What, we must ask ourselves, is the deal with giant gorillas? The original King Kong was so popular that it spawned a host of lesser sequels and remakes, including Son of Kong, King Kong Versus Godzilla, the painfully '70s Dino De Laurentiis version, a '60s animated TV series, and even a 1985 German oddity called King Kong's Faust, the title of which so intrigues me that I can scarcely force myself to finish writing this before I rush off to the video store to snap up a copy. One of the Kong rip-offs, 1949's Mighty Joe Young, was so popular in its own right it merited a high-tech, high-concept '90s remake of its own. There have been movies about various overgrown critters on killing sprees, movies about giant bugs, giant lizards and even giant rabbits (Night of the Lepus, featuring a pained-looking DeForest Kelley), but they all stand in the vast shadow cast by Kong and company. Clearly, America—nay, the world—is ape over movies about giant apes, but why?
None of the obvious explanations is very appetizing. First off, with his expressive face and almost human build, the giant ape is far easier for us to identify with than any other animal. But, being an animal, he is free to rage and strike out, to murder helpless innocents in a way that we, darn our luck, are not. As this colossal beast roars through city streets, taking out subway trains, stomping on pedestrians and swatting airplanes from the skies, he is nothing less than the human id run amok, an unsocialized child striking out at a bewildering modern world. And we love him for it.
And then, of course, there's the sex thing. It's creepy, sure, but we can't deny the Freudian overtones of a story about a beast with a tiny, swooning, Barbie-doll-sized blonde clutched in his sweaty palm. The original cut of King Kong even contained a scene in which Kong takes a break between wrestling giant snakes and climbing skyscrapers (whoa, Nellie!) long enough to sit down in the steamy jungle and peel away Fay Wray's clothing. The scene makes creepily obvious the subtext roiling beneath every beauty and the beast story; there is the dangling threat of brutal rape, and more than a whiff of bestiality hangs in the air. And there is, finally, the terrible balance of power between a hairy, masculine brute and the femme who is not as helpless as she seems; for even if Kong holds Wray's fragile little body in his hands, she holds his big, dumb simian heart in hers. It's the battle of the sexes, stripped to its essence and then dressed up with dinosaurs, biplanes and a magically improbable '30s Manhattan skyline. It's creepy, but it's a terribly beautiful kind of creepy.
But while none of the giant bug or lizard or rabbit pictures comes close to the original Kong in either popular or critical acclaim, none of the other giant ape movies do either. The original Kong is a picture of such weird, singular power that filmmakers have never given up trying to recapture some of its magic. Look past the sometimes clunky dialogue and the embarrassing depiction of blacks as gibbering savages (played, natch, by honkies in smeary greasepaint), and you are left with one of cinema's true greats. Not great, perhaps, in the Citizen Kane, 400 Blows way, but great in The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs way, as a dark fairy tale with few peers. What must audiences have made of it when it was released, back in an era before Entertainment Tonight was on hand to show us all the rubber and hydraulics that go into creating even the simplest cinematic illusion? Back before anybody outside the studio had a clue that King Kong was just a rubber model, standing just a few inches high and moved frame by frame by an unheralded genius named Willis O'Brien. When people looked at the screen and saw Kong on the rampage, some of them must have believed he was a real, living creature, as large as any beast alive, the eighth wonder of the world. Of course, they were right.
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King Kong screens at the Bay Theater, 340 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-9988. Mon., 7 p.m. $5-$8.