Tag 1930s

Son of Kong, The (1933)

The Son of Kong (1933)

SEE! The cannibals! The earthquake! The sea serpent! The fighting monsters of ages past!

After King Kong’s rampage through New York, filmmaker Carl Denham is counting the cost. Penniless and faced with numerous lawsuits served against him, he is approached by Captain Engelhorn, the captain of the ship of that brought Kong to New York and who is also facing charges, with an offer that the two men flee to avoid their inevitable prison sentences. After attempting to make money by shipping cargo around the Dutch East Indies on Engelhorn’s ship, they bump into Norwegian Nils Helstrom who originally sold Denham the map to Skull Island. He convinces them that there is great treasure hidden on the island and together they set sail to find it. But when they get there, they discover an ape that they believe is the son of King Kong.

 

After the phenomenal success of King Kong in 1933, a sequel was rushed into production. But Ernest B. Schoedsack was told that he would have a lower budget and would be only given six months to make the film so that it would be ready for release by Christmas…in the same year! That’s a harsh production schedule for any fantasy film to adhere to given the amount of painstakingly-detailed stop-motion animation shots on display, let alone the sequel to one of cinema’s titanic classics. And let’s face it, no sequel was ever going to be able to top the original for sheer spectacle.

Not many people are aware that King Kong spawned a sequel based around his offspring (the whereabouts of Mrs Kong have never been revealed but I hope she didn’t bolt on them both!) but The Son of Kong deals with just that. It’s hardly a lesser remake of the original like many a sequel is, though it shares many similarities once Denham and co. arrive on Skull Island by putting the human characters in danger from hungry beasts. This one goes off on its own tangent a little more thanks to Kong Jr. only being about twice the height of a normal man and not a giant ape. Plus it doesn’t end up back in New York but history repeating itself twice would have been a stretch too far.

The story picks up a few weeks after the events of the original, with distraught and disgraced Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) being the main character now – neither Fay Wray or Bruce Cabot return to their roles. Armstrong said that this was his favourite film out of the two as it gave Denham more character to play with. He’s right – he’s no longer a maverick producer with visions of dollar signs running through his brain but a man broken by tragedy. The responsibility that Denham bears for Kong’s death weighs heavy on him throughout the film and his sombre apology to Kong Jr. is rather heart-warming in its sincerity. Denham truly feels remorse for what happened and Armstrong is able to channel that to good success, even if there are few moments when the old Denham tries to break out. Frank Reicher resuming his role as Captain Engelhorn also adds some continuity to the film’s links with the original. However Fay Wray’s replacement, Helen Mack, doesn’t play a pivotal role in the film and has blatantly been cast as a damsel-in-distress for the sake of casting. Beauty did not kill the beast in this one.

But apart from Denham traversing a nice character arc between this and the original, The Son of Kong is clearly a rushed production which doesn’t deliver anything like the qualities of King Kong. It’s only a little over sixty minutes long and it takes the characters nearly half of the film to arrive on the island. Whilst the film eventually picks up pace when it gets to the island, things pick up too late and they’re over way too quickly to leave any lasting impression. Once on the island, the handful of human characters are put in peril with the island native beastly inhabitants desperate to make a meal out of them. And Kong Jr. is on hand to save the day.

Kong Jr looks alright to say that the animation was rushed along in six months by Willis O’Brien. He doesn’t have the same awe and majesty about him that his dad did and his less-than-imposing height and albino look does more to appeal to children than anything. The animation isn’t as complicated as it was before but O’Brien understands the need to give Kong Jr. the same sort of quirky mannerisms that his father had to add personality and humanity to the character. It’s hard not to warm to Kong Jr. in a way that we couldn’t with his father and it adds more emotional impact to the teary-eyed finale which was never going to top the infamous ascent to the top of the Empire State Building but does a good job of doing the best it can with the circumstances. The lasting impression that Kong Jr. makes on the audience is surprising given how little he’s on the screen but he’s a credit to the stop motion animation of Willis O’Brien. If only Denham and his gang had arrived on the island a little earlier in the film to give the film more of an overall impression.

 

More friendly in tone and approach than its predecessor, it can’t compete for spectacle or horror with King Kong but, like the infant ape on the screen, The Son of Kong is hard not to feel some affection for. It’s blatantly a missed opportunity however and it would have been interesting to see how much better it could have been had everyone been given a year or two to make it.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933)

A Monster of Creation’s Dawn Breaks Loose in Our World Today!

Producer Carl Denham and his film crew head off to an uncharted Pacific island to finish shooting a movie amongst the superstitious natives who worship a huge gorilla named Kong. What they don’t realise is that Kong is real and the gigantic beast abducts lead actress Ann Darrow after she is offered up as a sacrifice. Setting off in pursuit of her through the perilous jungle, Denham realises that there would be more money to be made if they could capture Kong alive and put him on show in New York.

 

What can anyone say about King Kong that hasn’t already been said? Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles ever made, King Kong has stood the test of time as an iconic, landmark film in history. Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows how it pans out. Even if you haven’t seen the original, the two remakes, countless imitations and numerous spoofs and references will have mapped out the film from start to finish. I suppose the attraction of watching King Kong nowadays is to become a part of history by immersing yourself in a film that transcends time.

I think people forget when this was made whenever they launch into criticism. King Kong was made in 1933, right in the middle of the Great Depression and only six years before the start of the Second World War. Countries were broke. People were penniless. It’s amazing to ponder the mindset of anyone trying to make something as grand and as spectacular as this during that time given how much of a financial risk it would be. Even the limited technologies available to filmmakers back then failed to deter Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack from attempting to break the mould and make a film that would be like nothing else that had come before. One can only imagine the reaction of being alive in the 30s and being used to the sort of films that were being made back then only to be confronted with King Kong on the big screen. The cultural impact is just too immense to even consider.

The likes of cutting-edge effects-driven spectacles such as Jurassic Park and more recently Avatar have rivalled King Kong‘s screen impact for newer generations but never topped it. There is just something awe-inspiring about the way in which this was all put together back in the 30s – a real labour of love for the cast and crew. Sadly, there is no question that King Kong has dated. From the Orientalist caricatures of the indigenous natives to the 30s fashions and the chauvinist sense of place that men and women both held in films right to the crackling sound and speeded-up action sequences, King Kong has seen its best days long, long gone. The acting by the three leads is of the old school ‘larger than life’ mould where they’re not so much as portraying characters but blustering through theatrical dialogue with all of the determination of a Renaissance dramatist. The script is full of schmaltzy old fashioned macho hero/damsel-in-distress nonsense but given the time period, it’s all perfectly acceptable.

Willis O’Brien deserves a lot of the credit for the success of King Kong. His legendary stop-motion special effects still hold up extraordinarily well today, turning Kong from a special effect into a fully-fledged character. Kong is invested with more heart and soul than 90% of human characters in every other film made. His mannerisms, expertly rendered by O’Brien, such as rubbing his eyes, shaking his head or pounding his fist instil the monster with a scary sense of humanity. He may be a thirty-foot ape but that still doesn’t stop the audience from immediately warming to him and eventually feeling sorry for him when he’s treat the way he is by mankind. The infamous, surprisingly poignant ending, atop the Empire State Building must rank as one of cinema’s greatest climaxes, both tragic and awe-inspiring at the same time. Equally as impressive is the fight between Kong and a T-Rex which finishes up with Kong breaking the jaw of the dinosaur in a show of raw, brute strength. To today’s audiences, the special effects will seem ‘fake’ but suspension of disbelief isn’t hard when the film is this good. O’Brien’s landmark effects paved the way for the likes of Ray Harryhausen to go further in pushing the boundaries of technology and in turn he influenced the next generation of artists like Spielberg, Jackson and Cameron. No King Kong, no cinema as we know it today.

The beauty with King Kong is that it’s not just visually impressive but it tells one hell of a story. People forget how well it plays out, full of thrilling action scenes, heart-stopping chases and romantic sub-plots. The build-up to Kong’s first sighting is skilfully manipulated. The dangerous trek through the jungle, featuring all manner of dinosaurs to pick off the crew, is as exciting as it is scary. Anywhere between thirty and forty of the crew are killed off during the film which is pretty horrific by today’s standards, let alone the 30s!

King Kong also saw the first time that an orchestral score was used to enhance the images on screen rather than have stock music run randomly alongside it without any sort of presence or purpose. Max Steiner’s score for King Kong saw the introduction of leitmotifs, where one recurring piece of music would be attached to an idea, person or place, saw its birth here. These ‘theme tunes’ could be sped up, slowed down or slightly altered given what was happening on-screen – think of the Imperial March theme from The Empire Strikes Back and how that was re-used in different forms across the series, or the shark’s theme in Jaws which was slowed down or sped up depending on the situation. It is a pivotal ingredient that we take for granted in film nowadays but something which saw its genesis back in 1933.

 

I could go on forever about King Kong and haven’t even scratched the surface in regards to the relationship between ‘beauty and the beast’ which led to the film’s most famous quote. I can’t say that it’s one of my favourite films because it’s not. But there’s no denying just how big of an accomplishment this film was and how much of an industry-defining impact it had. Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles of all time, King Kong is quite simply put one of the greatest films ever made. It truly is the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Invisible Man, The (1933)

The Invisible Man (1933)

Catch me if you can!

Jack Griffin is a scientist who has developed a way of making himself invisible but he does not know how to reverse the process. As the drugs he had experimented with slowly make him go insane, he recruits a visible partner in the shape of Arthur Kemp. But the invisibility has granted him unlimited power and he begins a reign of terror unlike anything seen before. As the authorities close in and Kemp becomes an unwilling co-conspirator, Griffin must struggle with his sanity and find a cure before its too late.

 

After scoring a hit with the ultimate landmark horror film, Frankenstein, director James Whale was called upon to helm this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel and it was highly anticipated after his earlier success. Using a similar template to Frankenstein, with a triangle of main characters and a lead character who suddenly acquires God-like powers which corrupt them, Whale sets out to tell one of literature’s most famous stories in what has now become one of cinema’s most famous films. The Invisible Man is, if you’ll pardon the pun, like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The film opens with a gripping introduction – the shadowy figure of Griffen, all gauze-bandaged and waterproof-coated up, trudges through the snow towards a guest house before opening the door to the busy bar area and demanding a room in front of the shell-shocked regulars. There is no gradual transformation – we arrive in mid-story as Griffin has already transformed into the Invisible Man. Everything is much more interesting to the audience at first, not knowing who Griffin is, how he came to be and why he wants to be left alone to continue his experiments. The rudeness and aggression in his voice instantly singles him out as unlikeable but there is something utterly compelling about the character. The assuredness that he commands those around him with and the brash confidence that he has in his own abilities is too hard not to like, or at least respect.

As the film progresses and Griffin descends into total insanity, the horror of the chilling events that unfold comes to life. He has no qualms about taking life to prove a point. By the end of the film, Griffin is responsible for the deaths of over one hundred people, with his most heinous act being the derailment of a train. A far cry from the physical monstrosities associated with Frankenstein and Dracula, the Invisible Man is a monster for the new age – human, corrupted with the thoughts of absolute power. But running concurrently alongside the terror, there is a distinct comic tone with supporting characters, particularly the townspeople, playing up the comic relief. From bumbling police constables to a landlady who does nothing but incessantly scream, the comedy aspects shouldn’t work alongside the absolute horror but bizarrely enough, they make them seem worse.

The effects work is nothing short of outstanding, near flawless at times. Even in today’s CGI cinematic world, these practical effects from the 30s look believable, bordering on the ridiculous at times for just how hard it must have been to pull them off back in the day. From footprints appearing in the snow to bicycles riding themselves down the street to the sight of the Invisible Man smoking a cigarette or undressing himself in front of a mirror, they are the stuff of science fiction come to life on the screen. The last shot of the film with the reappearance of Griffen on the hospital bed is still fantastic. Granted some of the effects do look a little gimmicky in today’s world – the stuff that you’d see at a ghost train ride or circus haunted house – but put together they have lost none of their magic. Most importantly, the special effects never detract from the quality of the human drama. As good as they are, it is the characters and their conflicts with each other that are the real stars.

Claude Rains is excellent as Jack Griffin, though at times the script does him few favours and forces him to overdo the melodramatic fervour with some grandiose lines of world domination-like intent. You only get to see his face in one shot throughout the duration of the film. For one half of the film, he’s buried beneath a layer of bandages and for the other half, he’s invisible. So Rains must act with his voice alone and that he does admirably. It’s a strong, commanding voice which demands the attention of the viewer. Through his voice alone, Rains turns Griffin into one of cinema’s most evil characters, following this up with his actions later by callously pushing men over cliffs or causing trains to derail. A couple of throwaway lines in the film by his employer, Dr Cranley, states that Griffen never used to be this way and was a kind, caring man before the drugs started to make him go insane. This takes the edge off the character somewhat, softening him up for audiences and getting us on board to sympathise with the character. But this doesn’t detract from the monstrous nature of Griffin when he’s invisible. No remorse. No pity. If you needed further proof, his maniacal laughing after he’s committed a heinous act will leave you disgusted.

 

It is the mix of H.G. Wells’ unforgettable story with a wonderful voice-only performance from Claude Rains and a bevy of incredible special effects and technical feats which make The Invisible Man one of the all-time classics. To this day, there hasn’t been a single film about invisibility which has managed to top this one for sheer spectacle – the first and the best.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★