Warner Bros. | 1933 | 104 min | NR

The year was 1933. America was at the height of an economic depression; the likes of which the country had never seen before. To escape their troubles, many people found themselves going into the local movie houses, where they could escape into the fantasy world on screen for a couple of hours. Given those circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine the impact King Kong must have had on moviegoers—audiences had never seen anything like it before. Even now, in this age of CG and multi-million dollar special effects, this version of King Kong provides a kind of thrill ride that Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake didn’t come close to approaching.

King Kong (1933)Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, much of King Kong puts the giant ape front and center. As the story begins, we are introduced to ultimate showman and film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who specializes in thrilling documentaries filmed in exotic locales. He begins a top-secret ocean voyage to uncharted waters and Skull Island, home to a legendary monster-god the local natives call “Kong.” Along for the ride is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a homeless, starving victim of the Depression that Denham—conceding  to the public’s demand for a love interest—intends to turn into the “beauty” of his film about the “beast,” Kong. But Denham doesn’t anticipate that stubborn First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) would fall in love with Ann, and therefore, question the danger Denham’s willing to subject her to, or that the natives, mesmerized by Ann’s golden hair and fair skin, would kidnap her and make her their sacrifice to Kong.

Yes, I suppose some of this film does appear dated. However, when you realize King Kong is nearly eighty years old, it’s hard not to be awed. The way special effects guru Willis O’Brien made Kong come to life and managed to combine live action and stop-motion in the same shots is brilliant. O’Brien clearly had great dedication to his craft and it shows in nearly every frame.

The true testament to O’Brien’s genius lies in the performance of the great ape. Everything Kong does seems logical. He fights a giant T-Rex to save Ann Darrow, and when it’s dead he plays with its jaw for a second. Later he does the same thing with another dinosaur that threatens Ann and even later with an elevated train – always checking his opponent to make sure it’s dead. That’s the true instinct of a jungle animal. Kong is a thinking, feeling creature, and when he’s injured we sympathize with him, leading to virtual tears at the film’s climax. Early on, the audience is brought into Kong’s head, making it impossible not to feel many of his emotions.

An innovative trailblazer upon its release, 1933’s King Kong still has elements that amaze. More importantly, the film is just a lot of fun. Anyone who hasn’t seen the 1933 version of King Kong definitely should do so at their earliest convenience.

Apparently, most of the original camera negatives of the RKO library no longer exist, and that transfers today are derived from second generation (and further) rougher. The first-half of King Kong falls into this category, but for whatever reason, the image gets much better about 25 minutes in, and looks outstanding all the way to the end of the film.

The Blu-ray is framed at 1.37:1 (pillar-boxed on 16:9 TVs), especially important because throughout the second-half of the picture are shots of Ann or Jack Driscoll matted into stop-motion Kong footage: the human actors usually lingering around the very edges of the frame. Wide shots also markedly improve. The introductory scenes with the natives have more impact because the natives’ faces are more discernable, and because that great wall dividing the village from Kong Territory is more textured, more ancient looking.

Audio has been remixed for DTS-HD 1.0, though a Dolby Digital 1.0 track is also included, as are audio options in Spanish and Portuguese, as well as subtitles in all those languages plus French.

The Blu-ray edition carries over most of the special features found on WB’s two-disc DVD edition, a few of the extras now in high definition. Things begin with an audio commentary by visual effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with interpolated interview excerpts from Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray.
Then there are the documentaries, starting with “I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper,” a fifty-six-minute documentary that outlines the career of the famous filmmaker, narrated by Alec Baldwin. Turns out, Cooper was a real-life explorer and adventurer who would be the actual inspiration for the Carl Denham character in King Kong.
Next, a documentary called RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World, that’s over two-and-a-half hours long. It covers virtually every aspect of the film’s creation and features interviews and commentary by a host of people–directors, historians, authors, technicians, and such–including director Peter Jackson and the late Fay Wray. The production comes in seven parts: “The Origins of King Kong,” “Willis O’Brien and Creation,” “Cameras Roll on Kong, the Eighth Wonder,” “A Milestone in Visual Effects,” “Passion, Sound and Fury,” “The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence,” and “King Kong’s Legacy.”

After that, we again get the lost “Spider Pit” sequence (HD), and about four minutes of O’Brien’s original test footage for “Creation” (HD), another “Lost World” type film that the filmmakers never completed, with commentary by visual-effects specialist Ray Harryhausen.

Since this is a Blu-ray Book edition, the disc comes housed in a thirty-six-page hardbound book, colorfully illustrated with pictures and text.

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