August 10, 2004

Fay Wray, R.I.P.

Fay Wray, the actress who played King Kong's love interest in the classic 1933 movie, has died at 96.

Jesse Walker has written an intriguing tribute to Wray for Reason Online, but what struck me most about it was its discussion of Wray's most famous film:

The modern viewer watching King Kong might be put off by the holes in the plot and the gaps in the special effects; or, worse, he might accept them, condescendingly, as problems that are only obvious to us sophisticated cineastes of today. In fact, many moviegoers noticed them in the '30s as well. Ferry complained that he had seen the film (which he loved) with an audience that had greeted it with "howls of derision and contempt." He himself conceded that the picture was filled with "flagrant...absurdity"—indeed, that was part of what he admired about it. He offered a list of eight such insults to logic, of which my favorite is the last: "King Kong perpetually changes size; one minute his hand is big enough to seize an underground train, the next it only goes round the torso of a woman we see waving her arms and legs about." The result, he argued, was a movie with the logic of "the dream in which, pursued by too pressing a danger, we create the elements of our salvation...without being able to escape." It crossbred those childhood terrors with something more mature but no less primal: the monster's lust for Fay Wray.

I don't know that I buy Jean Ferry's argument--after all, I've never watched King Kong in its entirety, and much of his argument sounds rather questionable to me. But I found Walker's article intriguing anyway:

In 1936 Joseph Cornell reedited a reputedly awful (I haven't seen it) Hollywood potboiler, East of Borneo, into a powerful, dreamlike short called Rose Hobart. Put simply, he removed the plot, the dialogue, and the acting—removed everything but a succession of mysterious images, most of them featuring the actress cited in Cornell's title. King Kong became a classic the same way. In their memories, millions of viewers excised everything wooden or laughable about the movie, until all that was left were those visions of Wray and Kong, of beauty and the beast.

Now I feel like going out and watching King Kong...

Update: The Telegraph has now published a Fay Wray obituary that highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of that newspaper's obituaries.

Posted by Ed at August 10, 2004 03:47 PM

This is overwrought cinema theory at its worst. Yes, King Kong has a handful of iconic images and there are undeniable Freudian elements to the Kong/Wray interaction. But to argue that the entire film's legacy is the result of some subconscious masculine commentary is ludicrous. In the grand scheme of SFX history, Willis O'Brien's work in Kong was danged impressive, not just for its time, but for the 20th century in general. The Kong/Tyrannosaurus fight remains one of the best monster battles in movie history. Also, in what way do we mentally excise those things that are "wooden or laughable" about the film? The scenes of Kong vs. the airplanes would definitely fall into that category (the effects and pacing are, alas, some of the worst in the movie), and yet they rank among the "iconic" shots! What, have we forgotten that they suck? (perhaps too strongly worded, I certainly don't consider the planes sequence to "suck" outright, but recognize its relative cheesiness.) Also, if the film earned its legend in the way Walker suggests, one would think that the dialogue would have lost along the way, in favor of the primal imagery. Yet King Kong is replete with immortal lines: "we'll teach him fear", "look at Kong, the 8th wonder of the world", "twas beauty that killed the beast", etc. I just don't think this argument holds any water.

Oh, and go see King Kong right away. No matter how you choose to intrepret it, it's a fun watch.

Posted by: Christian at August 10, 2004 04:44 PM

Now I really want to see the movie, just so I can judge these things for myself. I certainly didn't want to suggest that I bought into Jean Ferry's Freudian theory--in fact, when I quoted two paragraphs from Walker's article, I intentionally left out the paragraph between, since it focused too much on Wray's impact on men. Even so, I think it's plausible that the movie succeeded because it presented viewers with "a dreamlike series of fantastic images, most of them featuring Kong, Wray, or both"--as long as you don't, say, assume that a "dreamlike" atmosphere is just a window into the primal subconscious.

What first got my attention in this article was Walker's attempt to explain the movie's success, despite "the holes in the plot and the gaps in the special effects", without just being condescending about 1930s film-goers. Reading your response, I'm not sure how successful Walker was.

On a tangential note: anyone reading this exchange who doesn't already read Christian's blog should check out his most recent entry:

It's an amusing look at the history and vagaries of biological nomenclature, with special focus on genus names that come from mythology.

Posted by: Ed at August 10, 2004 05:44 PM

Consarnit, Ed, now you've got me second-guessing myself. I didn't mean to imply that you were touting Ferry's theory, sorry if it came off like that. Now, I agree that Kong succeeded because of the "dreamlike series of fantastic images", but I see there being two parts to the argument. He also argues that the movie's "legend" status as great film is tied to a collective suppression of its camp elements in the decades since it premiered. This is the idea that I take most issue with. However, while I still consider my criticism of Walker valid, I can't help but worry that I've fallen victim to the exact process I'm decrying. Namely, that I've let nostalgia get the better of me, and forgotten the camp elements in favor of the good stuff. I admit being biased on two counts: one, I first saw the film as a dinosaur-obsessed little kid, so of course it scores big points for me. Two, now that I've seen scores of monster movies, with so many of them being abysmal, I tend to hold even slightly-decent entries in overly high esteem. By these standards, Kong is frickin' Citizen Kane. To get a balanced view of the situation, I spent last night poking through the microfilm collections in the Reg, in order to check reviews, commentary, and box office information between the time of the premiere and the time when Kong reached its greatest entrenchment in the American cinema history (which I would peg as the time of Dino Di Laurentiis' ill-received 1976 remake.) (What can I say? The showing of Starsky and Hutch on the quads was cancelled and I had two hours to kill. Incidentally, microfilm is the most infuriating information storage medium ever devised by man.) Some facts: King Kong premiered at Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy Theater on March 2, 1933, setting the all-time world attendance record for an indoor event. Because this was a much-hyped premiere, I realize that these figures don't immediately refute the idea that Kong was initially received as camp. But Kong was a beast at the box office, essentially single-handedly saving RKO studios from dire financial straits. I'm always the first to question the cinema tastes of the general public (Daddy Day Care made $150 million?), but Ferry's anecdote of derisive howls aside, I think the quality of Kong was set in viewer's minds from the start, rather than being boiled down to icons over the years. Initial reviews were mixed, but check the March 3 issue of the New York Times:
"The narrative is worked out in a decidedly compelling fashion, which is mindful of what was done in the old silent film 'The Lost World'...The producers set forth an adequate story and furnish enough thrills for any devotee of such tales...Needless to say this picture was received by many a giggle to cover up fright. Constant excalamations issued from the Radio City Music Hall yesterday...Miss Wray goes through her ordeal with great courage. Robert Armstrong gives a vigorous and compelling impersonation of Denham." I'm willing to grant that some of those giggles may have been at the obviously rag-doll men getting whacked by Kong, but true respect for the film's accomplishments were there from the get-go. The reviews in the years since range from mindful of the movie's genre import but highly questioning of its artistic merit to the downright hagiographic, the same spectrum seen in 1933.There is no canalization of "two thumbs up" from an initial chaos of varied reviews. Also, in order for the situation to work as Walker claims, Kong would almost have to be a "lost" film. That is, seen once, impressed by the good, mock the bad, and eventually, all you can remember is the former. But people keep coming back to watch it, in its entirety, and new converts to the Skull Island flock are always being created. After Casablanca, King Kong has been aired more times on television than any other movie. Indeed, if ever there was a movie that can be said to remain "fresh" in the minds of America since its inception, it's King Kong. Walker's argument would hold far more true to Godzilla, I think, a film that (although I'd argue to the death for its "classic" status) is far more flawed cinematically, and because of the chopped-up nature of the U.S. dub and the mythical "lost" status of the Japanese original has indeed "evolved" into legend.
Finally, I take back my complaint of Ferry's comments being film theory at its "worst" after reading way too many scholarly analyses of King Kong. The source you cite actually treads the psychoanalytic path pretty lightly, at least compared to the likes of Frank Jackson ("Mythic Elements in the Simian Cinema". Jan. 1977. Take One. 5(6): p. 23), who claims:
"On Denham's map, one notes that the land beyond the wall takes up most of the space on the island. The human settlement of the peninsula is miniscule by comparison. The geographical configuration is analogous to Freud's psychiatric dictum that the conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Freud "mapped" the unconscious and conscious minds in a similar diagram, which appears on page 14 of The Ego and The Id. This may be a far-fetched analogy, but it becomes more intriguing when we note that the mountain which dominated the island is called SKULL Mountain."
Most of the commentaries on Kong are like this, but my favorite among the lot was a piece by Gerald Peary ("The Historicity of King Kong." Nov.-Dec. 1974. Jump Cut. 4: 11-12) arguing that Kong represents conscious commentary by RKO films on the nascent Roosevelt administration:
"...The primary social concern of KING KONG is how to end the Depression, a phenomenon represented here quickly and effectively in the bitter nighttime world of urban souplines at the film's beginning. The first key judgement of the film, generously siding with the new President, is that Roosevely possesses the personal acumen to reverse the unfortunate tide of events. KING KONG's "crystal ball" peek into the political future thus reveals Carl Denham, comfortably fitted with the mask of FDR Knight Errant, on a walking tour through Depressionland. This jaunt ends in spiritual rejuvenation and also job opportunity for the forsaken and downtrodden, represented in the form of down-and-out Ann Darrow." Peary goes on to state that the (presumably) conservative RKO then indicts Roosevelt's big plans for the country, calling Denham's introduction of Kong "akin to Roosevelt's inaugural address" and saying that Kong himself is the New Deal, "a roaring beast, an alien monster held shakily in place by chains." Peary ends by noting Roosevelt's lack of reaction to this "saucy but too subtle diatribe."

Oh, and thanks for the plug, by the way!

Posted by: Christian at August 11, 2004 10:50 AM

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Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:54 PM
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