Thursday, 18 August 2011

Whatever happened to Fay Wray?

King Kong
Directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoesdsack
Full production details on imdb

State of the art 1933 epic. Soulful animation & classic adventure. Will charm even those reticent to suspend their disbelief.

Scala Forever is a film festival taking place across London from the 13th August to the 2nd October, a festival completely dedicated to celebrating the Scala cinema, Kings Cross, which dished up art house, cult, exploitation, B movies and international fare from 1981 to 1993.

The festival has films, panels, double bills and all nighters inspired by Scala and, as per its mission statement 'celebrating the current repertory film scene in London.' It is masterminded from the Roxy Bar and Screen on Borough high street, which, as one of 27 venues involved is the stage for the opening night.

King Kong PosterThe Roxy draws a mixed crowd tonight. The front of the bar has a sports screen with avid fans looking on, while the main screen is at the back, tucked away behind a curtain and surrounded by leather sofas and small tables. With its prohibition feel, this is where the cinematic magic, as it were, is about to happen.

Scala Forever opens in an understated manner, with an unenigmatic but unapologetic introduction. We get some shout outs to coorganisers and venues and it's clear from the evening and the hype that this is a passion driven project which has been so satisfying to put together that general punter satisfaction is merely an added bonus. Or a given.

After a colourful history, Scala in its celebrated incarnation opened in 1981 with a showing of the 1933 classic King Kong. This was a poetic choice to reflect that fact that the building had previously been a Primatarium.

At its heart King Kong  is a state of the art epic and among the first to employ the combination of stop motion and live action, small and large scales to very special effect. The stop motion on its own truly stands the test of time. The animation is charming, Kong's character shines through his body language as much as his facial expressions. He even occasionally shows up his costars' acting skills, which are among the few downsides to the film. To get this obvious flaw out of the way quickly, the dialogue is clunky and often delivered in a strange and stilted manner. The actors sometimes seem a little surprised by what they're saying, and it feels a little as if it's a first read through of the script. Among the long action scenes set to Max Steiner's exciting score and Kong's suspiciously lion like roar, this doesn't really detract from the viewing experience, and is almost appropriate for Fay Wray's role as amateur actor Ann Darrow, and despite its stiltedness it is carried through by its sincerity. This was state of the art for 1933 and no expense was spared for any of the sets and it is charming in its self belief.

The integration with the live action is also fantastic - even those of the post Jurassic Park generation who are unwilling to suspend their disbelief will sometimes struggle to see the seams.

The plot is classic and well known - film crew discovers giant apelike creature which falls for damsel and is lured into captivity. Cue much destruction and empire state building escapades.
It seems to touch on many themes - exploitation of less developed cultures, of nature and of animals, unrequited love, beauty and beastliness among them. However, the moral layer of the film is somewhat thin. Room arises for a moral dilemma as the crew, ignoring the question of whether they should be capturing a wild animal, dice briefly with the question of whether it's a good idea to risk Ann using her as bait. Before this can be properly addressed however, the fast moving plot carries on and the moral dilemma is taken out of their hands with the cries of "Kong's coming! Kong's coming."

The only other time attention is drawn to the issues is Denham's closing line "it was beauty killed the beast." But the tone is not entirely clear - is it triumphant? Is it deploring Kong's love of Ann as a weakness? Or is it marking the tragedy which occurred in Kong's capture and subsequent destruction? Ambiguity is great, but the characters, and by implication, the films creators show little sympathy for the great ape and this does detract from what could have been a poignant morality tale.
But maybe I'm mistaking deliberate ambiguity and subtlety for the lack of thought. Or perhaps it's lost in translation through the decades - in modern Hollywood all that a story is meant to make us think and feel is spelt out to us and it's rare that none of the characters share the viewers overview. We shouldn't need an empathetic protagonist in order to form our opinions.

Overall King Kong is brimming with all the charm and classic adventure it ever was. Truly well crafted animation and a real sense of sincerity make it easy to overlook its clumsy dialogue and lack of subtlety in its storyline.

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