Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: King Kong (1976)

“No one cry when Jaws die, But when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Konk; even film buffs who love the first Konk gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap. I no spend two, three million to do quick business. I spend 24 million on my Konk. I give them quality. I got here a great love story, a great adventure. And she rated PG. For everybody.” - Dino De Laurentis

King Kong (1976)

Directed by John Guillermin
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Produced by Dino De Laurentis
Jeff Bridges
Charles Grodin
Jessica Lange

If you’ve never seen a King Kong movie I have but one question for you: What planet do you hail from and welcome to Planet Earth. I’m sure most of you have seen Peter Jackson’s extravaganza and if you’re any kind of film buff at all you just had to have seen the original 1933 version. But in between the releases of what many now consider the two definitive Kongs there were a few other giant apes running amok tales.

There was King Kong vs. Godzilla brought to you by the good folks at Toho Studios. Yes, the two mightiest monsters of all time once did battle in downtown Tokyo for an HBO special. To make it a fair fight Toho shipped some steroids over from Barry Bonds locker in order to boost Kong’s height by about 300 or so feet. Otherwise the mighty ape might have been saying sayonara after about 30 seconds or so of screen time.

The film was great fun – for kids 10 and under of course. It was successful enough however that Toho brought their own funky looking man in an ape suit back for a sequel whereas Kong battled Mechanical Kong in King Kong Escapes. Who knew that rubber suited monsters could be so financially rewarding?


All of that Kong silliness aside, until Jackson came along over seventy years after Merian C. Cooper had left his indelible mark on the movie screens , there was only one other genuine big budget Hollywood production that dared to venture into the Kong remake factory. And that of course is this 1976 Dino De Laurentis extravaganza which plucked Kong out of the thirties depression and into the gloriously glitzy disco era of the seventies. In fact, one early poster that was issued of Kong is called Travolta Kong because of Kong’s Vinnie Barbarino style haircut. Pre-production on the film began in earnest in 1974 with Lorenzo Semple writing the script and Producer De Laurentis doing the PT Barnum bit in promoting his upcoming epic.

And one thing even I remember is that De Laurentis loved to brag about before the film went into production was that his film was going to have a colossal 40 foot actually working gigantic mechanical monster be the star of his film. The idea certainly stroked my imagination but in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but remember all the trouble Spielberg had with a mechanical shark that was a dwarf at only twenty five feet long. But that of course was in the water and as far as I knew, Kong didn’t have any swimming scenes and nobody was going to need a bigger boat so maybe it would work.
It turned out, I was kind of wrong about the swimming bit as Kong did take a quick dip in the East River, but I and a lot of people should have been more skeptical about oversized robots covered with horse hair. Yeah, there were a lot of naked horses running around for a while in 1976.

An old wise man once said that the taller the robots are, the harder they fall, and he wasn’t talking about taking a dive off the Empire State Building. Okay, I confess. I’m the old wise man who said it.  It turns out that the 1.7 million dollar mechanical Kong toy turned out to be a bust of gargantuan proportions and unlike the shark in Jaws that Spielberg was able to hide through most of the film, it’s kind of hard to find a place to hide a 40 foot mechanical ape especially when he’s your leading man….I mean ape.

That left Dino with choosing one of two alternatives. He could use the stop motion animation process used in the original, and enhanced since then in many a Ray Harryhausen film such as Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans. Or he could go the TOHO Productions route and put a man in an ape suit. Much to the chagrin of all the stop motion supporters, Dino opted for giving some man a monkey makeover. No, he didn’t try to rent the left over costume from King Kong vs. Godzilla. Instead he hired makeup artist Rick Baker, who would eventually go on to win six Oscars. As for Mechanical Kong, he ended up with about thirty second’s worth of screen time. I think it averaged out to about $500,000 dollars a second.

Linearly speaking, the 1976 film doesn’t delineate too much from the well known plot line. Girl meets Ape. Ape gets girl. Ape loses girl. Ape takes a trip. Ape gets girl back. Ape meets friends in high places and that’s all she wrote.

But there were a few changes and a few wrinkles added here and there. Instead of heading over to Skull Island to film the next great adventure movies, this boat is taking the trip because infrared satellite pictures show that there may be a huge oil deposit laying around waiting to be pumped out of the ground and into your Chevy. This expedition is led by Big Oil Company executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin)whom came into possession of the satellite photos after making a campaign contribution to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. No, it wasn’t George Bush.

Also on board the Petrox is a stowaway, anthropologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges). It seems he got wind of the fact that that someone from the Petrox Explorer (the name of the ship owned by the Petrox Oil Company) was buying charts for the same area he was interested in exploring because he heard some silly nonsense about a giant ape like creature. Since Carnival Cruise lines didn’t have an excursion going in Jack’s direction, he decided to just hop on board the Petrox and work out details about his fare later. After Wilson checks out Jack’s credentials, he decides to let him stay on board and become the official photographer.

Not too much later a rubber life boat is spotted and lying inside is Ann Darrow wannabe Dwan (Jessica Lange). It seems she was partying on board a yacht when the storm kicked up and threw her overboard right into a rubber dinghy that was parked nearby. Nobody else on board the yacht was quite that lucky but we really didn’t need to bog down the film with more needless characters anyway.  Besides, they died happy.  They were watching Deep Throat at the time.

Dwan makes a very quick recovery after about a second and a half of mourning those she left behind, and this in turn enables the ship’s crew to donate their clothes to her so that she can quickly shrink them and then pour her 5’8” perfect frame into them in order for Jack to take some photographs and extend the running time of the movie an extra ten or fifteen minutes more so every red blooded heterosexual male can leer at her. Besides admiring Lange’s shape, we are also suppose to notice that Jack and Dwan are falling head over heels for each other. I guess you could call it Beauty and the Geek, the 70’s edition.

After having ogled Dwan for all its worth we finally reach the perpetual fog bank in the middle of nowhere, climb into our trusty row boat and head for shore. This Kong Island (I Can’t call it Skull Island because it is never called that in the movie exactly. It is referred to in a legend as The Island of the Skulls) is quite a bit different from the rendition of that we saw in 1933. Instead of being dark and foreboding, once the fog bank is left behind, the curtain rises on an island that could easily double as the Garden of Eden in a remake of the Old Testament.

Just as in the original, the natives are getting ready to marry off one of their own to Kong when the Dwan patrol is spotted and the chief offers a trade of six for one. After Wilson tells them to take their deal to Ebay, the explorers head back to the ship, where Dwan is kidnapped and taken to be wed in Holy Matrimony till death they do part or Kong’s lunch time, whichever comes first. And you know the rest of the story….sort of.

Yes, Kong runs off with his beloved and Jack and the rest of the guys go running after him without Wilson who stays behind to check on his oil reserves. Unfortunately, after having already wired the home office at Petrox, Wilson discovers that the oil isn’t quite cooked to perfection yet. As scientist Roy Bagley (Rene Auberjonois) puts it, “it needs a little more aging of about 10,000 years or so, hardly a drop in the bucket in geological terms.” Still determined to bring in the Big One, Wilson begins devising a plan to capture Kong and to take him to back to star in his very own Petrox Television Commercial. Yep, Kong is now the big ‘un.

Meanwhile the Indiana Jones type adventures behind the Great Wall of No Name Island begin with Jack and the crew battling dinosaurs, Kong fighting a giant T-Rex, a giant Sea Serpent, and giant insects. It’s a special effects extravaganza you’ll……ooops. Sorry for that. That’s the other Kong Movies. My bad.

In this one what you get is one long trek through the jungle, and the only giant anything you get is a huge rubber snake that Kong kind of does battle with except that I think he actually wraps the snake around himself to see how it would look as a giant lei. The snake is so badly constructed that even ToHo studios would have rejected it. I can still hear Godzilla laughing his ass off at those dumb American film producers.

You do get scenes of Kong gazing lustfully into the eyes of Dwan and I don’t think there’s any mistaking what’s on his mind. I guess there’s a scarcity of female giant apes on the island and a horny ape has got to do what a horny ape….. Well never mind. But he isn’t intent on sliding those clothes off of Lange to play strip poker. And although you get no dinosaur battle, you do get a quickie shot of Lange’s left breast if you don’t blink.

We also get a replay of the boat crew being thrown off the log and into the canyon by Kong. Compared to Kongs I and III, (1933 and 2005 respectfully) it isn’t very well done at all or even remotely frightening. There are of course the usual two survivors, Jack and another crew man. Jack who will carry on to rescue Dwan while the other guy heads back to tell Wilson to leave the island barn door open because the big ‘un is going to be coming full steam ahead. And while Kong is battling Klunky Snake in the grass, Jack absconds with Dwan, and the angry Kong comes rushing after them with a full head of steam.

You know what happens next. Kong smashes down the door, begins totally trashing the native village, eating natives, stomping them to smithereens, smashing them into oblivion…..oops sorry. I really have to concentrate better. Wrong movie again. There is no scene of destruction of the native village. There are no stomped natives. There are no chewed up natives. There are no smashed huts. It seems that the natives must have caught the nearest Ferry Boat and headed over to Singapore for a night out on the town. Or maybe De Laurentiis tried to pay them off in bananas so they went on strike.

Kong bursts through the gigantic door and immediately falls into a 100 foot deep pit dug by out by Wilson and the gang and falls gently asleep when several giant drums of chloroform are released while Dwan hums Lullaby of Broadway. Okay, I made that last bit up but when you watch a movie as silly as this one, the silliness begins to rub off on you.

What was a novelty in this film and one of the better sequences put together is the method they used to transport Kong back to the mainland. In the original Kong we had to just guess. In King Kong vs. Godzilla they built a giant raft which they blew to shit allowing Kong to go beat the crap out of the his opponent. In this one they stick him into one of the giant cargo holds designed to transport oil. And once Kong discovers Dwan is on board, he goes into a blind rage nearly destroying the ship which for my money is probably the best done sequence in the film. Dwan manages to soothe the savage beast with a few kind words and we’re off to New York and Shea Stadium.

As good as the Kong sequence on the Petrox Explorer was, that’s how really lame the Shea stadium great escape is. It is also your first chance and only chance to catch a glimpse of the Laurentis mechanical Kong constructed just for the occasion and you’ll know definitively why the whole idea was abandoned, or as some claim was never really meant to be used at all as nothing more than a pre publicity launch for the film.

Brief segment on Mechanical Kong

Worse yet, the indestructible cage looks as if Dino’s grandkids built it with their erector set that very morning. It’s bad enough that they parade Kong out in a giant gas tank, but they went to great lengths to steal a crown from the Burger King and place it on top of his head. And while they wheel Kong out to the crowd, Wilson chants about the power of Kong and the power of Petrox oil as if he is auditioning for the Trinity Broadcast Network. Thankfully, Kong soon puts Wilson and us out of our misery.

After another clunky looking poorly done special effect sequence where Kong takes on a railroad car looking for Dwan, he eventually catches up to her and Jack and decides to take Dwan on a ride to the top of the World Trade Center. Jack, for his part, calls the army and tells them where Kong is headed after eliciting a promise that they won’t kill him. (Like nobody’s going to notice a forty foot ape climbing a building with a sexy blond perched on his shoulder as if she were a parrot). And if you guessed that as soon as they hang up the phone the army calls out the heavy ammo to promptly shoot Kong down, you win the big Ape stuffed animal.

Atop the World Trade Center, it gets bloody messy as Director Guillermin leaves nothing to the imagination. As the bullets rip Kong apart blood flies out as if someone had just struck an oil gusher. Then things get a bit silly as Jack Prescott cheers when Kong grabs a hold of one of the choppers and sends it hurdling to the street. I mean, this was a serviceman just following orders wasn’t it? Of course, they were hurting the giant monkey so maybe we just have to give Jack a pass when he refers to the guys in the choppers doing their job to save New York from destruction as dirty bastards.

Then Kong decides to make one giant leap for apes, and one giant leap for ape kind by jumping off of one tower and over to the other one with poor Dwan holding on for dear life. It’s an amazing stunt and would have been an Olympic record but I think the wind was at Kong’s back so it didn’t count. There’s rules about that, you know, and even giant apes have to follow the Olympic rules.

You pretty much know how it ends so what can I tell you? There are some who praise the movie as being high camp and a novel way to look at the Kong legend. Heck, even Pauline Kael who was a real hard ass, and tougher than my World History teacher in high school when it came to giving out passing grades gave it a good review. But what we’re here for is my thoughts and despite what Kael thought and even Roger Ebert thought, I can’t see my way to giving Dino’s Konk anything better than a low C-. The flaws are way too many and way too obvious to give it any kind of a decent score.

I will admit that a few years back, I might have even given it a C without the minus. But then it’s only competition was the original film if you discount the Godzilla thingy altogether. Now, with Peter Jackson’s film out there, this one suffers even more by the double comparison. It used to be that you would be willing to give it a pass on a few of its many flaws, but now to even watch it at all is a chore in tedium. And this is not a new feeling.

I distinctly remember going into the theater to see the movie upon its release with great anticipation, and then coming out feeling quite a bit let down. I had expected there to be at least a little sense of adventure or even horror but there was none. What you got instead was Kong spending most of the running time on Kong Island leering at Jessica Lange. And although there is one scene well done where she falls in the mud and he washes her off in a waterfall, it’s not enough to overcome the silliness of watching Jessica Lange punch Kong in the mouth. I really don’t think Dwan could have known if that was a gleam of Love in Kong’s eyes, or if his stomach was growling. Frankly, I wouldn’t be sparring with a forty foot ape that obviously has the upper hand.

It doesn’t matter, though. The awful snake and the snake fight sequence destroy any chance the Kong Island scenes had of redeeming themselves. Didn’t anybody bother to look at the rushes? Or by that time did they decide that with no dinosaurs or any other animate objects besides Dwan’s fist to put Kong up against, it was better than nothing at all? Maybe if they hadn’t wasted so much money building Mechnica-Kong that turned out to be totally useless, they could have come up with something better. Frankly, if Willis O’Brian can perform the magic on Kong that he did in 1933, you would think that 43 years later and with 24 million dollars at your disposal your special effects would be dazzling.

They obviously knew that Mechanica-Kong didn’t work, so why bother trotting it out for a few seconds in the Stadium sequence? Its flaws are awesomely obvious, making it easy to spot when we are watching Rick Baker in a monkey suit and when we’re watching the Dino’s 1.7 million dollars worth of what probably ended up as landfill. And that’s another problem in itself. Despite the fact that Baker was able to pull off some magic with the help of Carlo Rambaldi, you are always aware of the fact that you are watching a man in an ape suit. The use of forced perspective runs rampant in this film, along with poorly done and obvious filmed backdrops. The rule of thumb is when it walks like a man, acts like a man, it is a man just horsing around in a monkey suit.

It’s not that the cast doesn’t give it that old Kong try though but they all just come off looking silly as they recite constant groaners such as “Let’s not get eaten alive on this island. Bring the insect repellent” or Dwan calling Kong a “male chauvinist pig ape.”

Lange’s Dwan could have been an interesting character, but Semple’s script does nothing more than paint her as a sex object, and then piles on by giving her an IQ of about 90.

As for Bridges, I just could never be convinced he was an anthropologist or scientist of any kind. Honestly, if some nit wit came and told you that what you saw on a satellite photograph was animal respiration, wouldn’t you have him carted off to the funny farm when you finally finished rolling in the floor laughing? And although Prescott and Dwan were supposed to be attracted to each other, they have absolutely no chemistry in their scenes with each other. Heck, there was more give and take between Dwan and Kong and we all know Kong is an ape of very few words.

If you had watched this film upon it’s release, one thing you would not have predicted as that the two leads, Bridges and Lange would eventually go on to win Oscars.  Of course, it took Bridges a lot longer to live down this mess than it did Lange.

Only Grodin seems to know what kind of movie he is in and he spends just about all of his screen time good naturedly hamming it up. We’re suppose to hate him and what he stands for so that we feel some amount of pleasure when Kong stomps Wilson’s lights out. But I didn’t feel any pleasure, pain, sadness or anything. I just didn’t care.

I’ve never been entirely enamored of John Barry’s score although many are. I find Barry’s scores are usually very overwrought and don’t do a whole lot to compliment what is on the screen and the Kong score is no exception. Still, it’s not his worse. You’d have to visit The Black Hole in order to hear that.   But some people love his stuff so if you’re a Barry fan here is my gift to you courtesy of someone else at Youtube.  But listening to it now, it kind of sounds like he partially ripped off his own James Bond stuff.  See if you notice.

John Barry’s Score from the 1976 version of King Kong.

If you have never seen the film I suppose you should see it at least once and then you can form your own opinion about it. Maybe you’ll be like Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert and actually have praise for these monkey shines. Or Maybe you'll agree with Joe Bob (see video) Or you could rent the original Kong, watch Jackson’s remake again, or even the original Mighty Joe Young with Terry Moore (stay away from the remake of that too!). It would all be time much better spent.
Jim Bob gives his take on King Kong in this segment from a TNT Monstervision Presentation

It would have been interesting if Paramount had gathered up Bridges, Lange, and Grodin for a DVD commentary but Paramount is notoriously on the cheap side when it comes to many of their DVD releases. Then again, maybe this is one act that the participants didn’t want to revisit, not now, or ever. I’m sure I won’t be doing so again anytime soon. I’ve seen it enough, after having just watched it to write this review. And that should suffice for the rest of my lifetime as well.

1 comment:

  1. I was interested to read your article: when you mention Rick Baker, there were actually two 'guys in the ape suit', the other being Will Shephard. Will's diary about his experiences on the set, 'Inside King Kong', has now been published - and includes lots of behind-the-scenes photos. It's out as a paperback in the UK, but as an ebook worldwide.