Holiday Specials

CHRISTMAS STOCKING FILLERS FOR 2005

By • Dec 15th, 2005 • Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

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There are two DVD packages this season that are absolutely indispensable. You should fine someone to give them to as a gift immediately. Better yet – give them to yourself. We’re all allowed a certain number of self-gifts for Christmas. These are essential home video collections. And the rest aren’t bad either…

A WILLIS O’BRIEN COLLECTION (Warner Bros Home Entertainment) – KING KONG DELUXE SET

He was a King and a God in the world he knew, but now he comes to DVD! The KING KONG Collector’s Edition is easily the DVD event of 2005. Warner Brothers went all out giving lovers of this 1933 screen classic something to salivate over. Film fanatics in general will have a blast piling through the extras on this must-own disc.

The DVD releases (there are three separate packagings) include a) the uncut 1933 version of KING KONG, with a slew of extras, b) a more elaborate ‘tin’ including a reproduction of the Program Guide you would have received had you attended the film’s March 1933 premiere, and c) a less ritzy boxed release in which you also get KONG’s sequel, SON OF KONG (1933) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), both of them sweet, loving kin of Kong.

KING KONG
Executive Producer- David O. Selznick
Screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose
From a story by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper
Chief Technician – Willis O’ Brien
Music Score – Max Steiner
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Nobel Johnson
1933 100 minutes RKO – DVD release by Warner Bros Home Entertainment

I’m one of those who has seen KING KONG literally dozens of times: in theaters, on VHS, laserdisc, and of course, the late-late show. It never looked as crisp as it does on this DVD. Taken off a pristine British 35mm print, there is hardly a scratch, or an audio pop. The jungle sequences now have incredible visual detail. The New York sequences jump out in sharp blacks and grays.

If you don’t know KING KONG’s basic plot-line, than where have you been? Over-enthusiastic film-maker Carl Denham takes his camera crew and his new leading lady, Ann Darrow, to Skull Island, where the natives kidnap Ann and offer her to their God, a gigantic gorilla they call Kong. After numerous perils with dinosaurs and Kong, Denham captures the beast and brings him to New York for paying audiences to gawk at. The chains holding Kong don’t hold, and, well, you know…

Not only is KING KONG a marvel of primitive special effects, it’s movie-making at its most energetic and experimental. It’s an amazingly well-edited and swiftly-paced film. I always loved how many key scenes in KING KONG either begin or end with people scattering for their lives. Scenes that would have just been boring filler are bypassed. This is true in the scene on Skull Island Beach where Denham knocks Kong out with gas bombs, and shouts out how Kong will be the biggest thing on Broadway. We jump-cut to Kong’s opening night. A lesser film-maker would have had at least ten yawn-inducing minutes of Kong being transported to New York, the New York Department of Health throwing a hissy-fit, and Kong being custom-fitted for chains.

The KING KONG extras begin with I’M KING KONG!, a one-hour documentary on the film’s producer/director, Merian C. Cooper, co-produced by Kevin Brownlow, the extraordinary film historian whose documentaries are labors of love as well as works of art. “Coop”, as friends called him, was an amazing renaissance man. Along with Kong’s co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack, “Coop” made GRASS (1925) and CHANG (1927), two silent documentaries about the wilds of Africa and Siam.

“I made my first two films without ever visiting Hollywood.” Cooper commented in a vintage recording that can be found on the commentary track. “I was an entirely self-taught filmmaker!” Cooper became head of production at RKO studios, where he championed the early use of the Technicolor process. He later helped to develop Cinerama, an early widescreen process that revolutionized the formats in which films were shot.

Now we come to RKO PRODUCTION 601: THE MAKING OF KONG, EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD, a two hour documentary about the birth of Kong. In 1931, pioneering stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien filmed a test reel to prompt RKO executives to green-light CREATION, a story about shipwreck survivors encountering dinosaurs. Cooper hated O’Brien’s plot outline (CREATION’s story is recreated in this documentary, compellingly narrated by redolent toned film preservationist Scott McQueen, but even so, you’ll see why Cooper didn’t respond to it!) However, Cooper was captivated by O’Brien’s stop motion work, which showed dinosaurs attacking hunters. Cooper had been developing KONG, and enlisted O’Brien to bring his story about a gigantic ape to life.

We go into the casting of KONG. 1932 was a busy time for the lovely Fay Wray. She was making 12 films that year. It’s interesting that KING KONG did not help the careers of its talented cast. Robert Armstrong, who played Denham with brilliant gusto, would only do supporting roles afterwards (He is very funny as a sarcastic FBI man opposite James Cagney in 1935’s G-MEN). Bruce Cabot, who plays Jack, Ann’s human love interest, would appear here and there, mostly as a bad guy. KING KONG was Fay Wray’s last starring role.

One of the great cinematic Holy Grails (a celebrated scene that was cut from the film, and then lost) is the scene where Kong has shaken sailors off a log into a chasm, where giant spiders, crabs, and squids attack and devour the helpless men. The scene was shot, but cut from the film before it’s general release, and it hasn’t been seen since. All that exists of this gruesome segment is Cooper and O’Brien’s shot list, and a few stills.

This is where Peter Jackson, the maker of KING KONG 2005 comes in. His visual effects team at Wingnut Productions recreated the spider pit sequence using 1932 technology (stop motion, a 35mm movie camera from the period, glass mattes, pose-able figurines, and no computers) They used the shot list and stills as a guide. They also re-created missing jungle scenes involving a Styracasaurus. (FIR’s editor commented that the Styracasaurus animation resembles Willis O’Brien’s work, while the spider pit creatures behaved as if Ray Harryhausen was guiding them.) I showed the spider pit sequence to two friends who seen almost everything filmed, and like me, their jaws dropped! Ray Harryhausen, whose legendary stop motion career started when he first saw KING KONG during it’s 1933 first run, heads a wonderfully enjoyable commentary track.

SON OF KONG
Produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack.
Screenplay by Ruth Rose
Chief Technician – Willis O’Brien
Music Score – Max Steiner
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cast: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, John Marston, Frank Reicher
1933. 71 minutes – RKO – DVD release by Warner Bros Home Entertainment

“Oh, heavens!” they must have said at RKO, “A sequel to our biggest hit – KING KONG! How on earth are we going to top the original?!” Merian C. Cooper wisely decided not to top KONG, but to parody it! What makes SON OF KONG such an enjoyable film is that it’s a study in let-down! Every time something is built-up in the film, it’s smashed down. The film’s opening shot shows a poster advertising King Kong’s Broadway debut. The camera pans down to show the poster is tacked to flop-house wall. Carl Denham, Kong’s captor, is sneaking out to avoid the process servers and lawsuits. On a South Seas island, Denham sees an ad for an exotic local singer – La Belle Helene (a very cute Helen Mack). Her stage act is a confusing, off sync, untrained monkey act. When Denham, Helen and company return to Skull Island they find smaller dinosaurs and a relatively diminutive albino Kong. You have to laugh with Robert Armstrong’s Denham as he apologizes to Kong Jr. for “knocking off your ol’ man,” or, in one scene, chastising the big baby gorilla for playing with a loaded rifle: “You big rummy!” At 71 minutes, SON OF KONG is a fun little flick, with a genuinely touching ending.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG
Produced by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper
Screenplay by Ruth Rose
From an original idea by Merian C. Cooper
Special Visual Effects – Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.
Commentary track with Harryhausen and Moore.
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cast: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong, Frank McHugh
94 minutes. 1949 – RKO – DVD release by Warner Bros Home Entertainment

Once again, Merian C. Cooper wanted to make a giant gorilla picture, and as he did with SON OF KONG, the showman wisely chose not to top his 1933 classic (although the stop motion destruction scenes are unparalleled), but to have fun with it. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a fast paced fantasy-comedy-thriller about a gentle simian giant raised on an African plantation by a young girl (Terry Moore). A Carl Denham-clone stage producer named Max (the always energetic Robert Armstrong, this time sporting an awful toupee) coaxes Jill to bring Joe to Los Angeles where he features the giant ape in a night club routine. The crazy skits Max dreams up for Jill and Mighty Joe resemble Barnum and Bailey on crack! (The tug of war between Joe and a line up of beefy muscle men is 100% entertainment overdrive!) Joe finally goes berserk, and tears the club apart. There’s a court order to have him killed, but Max and Jill brainstorm an escape, and the mad chase is on.

John Ford is credited as a second unit director. (I’d love to know what scenes!) There are amusing cameo appearances by Hollywood supporting actors like Charles Lane, Edward Gargan, and Jack Pennick. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG’s highlight is the stop motion work, most of it by young Ray Harryhausen. His work here is some of the best animation you’ll ever see. The fist-fight between Joe and former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, Joe’s rampage through the club (complete with animated lions, drunks, and debris), and the climactic fire sequence, help make MIGHTY JOE YOUNG a high-caffeine treat.

I have to mention how “film-logic” fuels MIGHTY JOE YOUNG’s third act. Joe is in a stolen van, being chased by angry policemen who are gaining on him. Suddenly they come across a burning orphanage, and Joe redeems himself by rescuing the trapped kids. (With my luck, if I was helping Joe escape, I’d come upon a burning maximum security prison with death row inmates waiting for a rescue!) While Joe lies there injured, after having rescued the last screaming tot, Jill is assured by her boyfriend (warmly played by Ben Johnson) that “Nobody’s gonna shoot Joe now!” Uh, excuse me, Benny, there’s a court order to shoot Joe! Are you a lawyer?!

Merian C. Cooper never worried about logic and goofball details. He was just interested in entertaining an audience, which he has done superbly for the last 70 plus years.

A commentary track is provided by Ray Harryhausen, whose memory about things 55 years ago is quite sharp, and Terry Moore, who Primo Carnera used to call “Teeny Weenie” on the set. At times the conversation flags, but mostly it’s a warm remembrance flavored with factual flourishes. One of the most important bits of info is supplied by Harryhausen: the tinting of the fire sequence was originally two-color – yellow and rich red, not the somewhat washed out orange we have here. Couldn’t someone have called him first?

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