May 3, 2023
And the Prophet said,
“And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing.
And from that day, it was as one dead.”
Old Arabian Proverb
Recently I attended a great concert at the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod where the Lonesome Ace String Band put on a terrific show of righteous folk and country bluegrass music. At the break, as I looked around this beautifully restored and maintained theatre, I spotted a giant wall image that tripped a memory from my childhood.
It goes like this. In 2005 I returned to the Orpheum Theatre in Blairmore to revisit an old storyline all too familiar to me. A story line I first viewed in 1953 at the vulnerable age of five.
It was a blockbuster movie that had been made twenty years earlier in the depths of the great depression and featured the eighth wonder of the world, known as King Kong. It literally transfixed, what was at the time, a very impressionable young boy and left me with vivid gorilla dreams for many years to come.
The 1933 version’s star was a woman whose screams were utterly terrifying and very believable. Producer Merian C. Cooper told Fay Wray, who was born in Cardston, Alberta, that her co-star was going to be the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood. She was thinking Cary Grant, instead she got King Kong.
The story is as exotic and unlikely as has ever been told. It is about a special connection that forms between Anne Darrow and a fifty-foot high gorilla from Skull Island. There never was a more bizarre island than Skull, complete with pterodactyls, tyrannosaurus rex’s, giant spiders, bats and snakes, zombie natives and of course the biggest, baddest, knuckle-walking quadruped that ever was. Everyone and I mean everyone in this 1933 classic screams like hell. Children, natives, sailors and especially Anne.
As we all know Kong eventually meets his demise in Manhattan on the Empire State Building which had incidentally just been constructed that year. The 1933 King Kong movie was a truly unique effort for its time in which Willis O’Brien used stop motion animation to create the amazing scenes. One frame at a time he moved and shot an 18 inch high Kong and at 24 frames-per-second it took him about a year to put all the special effects together. Remember that movies are actually a series of still frames and that it is the wonderful human quality of “persistence of vision” that allows us to view them as moving.
The original also had 75 minutes of wildly dramatic music in it that followed the action sequences. Remember how effective the Jaws sound-track was? Probably the most fascinating bit of trivia I came across in revisiting the 1933 movie was this. For many years the giant wall at RKO Studios that was used in the filming to keep Kong and the zombie natives apart stood as its own attraction. Years later it was deliberately torched to serve as a filming backdrop for the burning of Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind”. Many regretted its loss.
The 2005 Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings director) remake of King Kong is a remarkable effort in itself. It runs two and a half hours, starts slow but eventually takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride that leaves you totally drained by the time the credits roll.
Actress Naomi Watts forms a different kind of bond with Kong in this remake, one of platonic soul mates. They connect somehow through all the horrific fight scenes and Kong becomes the alpha male determined to protect and defend her.
Kong is given wonderful expression and believable brute strength. My favourite scene is the one in which he flees with Anne through wintertime Central Park. It sort of pays homage to Bambi. Remember Bambi and Thumper in the movie, on the ice?
Kong, seated and holding onto Darrow with his massive mitt while he spins them both around on that frozen pond, is a touching scene that acknowledges their special connection. It is also a welcome lull in the action before the machine guns and bi-planes turn the movie towards its frenetic, inevitable end.
Yes I cried when Kong slipped away from Anne and fell to the street below. Somehow it was important to me that he died before he fell and that Anne was the last thing he saw. In the movie the police lieutenant turns to Carl Denham, the guy who brought Kong to New York, and says: “Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.” And Denham says: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.’
Fay Wray was 96 when she died in 2004, a veteran actress of over a hundred films. She met Jackson and Naomi Watts before the filming started and told Naomi at the end of their evening together that: “Anne Darrow is in good hands.” Wray wrote an autobiography that was ironically entitled “On the Other Hand”. When she died the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed in respect. There is a commemorative Fay Wray fountain in Cardston that acknowledges Fay’s history in the area and in Hollywood.
Author’s Note: For another interesting article related to where Kong made his last stand, the Empire State Building, go to passheraldarchives.ca and click on the Looking Back John Kinnear option then select the 2014 archives. The story is called “Still King of the Skyscrapers” and is about a spectacular plane crash into that building that occurred in 1945.