King Kong is one of the oldest films on my list. In fact, it doesn’t get much more “classic Hollywood" than this film, so I popped some corn and sat down for a movie I expected to tolerate, at best. But to be honest, I really liked it! From the characters, to the effects and the music, this was an old, epic film that seemed stitched together with care.
The film immediately develops a fascinating set of characters who demand your attention. There’s Carl Denham, the ambitious but short-sighted film director and Ann Darrow, his new star (I loved how Denham rebuffs a bread-line of ladies but sees Darrow consider theft and immediately jumps at her tenacity). First Mate Jack Driscoll is initially brooding and sexist, but hardly one dimensional, and Darrow seems to bring out the best in him (not unlike Kong). Speaking of which, Kong transcends mere monster. Though brought to screen with choppy stop motion animation, the performance was so detailed that Kong demonstrated real life. He was ferocious but felt pain, was curious, and caring.
In some ways, the effects even still hold up to this day (for the quality of the film which contain them). Maybe not for photo-realism, but there’s some well executed composite shots where live action characters share the frame with stop-motion. In fact, if I had one gripe with the film (besides the 1930's racism/sexism/animal abuse), it would be the same gripe I have with the two other, post-2000s Kong films I've seen: the effects-laden second act. After spending a great deal of time establishing characters and setting, the second act of a Kong film always seems to bombard the audience with Kong-Monster battles. While always a spectacle (be it bloody stop-motion in the ’30s or increasingly reliable CGI in the ’10s, these scenes don’t do much other than establish Kong as a bad-ass — which we already know!
It’s hard for me to distinguish if I enjoyed this film on its own merits, or if I enjoyed this film “for its time”, but somehow I think it’s both. The dimensionality of the characters, the effects, and the well directed plot hold up to this day and provide a fascinating glimpse of an era three generations ago. I mean, Robert Armstrong (actor portraying Carl Denham) was born in 1890 and delivered a performance so delightful that I laughed nearly any time he was in a scene. Movies don’t just tell a story through time, they exist in a time, and thus give us access to bygone eras. For all the illustrious effects, King Kong transported me to the 1930’s from the perspective of the 1930’s and that proved to be the real movie magic.