King Kong (1933)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital Monaural
Warner Home Video, $26.98

In 1920, when globetrotting, adventure-seeking servicemen Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack met in volunteer military service while defending Poland against Russia, neither could have predicted the impact their friendship would have on American cinema. After taking cameras around the world in search of exotic wildlife and other natural wonders, the documentary filmmakers landed in the jungles of Hollywood at Paramount Studios, and they eventually became producers for RKO Radio Pictures. In 1932, Cooper and Schoedsack’s taste for the “larger than life” led them to propose the “eighth wonder of the world” project, King Kong.

Fortuitously, a special-effects model artist at RKO, Willis O’Brien, had recently created some groundbreaking models for an ill-fated production called Creation. When Cooper and Schoedsack saw the models, they eagerly collaborated with O’Brien to create test footage for King Kong to show to the RKO brass. This remarkable “stop-motion” footage of two ferocious creatures fighting led RKO to greenlight what would become the first genuine monster movie in Hollywood history and one of the biggest box-office draws of the Depression era.

Produced and directed by Cooper and Schoedsack, King Kong tells the tale of showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who wants to shoot his new wildlife docudrama on a mysterious island. Denham enlists a struggling young beauty, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), to increase the film’s box-office potential by posing alongside the wildlife. The island’s hostile natives kidnap Darrow in order to sacrifice her to their monstrous neighbor, the giant gorilla Kong, and Denham and his crew embark on a harrowing adventure to rescue the beauty and capture the beast. In one of American film’s most famous climaxes, Denham returns to New York with Darrow and the “eighth wonder of the world,” and all hell breaks loose.

Three cinematographers are credited with creating the immensely complicated world of King Kong, which combined live-action cinematography, O’Brien’s stop-motion-animated model effects, and extensive matte work. ASC members Edward Linden, Vernon Walker and J.O. Taylor (all of whom would later work on Son of Kong) were all meticulous visual-effects wizards who were careful to give King Kong the specific textures it required. From the foggy, exotic shore of Skull Island to the murky jungles of colossal creatures to the slick, art-deco look of 1930s New York, each style is seamlessly created.

Warner Home Video recently introduced Hollywood’s quintessential adventure/monster movie in an excellent two-disc special edition. Compared to earlier VHS and laserdisc incarnations, this restored image transfer reveals many layers of shadow that were previously hidden. Much of the action exhibits remarkable clarity and sharpness, as this transfer was taken from an original nitrate print. Although age-related lines occasionally appear, they are minimal and never distracting. The monaural sound has been nicely cleaned, giving a brassy depth to Max Steiner’s exceptional score.

The DVD’s supplements begin on disc one with a gallery of Cooper trailers and a commentary track led by legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen and visual-effects artist Ken Ralston. Unfortunately, the latter item is disappointing, as both well-intentioned artists get far too caught up in the film to offer much serious insight. (Harryhausen occasionally makes interesting anecdotal comments, and Ralston repeatedly says “so cool” in response.) Excerpts from previous recordings of Cooper and cast members have been sporadically and rather thoughtlessly dumped onto the track. It’s a shame Warners didn’t produce a more serious commentary for such a groundbreaking and popular title.

Disc two makes up for the commentary with an in-depth analysis of how King Kong was created. The hour-long “I’m King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper” offers an excellent portrait of the man and his many endeavors, and the 160-minute documentary “RKO Production 601: The Making of King Kong,” produced by filmmaker Peter Jackson, is exhaustive. The doc serves as an informative account of film history, a look into the world of stop-motion animation, and a commercial for Jackson’s own King Kong. Included in this extraordinary supplement are interviews with film historians, directors, special-effects artists, composers and actress Wray.

Also sold in a limited edition (with additional promotional materials) and as part of a trilogy (with Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young), this solid home-video treatment of a timeless adventure classic is a must for all collections.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.