor of Los Angeles in the disaster epic Earthquake.

Then there's Ed Lauter, seen here administering to the unconscious Lange. He was rarely, if ever, a leading actor, but appeared in very many movies of the '70s and '80s including The Longest Yard, Family Plot, Magic, Cujo and The Rocketeer, among many others. Black actor Julius Harris had a featured role as a crew member and John Lone (later to appear in Iceman, The Last Emperor and M. Butterfly) played the Chinese cook.

The towering Jack O'Halloran and the aforementioned Auberjonois later went on to attain cult stardom in the sci-fi realm. O'Halloran portrayed the imposing, silent Krytponian villain Non in Superman II. Auberjonois (who was a very prolific supporting player that some folks might recall from Eyes of Laura Mars) went on to portray Odo in more than 170 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (I just realized that I have these two flip-flopped in the character shots below, but you get the picture...)As an unnamed city official (never even referred to as mayor) is John Agar. Agar started out working with John Wayne in a couple of John Ford films as well as in Sands of Iwo Jima (directed by Allen Dwan!) before marrying and being divorced by Shirley Temple. He then slid into a long series of '50s, B-level monster movies. His connection to Dwan as well as his association with monster movies no doubt led to him being utilized here.

Somewhere in the movie is supposed to be Joe Piscopo, but I've yet to spot him. A more easy find was the young man shown in these snaps. The pushy, frantic, blonde reporter manhandling Lange at the gala went on to a considerable career on television. See if you can figure out who he is. It would be another decade after this before he became well-known. He played in over 170 episodes of a popular legal television show. (Also, he's the son of a prominent daytime soap opera actress who has been playing her role since 1973!)

Yes, that is the son of Jeanne Cooper of The Young and the Restless fame, Corbin Bernsen. He played slick attorney Arnie Becker on L.A. Law in addition to many other film and TV projects. Many folks have wondered who in the world is under that tribal ape mask, dancing uncontrollably as if there's no tomorrow! Wait no more. The man is Keny Long, a comic actor and dancer who appeared in a handful of movies such as Midnight Madness (shown here) and Doctor Detroit. He had a sort of goofy face despite the impressive physique, which might explain why he was never depicted in the film without the mask on.

King Kong is not a classic like its predecessor, but it's also not the disaster it has sometimes been made out to be (at least not around here!) It is, at times, campy, tacky and silly, but it's also sweeping, elaborate and fun! The sub-theme of oil company greed certainly doesn't come off dated at present! It's a lot of things, but it's not cheap. I would rather watch it fives times in a row than see even a half hour of the 2005 rendition. Obviously, I cannot recommend versions that don't preserve that wide Panavision picture, though two TV editions added in quite a bit of footage that allegedly fleshed out the story more satisfactorily. It's entirely possible that my childhood fondness for it has colored my opinion, but I still find it entertaining today.

6 comments:

Steve said...

It's a minor quibble, but Jack O'Halloran's character in the Superman movies was Non, not Zon. I know you strive for accuracy in these posts.

Poseidon3 said...

Oh Jesus.... I had General Zod on the brain, obviously!! So sorry. I'll fix it anon. LOL

Ken Anderson said...

I saw this movie when I was in college and my strongest memory is the HUGE hype surrounding it and the Streisand "A Star is Born" remake (De Laurentiis, feuding with Streisand producer Jon Peters over who would have the biggest hit, conceeds that Peters might have the advantage because, "Your ape can sing!")
I love Lange in this but can't get past her hairy ape co-star: Bridges, I mean. Still, it's better than the 2005 film.
Another VERY informative and funny post!

WonderPrincess said...

This was a childhood favorite. I remember seeing it at the theatre and my sister and I spent many times reenacting the waiting for Kong scene as well. Thanks for the wonderful pics and info. ;)

Thun said...

My first viewing was the extended version broadcast over 2 nights on NBC. I'd love to see a Special Edition Blu-Ray with all that extra footage edited back in.

Poseidon3 said...

Ken, a scant five years later I see I somehow missed that hilarious quote from Dino!! And Babs was sporting that humongous afro of curls at the time. Wow... Ha ha!!

WonderPrincess, funny how things like that "tied up for offering" scene can awaken the drama queen in so many of us! Fun times.

Thun, yes, that would be awesome! I always love to see MORE of movies that I like a lot to begin with. I recall buying my very first DVD player because that was the only way I could see the few deleted scenes from "Steel Magnolias!" LOL