King Kong (1976)

MAY 13, 2021


When Peter Jackson's version of King Kong came out in 2005, people either loved it or found it to be bloated, but pretty much everyone I remember speaking to/reading was in agreement that it was better than the 1976 version. And I had to take their word for it, because I had never seen it and, given how little I enjoyed Jackson's, didn't ever really see the need to. But I would get curious from time to time due to its cast, Rick Baker's work, and - perhaps most importantly - my growing realization that I click with 1970's cinema more than any other decade, which meant I would probably like it just fine. And guess what: I did!

Even better, it cemented why Jackson's version never really worked for me (though I haven't seen the - gulp - even longer one, if that was an improvement): he was too infatuated with the original. Not that I blame him; it's a great movie after all, and so many monster movies since owe it a huge debt, making it not just great but important, i.e. the sort of movie you leave alone. He seemingly agreed, which is why his film never finds its own soul, as its constantly bending over backwards to honor the original, which - especially given its mammoth length - just has me thinking about that one the entire time and also that I could have just watched it and gotten home earlier.

Luckily for me, the makers of the 1976 version share my belief that the best remakes are the ones that take the basic concept and create new characters and situations within it. So instead of Carl Denham, Ann Darrow, etc making a movie and running afoul of the big guy, we get Charles Grodin as Fred Wilson, an oil tycoon who has discovered what he believes to be an uninhabited island with a surplus of untapped texas tea, which he hopes to bring back to the US and be a hero (and get richer) for helping the energy crisis. A paleontologist named Jack (Jeff Bridges) gets wind of his plan and sneaks on board, not really trying to stop him but instead convince him that what's there isn't oil but animals, and since he's just as curious he just wants to tag along, document what's there, and get a nice "told you so" out of the deal. Along the way they pick up a shipwrecked actress named (sigh) Dwan, played by Jessica Lange in her first movie, but there's no rivalry between the two men: Grodin's character is married (he even encourages them to get married later on in the movie after they've fulfilled their duties as the leads in a major movie and fallen in love).

Nope, Bridges' competition is, of course, Kong, who they discover when they arrive on the island and run into a tribe. This stuff is pretty similar to the older movie, but by then they've changed enough that it doesn't really hurt things, and Grodin's decision to capture Kong and bring him back has its own unique motivation: having failed to get the oil (and yet promised "the big one" to his investors) he decides to recoup his losses with a new mascot for the company, in the vein of the Exxon Tiger. Sure, at times things seem reverse engineered to get to what are the same beats from the original, but there's just enough that's unique to this version that it rarely enters "why did they bother?" territory.

Curiously, one thing they dropped was the dinosaurs. Other than a quick fight with a giant snake, Kong is the only creature in the movie, which means there's not as much action as in the others (despite the excess length; it's forty minutes longer than the original). I can't say this was the wisest choice; perhaps if there were a few snakes or the fight lasted long enough to be a kind of showcase it would be OK, but it almost feels like something they threw in at the last minute. There's a clear desire to make something like the disaster movies of the era (they even got one of its directors: John Guillermin previously helmed The Towering Inferno), so perhaps they left monsters out so they could get to New York quicker - but they ultimately don't? There's only about 30 minutes left by the time Kong even gets there, let alone starts wreaking havoc.

That said, I found the mix of effects techniques to be quite successful, with respect to limitations at the time. Yes, the blue-screen shots probably look a little too fake (especially on a gorgeous Blu-ray) for a modern audience, but at the time that was the norm, and they do a terrific job mixing the guy in the suit (Baker himself) stuff with close-ups on Lange that utilize giant animatronic hands and the like. They also had a giant robot version, but apparently it didn't work all that well so you barely see it. There's a "commentary" with Baker (actually a very long interview that is spread out a bit to make it last over the whole film)  where he talks about the various problems with the effects, including barely being able to see when he was in the suit due to the hard plastic contacts he was wearing, but you'd never tell from the finished product. I rarely found myself thinking "they could have done better back then"; it was poised as a spectacular event in that regard and I think they delivered for 1976 audiences.

Plus I genuinely enjoyed the characters; Grodin was a hoot as the KINDA but not really slimy oil guy (I kept waiting for him to turn full heel but nope, his only crime is being too optimistic, really), and after so many years of the mumbling old man Bridges, I was delighted to see a new performance of him as a young and coherent leading man, the sort of role that would go to one of the Chris' today. And Lange is a bit green at times, but she's playing a ditzy actress so it fits just fine, and I found her gradual "trust" of Kong to be more believable than Naomi Watts' incarnation of the beauty to Kong's beast, as "Dwan" (Jesus, that name) knows he won't hurt her on purpose but is still pretty hesitant about being clutched and going up buildings, whereas Watts seemed to be enjoying it after a while. The supporting cast is great too: Ed Lauter, Rene Auberjonois, and even John Lone (!) all pop up, as does my man Walt "Crazy Ralph" Gorney as the subway driver (funnily enough, I had to take my F13 blu out of the player to put this one in - Gorneyfest!). Per the IMDb, Corbin Bernsen and Joe Piscopo are in the crowd in New York somewhere, but I didn't spot them.

Scream Factory's blu-ray took me all week to get through, primarily due to the two commentaries for the nearly two and a half hour film. Baker's is loaded with candid and hilarious stories, but I wish it wasn't spread out the way it is, as the breaks that are inserted are often unnatural, not to mention long, so he'll be telling a story that will cut out for 90 seconds or so (with the movie audio returning full blast) before he comes back to finish it up, blowing some of the humorous buildup in the process. But otherwise it's an essential listen, both for budding FX artists as he talks alot about his process and why certain things won't work, as well as why he retired (too many producers getting in his way) and other goodies. The other commentary is by Kong expert Ray Morton, who wrote a book about the big lug and brings a fairly dry but extensive history of this production along with some info on the original film.

And that's good, because now that it's 45 years old and nearly behind the scenes higher-up who made it is dead (Guillermin, writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., producer Dino De Laurentiis, etc), there isn't much of that "authority" to be found here outside of Baker, who obviously wasn't privy to casting issues and legal battles with Kong's rights holders. But instead, we get interviews with the sort of personnel who rarely get to offer their insight: the assistant director, the second unit director, a sculptor, two production assistants... these interviews are all in the ten minute range and give some great "ground level" kind of anecdotes that would otherwise be glossed over for the flashier material, providing an interesting and entertaining look at how this kind of production was mounted back when film shoots could last the better part of a year (the shoot ran from January to August of 1976).

A longer television version of the movie is also included, though after the two commentaries I was kind of sick of looking at everyone (well, maybe not Lange) so I'll save that for down the road. I looked it up and it seems like it's mostly just scene extensions and a few things clarified (like how Bridges' character obtained a crew shirt), all of it added back into the movie so they could turn it into a two night event given how long it was to begin with. Then again, last time I watched a King Kong that lasted three hours I didn't think much of it so maybe I'll just leave it safely in the case (it's on a second disc) next time I get the urge to watch this particular film. I'm getting older and it's getting harder to find lengthy blocks to watch even a normal length movie in one sitting, so unless I hear otherwise I'm going to assume the theatrical version is the way to go anyway. Still, I'm glad it's included, as I'm sure it's the version some folks grew up with after taping it off the broadcast or something. Scream has always been pretty good about including the TV cuts when they were available and it's a tradition I'm glad to see continue.

What say you?


1 comment:

  1. I've actually always found the Jackson version *more* soulful and moving than the '33 original, thanks to the intelligent scripting and brilliant performance by Naomi Watts.

    But at any rate, while the '76 one is certainly the least soulful, it's entertaining stuff, and doesn't get enough credit for it. And that John Barry score is wonderful.


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