Friday, December 17, 2010

Day 148: King Kong

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #202
Year: 1933
Director: Edgar Wallace
Starring: Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Usually when an old movie that I don't particularly enjoy is labeled a classic, I don't put up a fight. The 1933 version of King Kong will not be one of those cases. It is a terrible movie, and there is absolutely no reason for it to be on the Top 250. I'll now break my usual format for this blog to explain why.

1) It is irredeemably racist and sexist: I fully understand the times when racism and sexism in a movie are acceptable. When a character would actually be nonchalantly racist or sexist, playing them that way is also okay. And if the bigotry is somewhat buried in the subtext, I can generally stomach it. In King Kong, that is not the case. The racism is present in a Chinese character named Charlie (yep) who looks like he jumped out of a Thomas Nast political cartoon and into the film and who longs to go back to China, and tells us so with in the most stereotypically accented English I've ever heard outside of a racist impression of a Chinese person. It pops up again when they actually get to Skull Island, and a group of tribesmen act like you might imagine tribesmen may, if you were a giant racist. They have declared a giant ape their king (Hmmmmmm....) and they kidnap the pretty white girl who landed in their home. (Hmmmmm....) Speaking of that pretty white girl, let's address the sexism. The first twenty minutes of the film is essentially a bunch of guys on a film crew talking about how they don't want to bring a woman along to shoot their movie, and they reel off dozens of outdated and offensive reasons why. Then, when Fay Wray shows up and they realize that they will be spending time on a ship and an island with a woman, they continue to be sexist, this time to her face. And then, when one of them falls in love with her, he makes sure she knows he still hates women (his word, hates) and that she is an exception to the rule. And no one learns their lesson and starts being nice to minorities and women, which would still fall short of redeeming it. So there's that.

2) The special effects are laughably bad: I get that this is part of the appeal, but shouldn't King Kong be a cult midnight movie and not on the IMDb Top 250? Anytime Kong or the dinosaurs are in a shot, it's abundantly clear that a) they were filmed separately from the "real" action, and b) they're made of fucking clay. I seriously laughed out loud more than once when Kong was wrestling with the dinosaurs. There's no way I can call these effects innovative enough to warrant classic status. I would have preferred if they just got an ape from the zoo and did trick photography.

3) The acting, too, is laughably bad: During Hollywood's so-called Golden Era, the acting had to be good, because with a few notable exceptions, there generally wasn't a lot else to look at besides the actors. The crew of King Kong didn't get the memo. Everyone is awful. Fay Wray is beautiful, but awful. 'Nuff said.

4) Peter Jackson remade it with none of the above problems, and that film isn't on the list: Seriously. Maybe it's blasphemy to say a remake is better, but whatever, I'm kind of a heretic anyway. The 2005 King Kong is phenomenal. It takes what should have been a good movie in the first place but wasn't and makes it great. The ensemble cast is perfect, it's not unbelievably offensive, and for the first (and perhaps only) time, a fully CGI character managed to make tears well up in my eyes. Mr. Jackson made one of the best movies of 2005 with his King Kong, but the 1933 one is on the list out of some misguided loyalty to anything that did it first. It's bullshit. There, I said it.

The Good: The story is actually good fun, and Jackson teased out the best parts of it in his adaptation.

The Bad: See above.

The Skinny: Worst movie on the list. I feel like I give this title out a lot, but this time I mean it.


  1. So, you're complaining about the special effects in a movie made in 1933?

  2. The point I'm making isn't that we should expect them to be good. It's that we shouldn't praise them when they suck. "It did it first" is not a good enough reason for a movie to be a classic.