Monday, January 21, 2013

The Second Coming of KING KONG (1976)

"He was the mystery and the magic in their lives. In a year, that'll be an island of burnt-out drunks."

I'm going to put my reputation (such as it is) on the line here and publicly state for the record that I do not believe that Dino DeLaurentis and John Guillermin's King Kong (1976) is quite as bad as everyone says it is.

The film retells the story of the 1933 movie, updating it to 1976. The satirical screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr, (Flash Gordon, 1980) includes references to the mid-Seventies energy crisis, the rising concern over the environment, "dope," and even Deep Throat! A young Rick Baker plays Kong in a truly remarkable ape suit, but unfortunately the process work is so poor (even for the era) that his achievement is severely undermined.

The musical score for the film, however, by Space: 1970 favorite, John Barry (The Black Hole, Starcrash) is outstanding and memorable, and Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange both give very good performances, no matter how badly their characters are written.

Perhaps the reason I'm so generous toward the movie is because my own history with it is so fraught with disappointments - none of which have anything to do with the movie itself.

It started with a comic book advertisement for a King Kong poster magazine, probably around February of '76, when I was eleven years old. It promised a "giant-sized poster" as well as articles detailing the history of Kong, from the original Thirties film (which I had not yet seen) to the forthcoming "blockbuster" remake. It cost $5, and I only got 25¢ a week in allowance. So I saved my allowance for a few weeks, and then begged my dad for an advance, which he grudgingly granted. Then I had my mother convert my change to a $5 bill, which I placed in an envelope with the filled-out order coupon, and then sat back to eagerly await my King Kong poster mag.

You can see where this is going, right?

As the weeks passed, my eagerness metamorphosed into anxiety as I checked the mailbox every day and never found my copy of the magazine waiting for me. Finally, I went to my mother and expressed my concern, and that's when I was enlightened as to the dangers of sending cash through the mail. If she'd known why I wanted that $5 bill, she would have written me a check instead, but no - I was being all grown-up and buying something expensive (!) for myself, and hadn't told her why I wanted the money.

Flash-forward to December. All summer and autumn, I'd been seeing King Kong on the cover of virtually every magazine that I (Dynamite, Cracked) or my parents (People, Time) read. The spectacular John Berkey poster art was everywhere. My mother bought me an illustrated paperback novelization of the 1933 Kong film. There was no way I was going to miss this cinematic event.

Except, of course, when you're twelve, you really have no say in such things.

My parents were going on a snowmobile vacation in Canada that Christmas week, and my sister and I were left in the care of my older cousin Jayne. Which was fine; we loved Jayne. She was an adult, but not "old," if you know what I mean, and she always seemed to "get" me and my interests. Before my parents had left, I had extracted from my mother permission to have Jayne take me to see King Kong at the local 6-screen multiplex (the Waterville Cinema Center), and I got extremely excited about it, counting the hours and minutes until we'd get to the theater.

The day finally arrived. Jayne bundled my younger sister and I up in our heavy winter coats, scarves and hats and loaded us into the car. I was restless in my seat, eager to get to the show. When we arrived at the theater, Jayne noticed from the marquee that Kong was - oh no! - rated PG.

PG.

Yeah, sure, it's laughable now, but this was 1976, and Jayne was uncomfortable taking 12-year old me and my 10-year old sister to a PG film without my parents' permission. Never mind that I had permission - she was certain that my mother hadn't been aware of the film's "adult nature," and took us to see the only G-rated film at the theater that week. Even then, I was screwed - apparently Disney hadn't gotten an animated re-release out that year; instead, we were dragged to a showing of In Search of Noah's Ark, a tedious, Sunn Classics religious "documentary."

As we know, deLauerentis' Kong wasn't a blockbuster. It wasn't really a flop, either, but with the money that Paramount had spent promoting it, and the fact they'd had to turn over the foreign rights to the film to Universal (a story I'll tell one of these days), it fell far short of their Jaws-like expectations. Fans of the original RKO Kong - and most critics - derided the film for its tongue-in-cheek tone and its then-contemporary setting, and it garnered a generally bad reputation among fans of of genre cinema for decades to come.

I finally saw Kong a year or two later, on a portable television on a rainy camping trip to Canada. The reception was poor, the image was small, panned, scanned, and B&W, there were edits and commercials... but I finally saw it. Of course, I've seen it many times since, and over the years my appreciation of the film has risen and fallen with my perspective. These days, I tend toward liking it.

The 1976 Kong  is not a classic. It's not even a particularly good movie. But I would argue that there's a lot in there to appreciate, and for those of us who remember the era, it's a pretty good time capsule of what the world was like in the mid-Seventies.

28 comments:

  1. One can watch it today as the prequel to The Big Lebowski.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice write up. A few weeks ago I stumbled over two of the glasses sold by Burger Chef to promote the film. Both are sitting on my desk now!

    http://i.imgur.com/0Nqoe8p.jpg

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was one of the first movies where I actually felt how terrible it was to wait two whole weeks to see a movie I wanted to see. And it was better than I ever thought it could be. For an 11 year old it was movie magic.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I saw the movie as a kid back in the 70's and loved it and have loved it ever since. I did not find out about it's "bad film" reputation decades later and by then I could have cared less what others thought. Way back then my parents bought me the board game based on the film and I still have it, albeit in very bad shape ad with missing pieces. This is one of my childhood favorites that I have been remiss to own on DVD but that will be rectified as soon as I come across a copy.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I totally agree with your assessment of the film, i find it much better than it usually seems to get credit for being. I love Jeff Bridges in the film, his ecologist, long haired hippy photographer turn just suits the time the movie was set in. I think the petroleum expedition and the search for new oil reserves was a great notion in con-temporizing Kong. The sets, abundant location photography on the island and in Manhattan, the fantastic Barry score and what Rick Baker managed to bring to Kong were all factors in why I consider this version of the story a success more than a failure. What WAS missing was the fantasy/adventure setting of the original...... if we'd only had more of the primordial world realized on Skull Island I think the film would have achieved a greater degree of acceptance from fans of the original and the audience in general. You just can't replace dinosaurs with a really big snake and call it a day! I hope one day we might see the extended televison cut of the film, at least an hour longer overall, released on Bluray, i'd definitely like picking that up.....................

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Small point, Dusty: The amount of location shooting in New York was actually pretty limited. They only did three night shoots, two at the base of the WTC and one out at Shea Stadium, and the rest of the city shots were at Paramount's NYC set. Had they done more, who knows if it would have made a difference...

      Delete
  6. I saw it when I was six and loved it. I remember the poster well and always wondered where the jets were in the movie. That's when my dad told me that posters were sometimes sensationalized and often showed things that were not in the movies. I also remember getting an iron-on of that poster, but my mom lost it before she could apply it to one of my shirts. :(

    My favorite scene from the movie was the canyon massacre. Call me sadistic, but I loved that part. As a kid, I would find a ditch somewhere, throw a log over it and populate it with Star Wars figures. Then I would become Kong and rock the log, sending those poor souls down into Spider Canyon. Bwahaha.

    The movie does have a somber moment now, when you see Kong climb the World Trade Center towers. It's a bit of a punch in the gut when you think about it. But it's still an enjoyable climax to watch the gunships circle around Kong. You can even see Jeff Bridges get a bit sadistic when Kong blows up the flame-thrower guys.

    I also remember Charles Grodin getting stomped on with utter delight, because he annoyed me even back then. Oh, and I just remembered that I had the Viewmaster reels of the movie, which for a star kid in the 70's -- it was like reliving the experience of seeing it again.

    Overall, I loved it and would watch it again.

    ReplyDelete
  7. My parents would give me books on long car trips - i got making of king kong which didnt thrill me - everything about film seemed a bit disappointing (like that pg rating) but i love jessica tandy - did see cool yeti movie though same time it was a surprise and a quite fun by comparison. Kong seems to have gotten a bit better with age. My grandwa took me to see noahs arc doco and music gave me nightmares.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think it really needs to be viewed on a really big screen to be more impressive.I think you also had to be a 7 year old boy on Christmas break to really get swept up in the ballyhoo.I saw this movie at the Landis Theatre in Vineland NJ which is now a landmark.Even back in the 70's,I felt like going there was like traveling back in time,with the big antique popcorn popper and the balcony with all the burgundy velvet curtains.I also totally bought into the whole"Kong is a 40 foot robot in every scene",so I was understandably in awe .Even today,though my kid thinks Dino's version is dumb(and forget about making him sit still for 3+hours of Peter Jackson's version,dinosaurs or no)I still find the 70's Kong watchable.as a matter of fact ,viewing NYC in the 70's (compared to today)seemes nostalgic to my 45 year old eyes

    ReplyDelete
  9. First I too sent away, for the flying ghost out of the comics, and made the mistake of sending change through the mail. I had such high hopes of fooling and scaring friends and older kids in the wooded area across from The Merrifield Apartments I lived in in Vienna Virginia in the early 70's. Alas no ghost ever arrived. My father clued me in.

    Fast forward to '76 and I saw Kong at the Central Park Fox Theater in San Antonio at 11 years of age I thought it was great fun even with it's faults. I had long admired King Kong and loved the idea of a modernized telling in full color.
    I had seen reports of the full size Kong they made and had such great hopes of seeing a mechanical ape act. But was disappointed at the lack of movement He did play dead very well though. I could of course recognize Rick Baker in the suit(although I probably didn't really learn much about him till Star Wars thanks to a Fantastic Films article) but the blue screen shots always ruined it. I've always felt bad for Baker as It was a dream project for him.
    I had bought the same novelization you mentioned and tried to read it but the beginning was so slow I never finished it. I have the strong memory of walking between classes at school with it and declaring "King Kong, the ultimate in science fiction!" Which is funny for me cause in about 6 months Star Wars blew my doors clear off.
    What i really remember from Dino's Kong was the John Berkey paintings which where way cool but all featured that square jaw look(always preferred the more rounded features) and the same basic pose. Whether he was on the trade center, fighting the snake, tearing through the wall(had a spiral notebook of that) or stopping the elevated train. Plus the jets(some posters had copters, some not) were never in the movie and he didn't stand on both buildings he leaped from one to the other. I too was learning about the different types of art out there and hype.
    I remember a different version of the twin tower pose that some artist did where Kong looks worse, almost sick. I think it was done for Warren Publishing in their movie tie-in magazines and Famous Monsters Magazines. I always thought it looked weird.
    I did really like the early island arrival scenes in the film.
    What I really couldn't believe was about 10 years later they made a sequel,King Kong Lives! Now that WAS bad!

    Anyone remember the King Kong Volkswagen ad?

    Rory in San Antonio

    ReplyDelete
  10. Maybe Kong is in mid jump. I never thought of that before but look at it.

    Rory in San Antonio

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have to say that I do find this Kong to a good movie, but when pitted against its original inspiration it was doomed to fall short and it does. It is misguided in a number of ways, but it's comment on the relationship between man and environment was interesting to say the least and Kong is pretty well realized in a few scenes, especially some of the close ups.

    Watching it recently, I found I liked Jessica Lange more than I remembered, and I found Charles Grodin to be an absolute hoot. Jeff Bridges plays a hero who is such a lout that it's hard to connect with him much, but I did detect some chemistry between him and Lange.

    I think folks who feast on the bloated Jackson rendition of the story (with its many virtues it's just plain too dang long) find a friendlier home with this adaptation.

    Rip Off

    ReplyDelete
  12. I like the 76 version of King Kong, always have.

    Okay, it doesn't compare to the classic 33 original, but then nothing will.

    I had the KK giant Colorforms set as a kid, and the making of the movie paperback.

    The deleted scenes are interesting.... would like to get a version with them re-integrated into the actual movie.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I love this movie, i have the French special edition DVD SET it comes with a cool book but i don't read French, i think a lot of the bad rep comes from the 1986 sequel kimg Kong Lives AKA King Kong 2, now that's a BAD movie, but i still own it on DVD LOL

    ReplyDelete
  14. Okay, I can sort of see this. I always wondered about the support for the DeLaurentis KING KONG here, but now that I know that it lost out to, of all things, IN SEARCH OF NOAH'S ARK, I can sympathize. I saw both back in the day and, yeah, given a choice, I'd have rather the former too...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't see why you'd be surprised. After all, I admit to liking Quark, Jason of Star Command, Starcrash, Message From Space, The Shape Of Things to Come, the Dark/Connor/McClure flicks, and now that I've seen it, The Humanoid.... so my warm regards toward Kong '76 should be expected.

      Delete
  15. I saw this at Westport, CT's now defunct Post Cinema when I was eleven years old, and I found it to be a profound disappointment. You see, I was already a massive fan of giant monsters, having been raised on a steady diet of Ultraman and Toho flicks, and then my mom — a huge movie/comics/sci-fi buff who totally imparted her love of such stuff to me fro Day 1 — saw an ad for a screening of the original King Kong when I was eight. The thing that really made her want me to see it was that it was a print with as much of the previously excised footage restored as could be found, so she insisted I see it on the big screen. I had never seen it before and when I left the theater I was completely gobsmacked. The whole thing was sheer perfection, a perfect cinematic experience that included a compelling narrative, Willis O'Brien's still-stunning stop-motion animation, romance, adventure, horrific violence that must have been shocking in 1933... In short, pure movie magic of the kind they just don't make anymore.

    With all of that in mind, I went to see the Dino version of Kong and hated the contemporary setting, the jokey script, the almost-total lack or other big creatures for Kong to engage in combat with, and Kong being rendered by a man in a suit. (I adored Godzilla films but even back then I was put off by the Japanese man-in-suit iteration of Kong in King Kong Versus Godzilla, which also suffered from a jokey tome. Funny thing is that I rather like the later King Kong Escapes, so what do I now?) And while I liked Baker's head for Kong, the rest of the suit was no great shakes. And don't get me started on Carlo Rambaldi's much-ballyhooed gigantic mechanical version. It was onscreen for almost no time and all it did was shrug. Feh.

    But here's where I flush whatever credibility I may have when discussing this subject straight down the bowl: I freely admit to very much enjoying the completely and irredeemably awful King Kong Lives. At least I knew that one was ridiculous going in, so I was prepared for the hilarious heart transplant sequence, the blonde female Kong, and the waaaaay off-scale baby Kong that looked like a guy in a very cheap novelty store gorilla costume.

    That said, I will take Dino's version over Peter Jackson's any day (excellent Weta special effects notwithstanding). That film was an overlong bore that cut off Kong's cojones and made him into Anne's puppy. That scene where the two of them are frolicking on the ice made me want to eat my own buttocks.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I agree that the '76 Kong is not bad. Back in December of that year, I was there at a matinee show, enjoying the movie for what it was.

    In January of 2006, I watched it again and appreciated the superior Lorenzo Semple script. This Kong suffered whenever there was Kong and the island. Richard Kline's lensing was outstanding, while the art direction was hit and miss (as were Van der Veer's photographic effects).

    The original King Kong rules, but the 1976 take is, after King Kong Escapes, perhaps, far superior than Mr. Jackson's big disappointment.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I love the 1976 King Kong. Yeah, it has problems, but as others have said, as a twelve-year-old who'd waited months for the movie, it did not disappoint. And I was sure my love for it was colored by my 12-year-old memories, but my daughter's 23-year-old boyfriend was over a few weeks ago when I happened to be starting the just-received Blu-ray. He'd never seen any version of Kong, and he sat and watched it with me. He loved it!

    Hunter

    ReplyDelete
  18. I agree with nearly everyone here that the 1976 Kong was a very smart update of the basic Kong story. The search for oil in the midst of an oil crisis was a brilliant idea and helped contemporize the whole story. Turning Kong into a company mascot was even more brilliant.

    Yes, I was disappointed that there was a basic lack of "monsters" on Skull Island, but then again it would make Kong less unique. It's a small flaw in the original...the explorers find an uncharted island with living dinosaurs and a gigantic ape but no one seems interested in the dinosaurs other than as things to kill in their search for Ann Darrow. Once Kong is dead, you'd think that a trip back to Skull Island to try and capture a dinosaur would be high on the priority list!

    Anyways, I really appreciated the basic premise, moving Kong's demise to the World Trade Centers and the whole idea that Kong was interested in Dwan in a pseudo-romantic way. Yes, the giant robotic Kong was really stupid and Rick Baker's suit was okay (though Carlo Rambaldi's Kong heads were absolutely remarkable). The process work was terrible and the miniature sets really looked fake.

    The basic story however is rock solid and the film-makers did a fantastic job bringing the whole thing into the 1970's. Truth be told, I enjoy this version much more than Peter Jackson's remake of the original.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I love the '76 Kong. I tried to get my hands on all of the merchandise for it back then.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great post. I, too, love this version of King Kong, but then I love all of the versions of Kong - 1933, 1976 and 2005. What puts this one over the top for me was that it was the first version that I saw. I was 11 years old when it came out and, like you, I was so excited to see it. My Dad took me opening night and, even though I knew even then that it wasn't perfect, I loved every second of it. I also think that of the three it has the best score and sexiest heroine. Jessica Lange is totally hot in this. I own the John Barry score on CD and still listen to it every so often.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I remember seeing the ad for the 76 Kong in every comic back then. It made it look like this was going to be fantastic. Then when I finally saw it I thought it was okay. I love the 1933 version and the 1976 version just seemed very mediocre by comparison. I have not watched it in probably 15 years so maybe it deserves another viewing. I have still not seen the Peter Jackson version. I am not avoiding, but have just not gotten around to it. To me there is only one real Kong movie so I don't run after the other version so much.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I think a lot of us have gone that same route of liking/not liking the film over the years, depending on our perspective. I didn't see the '76 film in the theater when it came out, but I did catch one of the early network broadcasts (with all the extra footage) around '79, when I was nine. About that same time, my best friend and I went to a free showing of the original 1933 version at the public library. To be honest, neither version really made much of an impression on me back then (no spaceships, after all), but I eventually came around. These days I regard the original as one of the best movies ever made. And while Dino's version isn't as monumental an achievement, I actually prefer it to the Peter Jackson remake.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I liked the 1976 King Kong. It had its flaws but it also had its strengths. The setting for Skull Island was not a miniature landscape but a real location- Kauais Napali Coast. The ape costume is realistic but should have walked on all fours like a real Gorilla. The film makers chose to make Kong as a biped. He moves too much like a man. The 40 foot high mechanical robot of Kong looks different from the costume and was very limited in movement. They made Kong too violent in this although hes not as violent as the 1933 King Kong. Kong in this movie is insanely overpowered even for a 40 foot tall Gorilla. He stops a speeding subway train with one arm! How could even a 40 foot Gorilla do this? It takes unimaginable power to stop a speeding train. Awesome immeasurable power. Kong breaks the steel chains and cage hes contained in and while in the jungle he battles a giant snake known as the Jungle Island Python. The snake looks real but it just doesnt move very real. The snakes movements were very limited. Its gross and disturbing when Kong rips the snake apart. Brute strength vs brute strength. One powerful monster versus another powerful monster. Watching this makes us humans look weak and puny. When Kong leaps from one twin tower to another is very dramatic. Its also unrealistic for two reasons. The position of the girl changes before and after the leap. Shes either in Kongs hand or shes on his shoulder before and after the leap. Secondly real Gorillas dont have such powerful legs to make such a leap. Gorillas have superpowerful arms but their legs are comparatively weak. This bipedal Kong also has powerful legs that can make incredible leaps unlike a real Gorilla. As I said before Kong in this movie is insanely overpowered. Hes powerful almost beyond belief. It was a tragedy that Kong was shot down and killed. If the crew were able to bring him to civilization then they should have been able to send him back to his jungle home where he would be happy. All in all its an ok film. 37 years later I still watch and witness the awesome power of the 1976 King Kong.

      Delete
    2. The 1976 King Kong is enjoyable for another reason. The jungle scenes were made in one of my favorite places the Napali coast on Kauai the northernmost Hawaiian Island. Honopu Beach Honopu Valley and Kalalau Valley can be seen with waterfalls cliffs and lush vegetation. Many movies and TV shows were made on Kauai including South Pacific and Fantasy Island. There are several deleted scenes in the 1976 King Kong which were cut out in most versions such as a longer fight scene between Kong and the giant snake and a scene in the city where Kong picks up a speeding car and throws it against a building. One reason that fans dislike the movie was because there were no Dinosaurs in it. The only other giant animal in the movie other than Kong is the python and it was poorly animated. It was so limited in movement that the actor in the Kong costume had to shake it to make it appear it was moving. They could have made the snake's movements more realistic or they could have added a Dinosaur or a Pterosaur in the movie. The Dinosaurs or Pterosaurs dont need to fight Kong and dont need to attack people. They should just be shown because its nice to have them and because it makes Kong's jungle home more prehistoric and more interesting. I also objected to putting Kong inside a gigantic gasoline pump. Thats an indignity. The characters in the 1933 King Kong were inspired by adventure whereas the 1976 King Kong most of the characters are inspired by oil and greed. Not my taste. Only Jack Prescotts character is interested in adventure and interested in Kong as an animal and not as a marketing ploy to make money. The music is awesome in the 1976 King Kong and the ceremony and the costumes worn by the natives as they sacrifice Dwan to Kong is impressive. Its an awesome spectacle and well made. Viewmaster reels posters and a lunchbox of the 1976 King Kong were produced as well as paintings and drawings. In some of the posters the scale is way off and shows Kong standing on both Twin Towers at the same time holding some kind of plane in one hand and the girl in the other hand. This would make Kong hundreds of feet tall and it would make the girl 20 feet tall. Kong is not that big and its not planes which attack him in the movie but helicopters. Overall the 1976 movie is well made and a masterpiece.

      Delete
  23. KIng Kong (1976) is a great movie in my opinion, and I could back that up with a dissertation style analysis. The Peter Jackson one was a huge disappointment for me

    ReplyDelete
  24. I too am a big fan. glad to see I'm not the only one

    ReplyDelete