Monday, February 2, 2009

The Kong Show!

Continuing my quest to watch every science fiction movie in the L.A. Library's catalog.

King Kong (1976)

“Nobody cry when Jaws die, but when the monkey die people gonna cry.” With those immortal Italian-accented words producer Dino DeLaurentiis set out to remake arguably the greatest fantasy film of all time 1933’s King Kong. So how’d he do?

Well, he hired Jeff Bridges, doing what may be called The Dude version 1.0 (he’s a long-haired, bearded, hippie primatologist – he just needs to sip White Russians) and Charles Grodin playing the Charles Grodin role (why Grodin hasn’t been cast as Snidely Whiplash in a live action version of that cartoon great is beyond me). Dino also hired Jessica Lange in her first acting role as "Dwan," who judging from the spelling of her name you instantly know is a free spirited 1970s astrology-believing airhead hottie, albeit one who doesn’t want to watch Deep Throat with her other yacht companions (didn’t EVERYONE over 18 years old in the late 70s catch that cinema, um, classic?).

It’s ironic that a 1976 film - made between the major energy crises of that decade - about a petroleum company’s drive to exploit a paradise’s natural resources (first oil, then Kong) would still be relevant over 30 years later. THANKS FOR LISTENING BACK THEN GOVERNMENT AND OIL COMPANIES!

Has there ever been a character in real life like the blowhard Charles Grodin plays here? Walking around with his ascot and stupid ball cap with the LONGEST bill I have ever seen. It looks like something Jerry Lewis would wear as one of his child-like characters.

For a big budget movie featuring a giant gorilla, this is a pretty dull, plodding film, although cinematographer Richard Kline takes pretty pictures for director John Guillermin. Bridges is fine as usual – it’s funny to see him in an early anti-establishment role and compare it with his role in the recent Iron Man, where he plays the ultimate corporate “suit.” Lange is pretty, and in one scene wears the skimpiest Daisy Dukes this side of Hazzard County, which is all the role needs apparently (they thought “we can’t do better than Fay Wray, so why try”) and she had that vapidness that many of the hot young actresses on The CW network have. So perhaps she’s a trendsetter in that regard. Aside from the three leads there is no other character of interest. No human character that is.

Now about the big monkey. Make up and effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi was hired to build the 40 foot tall Kong. Well he did. And it didn’t work. Much. It basically stood there looking very GOOFY and very STIFF. Aside from lying there dead, I think the most it worked was a split second scene where it drops the cage bars that imprisoned it during his New York roadshow debut. Wow. So Dino had to also hire Rick Baker to save his monkey’s ass of a movie. Now Rick Baker today is a special make up effects god/deity of your choice. Back in 1976, not so much. (He had a few, mostly very low budget efforts to his credit including Squirm, It’s Alive and Schlock.) His Kong looked very much like a man in a suit, always walking with a very straight back, as if he was wearing one of those belts UPS guys wear for lifting heavy boxes. Even the sculpt of Kong’s face looked more like he referenced other man-in-gorilla-suit movies (Hi, Bob Burns!), instead of real apes. And when Kong smiles – or rather leers - at Dwan it can only be called, charitably, creepy.

What’s with the Skull Island (do they even call it that in this movie?) natives? They are obviously played by black people, but since the movie takes place in the South Pacific should they not have been played by Pacific Islanders, perhaps casting some Hawaiians since that is where they shot on location? I guess the casting directors and producers thought one “ooga booga” native tribe was the same as the next, or “it was good enough for the Tarzan jungle movies, it’s good enough for THIS jungle movie.”

Speaking of Skull Island, Kong takes Dwan to one spot on the island that looks like nothing so much as a set from the 1950’s classic Destination Moon, complete with craters and jagged rocks. Talk about a giant leap.

One thing really struck me as stupid while watching this mess – after Grodin decides that since he can’t exploit the island’s oil he’ll exploit Kong instead by taking him around the country in a “Beauty and the Beast” roadshow. Now that was lifted from the 1933 original, but this remake was made over 40 years later, and vaudeville and roadshows had long since been replaced by television. Yeah, Ringling Brothers Circus was still around, and this was the era of Evel Knieval, but come on. What the hell were they thinking? (Maybe Dino thought traveling roadshows were still big in America.)

The finale takes place atop the then-new World Trader Center towers. It features some of the worst special effects composite shots as several Army helicopters try to take out the big hairy guy. I have to admit, but when they opened up with the big 50 caliber machine guns and the blood just KEPT SPURTING it was a little sickening. I mean those guns can level a brick house. I guess this was that weird time in American cinema where they were pushing the boundaries. I think they could have held back just a little on this one.

Much has been written about the sexual undertones of the King Kong story. After watching this movie I’d say there were all true! When Kong is leering at Dwan you KNOW what’s on his mind (he could take out billboard ads and it would not be more clear). He even starts to rub his finger on her, causing her skimpy native-sewn dress (Miss Puka Shell 1976) to reveal her breasts, much to his obvious delight (see the leering). Later his “honeymoon” attempts are thwarted by a giant snake. Let me get this straight: Kong has to “defeat his snake” before he can get closer to his bride. OH, THE FREUDIAN NIGHTMARE OF IT ALL!


  1. I have to agree with most of your assessment, though I think the ape suit is better than you let on (of course, I'm comparing it to the infamous "Gene Rayburn" Japanese Kong suit from KK VS GODZILLA). Despite all of the film's many flaws, you are correct - the photography is good, and the film does have a nice epic feel (well directed for the most part by Guillerman). The main problem, as you pointed out, is how dull and sluggish the film is (plus the curiously deserted NY that Kong rampages in).

  2. One positive note I would like to add is John Barry's terrific and evocative score, which ( with the exception of one dated pseudo-disco track ) really adds an emotional undertone that the film would be worse off without.

    And I hate to admit it, the death of Kong in this film still gets me every time ( such is the power of nostalgia ).