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King Kong: Two-Disc Collector's Edition

"King Kong died for our sins." It's a T-shirt seen recently in Seattle, worn by a teenager and illustrated with the original vintage image of the monster ape atop the Empire State Building. An image from 1933, when this iPod Age kid's great-grandparents were ready to replace Herbert Hoover with FDR. Like religious iconography, some elements from movie history — a capricious, unforeseeable few — have achieved a sort of transcendence. Chaplin's Little Tramp. Karloff's Frankenstein Monster. They're written into the hard drive of our culture, glyphs recognized instantly even if you've had no direct contact with their sources.

It's no surprise then to see that on King Kong's first, and superb, DVD release, two generations of filmmakers are on record praising this pioneering film's artistry and richness as influential beyond its action-adventure-monster-thriller aims. In the new commentary track, special-effects master Ray Harryhausen (with colleague Ken Ralston) tells us that as a boy he first viewed Kong at its Grauman's Chinese Theatre premiere, and that it irrevocably altered the course of his life. Without Kong, the movies that showcased Harryhausen's effects work in the 1950s and '60s would have never been made, movies that have themselves inspired later filmmakers such as Landis, Lucas, and Spielberg. Harryhausen's Hollywood star is now across the street from where it all began for him. Elsewhere within this two-disc celebration is a terrific new "making of" documentary. That's where Peter Jackson — demonstrably the most well-connected Kongophile on the planet — gushes about first experiencing this old black-and-white fantasy at age 12. He credits it with kick-starting his desire to make movies.

So without Kong, would we now have Jackson's Lord of the Rings? Would Lucas have made Star Wars? And if not, where would we, or Hollywood, be today? Hear that sound? That's dominoes toppling like little 2001 monoliths.

That big ape's fingerprints are everywhere. Jack Kerouac gave King Kong (along with Lamont Cranston, Popeye, and the Marx Brothers) credit for originating the Beat Generation. "Whatever happened to Fay Wray?" asks The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Kong's Lilliputian blond love interest gained a curious immortality: While she did little more than scream and look beautiful, we remember Fay Wray's name, not Ann Darrow, as the girl held in that hairy paw. The actress couldn't have known that hers would be the other household name to emerge from RKO's hush-hush project, which was one of her eleven films released in '33. How many people today remember that Robert Armstrong played the reckless impresario Carl Denham? Denham was, in fact, a thinly fictionalized alter ego for producer Merian C. Cooper, an adventurer whose flamboyant Indiana Jones life deserves its own full-length documentary (which, incidentally, is on Disc Two). Even Bruce Cabot as the two-fisted hero, First Mate Jack Driscoll, is forgotten to all but the aficionados. Granted, his dry, aw-shucks performance makes him the least memorable lead, but something about it adds to Kong's abundant naive charms.

What Wray likely did know was that this was a project rife with firsts. The film practically invented sound design. Max Steiner's symphonic score taught the movies how to use original music. The screenplay, as lean and straight as an arrow, is a model for how to ground the most outrageous fantasy in the mundane, the everyday, so that we buy even a prehistoric jungle filled with otherworldly terrors. Best of all, of course, are "Chief Technician" Willis O'Brien's groundbreaking stop-motion creature performances, which imbued tabletop models with character and nuance. When the T-Rex scratches its head like a cocker spaniel, and the brontosaur sneers at its upcoming human Slim Jim, suddenly they're living things, not just props. When Kong kills the T-Rex by breaking open its jaw, we wince at the brutal realism of it. Kong's longevity began when O'Brien gave the 18-inch-tall puppet more humanity and personality than we see from the flesh-and-blood actors onscreen. After the climax's Manhattan rampage, when Kong plummets off the Empire State Building toward 34th and Fifth, we don't feel triumph for our side. No Death Star explosion hurrahs here. Whether Kong or Denham is the movie's genuine monster remains an open question.

Calling King Kong the Star Wars of its day sounds too pat, though it's accurate enough. A rousing story with huge, never-seen-before visuals. All-day showings for lines of ticket-buyers around the block. Star Wars arrived fortuitously when we needed it most, the malaise of the 1970s. When King Kong debuted during the rock-bottom of the Depression, it gave people what they really wanted to see: a giant ape giving Wall Street a thrashing. (Its first reel couldn't have been more resonant by showing the urban soup lines, then Ann Darrow on the street without a dime and nearly passing out from hunger.)

Entire books have explored why King Kong's potency endures long after so much of it has become dated by evolving styles, techniques, and expectations. There are exegeses about metaphors for the immigrant experience in America, the symbolism of Nature vs. Civilization, and Freudian or Jungian interpretations (that Empire State Building looks mighty suggestive). There's some truth there, probably. Somehow Kong taps our brain's collective dream-level to strike a mythopoetic, universal note. (With its Doré-inspired black-and-white imagery, especially in the Skull Island scenes, this Kong resembles Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast more than it does Jackson's "reimagined" version.) Cooper, though, would snort at such ex post facto blather. He declared, "Kong was never intended to be anything but the best damned adventure film ever made, which it is; and that's all it is." And the better part of a century later, it's still a hell of a lot of fun. Pretty cool about that T-shirt, though.

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It took eight years for the Eighth Wonder of the World to hit DVD. Everyone involved wanted to get it right, and there's no question that they succeeded. Warner's King Kong DVD presents a print newly restored from the best available source materials. Sharper, cleaner, and far more vivid than previous home video editions, this restoration really brings out the beautiful composite visuals, which pack the screen with almost three-dimensional dreamscapes. Even if you've seen the film dozens of times, you're bound to notice details you've never seen before. Just as important, it hasn't been over-restored. We still see just enough grain and minor hairline scratches to remind us that the original elements are long gone, though neither do we get a polish so shiny that we're always aware of a digital lacquering. The DD 1.0 audio is likewise clean and robust with just enough enhancement.

The extras are a treasure box for hardcore and casual fans alike. The commentary with Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston isn't deep (technical info doesn't go beyond Kong 101), but it is an enjoyable sit-down with two knowledgeable enthusiasts sharing their pleasure of the film. The commentary also includes a few archival inserts from Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray.

Disc Two's highlights are two excellent documentaries. The first is I'm Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (59 min.), a 2005 production from TCM and Photoplay, co-directed by film historian Kevin Brownlow. Cooper, along with longtime friend and co-producer/adventurer/explorer Ernest B. Schoedsack, is revealed as a man movies should be made about.

Clocking in at a speedy two and half hours, RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong is a seven-part archaeological dig into the film's conception, production, astounding craftsmanship and artistry, and finally its ongoing legacy. Peter Jackson joins historians, film professionals, effects artisans, and other deep-dyed fans in one of the best "making of" testimonials and Film History master classes you'll see anywhere. Its most notable segment details Jackson's painstaking pseudo-recreation of the famous Lost Spider Pit Sequence, by itself worth the sticker-price for devotees. Rounding out the extras are a gallery of eight Merian C. Cooper movie trailers, and test footage (with Harryhausen's commentary) for Willis O'Brien's aborted film Creation, which convinced Cooper of O'Brien's rightness for Kong.

The discs' double slimline case comes packed in an embossed tin box. Also inside is a reproduction of the program book from the Grauman's premiere, and a set of postcard-size Kong posters.

—Mark Bourne

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