Friday, March 2, 2012

Dawn on Skull Island

Kong-blogging, essay 1 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, Dawn on Skull Island

Happy anniversary to King Kong, which premiered in New York City 79 years ago on this date:  March 2, 1933.

Skull Island at dawn, before the wild things come out to play:

The fog lifts in the early morning for our first view of Skull Island.
Retouched image from King Kong (1933).

The misty Skull Island jungle at dawn.
Retouched image from King Kong (1933).

Deep shadows still dominate the entrance to Kong's lair.
Retouched image from King Kong (1933).  

Mists and steam inside Kong's cavern on Skull Mountain.
Retouched image from King Kong (1933).

Kong's world, still quiet at dawn.
Retouched image from King Kong (1933).

Shameful confession: Yes, I’ve fiddled with the tones on today’s screen captures and feel very sheepish about my audacity in doing so.  I’ve added touches of color, sharpened some images, and increased some contrasts.  I promise to be more respectful of the original’s integrity for the remainder of this 15-part series.

Part Two, Island Builders

We’ll start in 1932, the year that Skull Island moved from imagination to film through the work of film artists and technicians at RKO Radio Pictures.

Merian C. Cooper was 38 years old in 1932.  A restless adventurer, Cooper had already survived enough adventures to fill several normal lifetimes—he had pursued Pancho Villa on the Mexican border, flown bombers over Germany during World War I, escaped from a Soviet Union prison, feasted with Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, migrated over the Zardeh Kuh mountain range of Iran with the Bakhtiari tribes, and filmed elephants and tigers at close range in Thailand.  The idea of Skull Island began with Cooper.  He imagined a mysterious island in the South Pacific, an enclosed world locked in a prehistoric past and ruled by a mighty gorilla.  Then he searched for the talent needed to transfer the dream to film.

Ernest B. Schoedsack, also 38 in 1932, was Cooper’s friend and film-making partner.  In addition to sharing the Bakhtiari and Thailand film-making experiences (resulting in their classic silent films Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life and Chang), Schoedsack had recently returned from a solo film-making expedition to northwestern Sumatra for his movie Rango.  Schoedsack knew exotic jungle islands first hand.  Along with Cooper, Schoedsack would share producer and director credit for King Kong.

Ruth Rose was 36 years old in 1932 and had been married for five years—to Ernest B. Schoedsack.  She had never written a film script.  But she had fully shared in her husband’s rough-and-tumble globe-trotting life and had developed an ear for how these men talked and how they viewed the world. Rose took Cooper’s fragmentary story ideas—partially and awkwardly developed by writers Edgar Wallace and James Creelman—and fashioned a smooth rising narrative that brought a surprising plausibility to Skull Island.  Her dialogue for the ship’s crew places the audience in a world that is romantic, realistic, and theatrical in equal parts.  It meshes with the Skull Island landscape in a way that intuitively feels right.

Willis O’Brien, at 46 both the oldest in this group and the longest in the film business, was the film magician who could bring Cooper’s vision to film life.  He was the artist most responsible for the island’s physical appearance and the technical genius who grasped how to endow miniature monsters with cinematic power.  O’Brien had one major film success, The Lost World (1925), behind him and 18 years of experience in developing and mastering the art of stop motion animation.

Marcel Delgado, 31 years old in 1932, was an artist with a gift for sculpting.  O’Brien recognized his talents and employed Delgado to create the articulated models of Skull Island’s spectacular inhabitants.  Like O’Brien, Delgado had proved his skills with The Lost World and was ready to show the world that he could transcend that remarkable achievement.

Murray Spivack, at 28 the youngest of this group in 1932, created the aural landscape of Skull Island, fashioning a film soundtrack that had to sound entirely unfamiliar yet believable.  Before King Kong, many people had seen pictures of dinosaurs but they had never heard the dinosaurs.  Now sound had to match picture.  Spivack brought symphonic musical experience and a natural technical curiosity to the challenge.

Max Steiner, 44 years old in 1932, bathed Skull Island with memorable music that shapes the viewer’s understanding of the setting.  Without Steiner’s musical cues, the night-time fogs would not feel as thick and the forest not as primeval—the ferocity of the Allosaurus would drop a notch and Kong would lose a touch of his mysterious humanity.  Our emotional response to the wonders of Skull Island is always filtered through Steiner’s music.

Now let’s bring them out on stage.  Here are our principal island builders.  Many others probably deserve nearly as much credit—art technicians Mario Larrinaga and Byron L. Crabbe, editor Ted Cheesman, production assistant Archie S. Marshek, executive producer David O. Selznick, O’Brien’s ace technical crew and a crowd of others contributed much.  But if I was only allowed to ask seven people to stand on the stage beside Kong, as the gentlemen of the press flashed their pictures, I’d invite Cooper, Schoedsack, Rose, O’Brien, Delgado, Spivack, and Steiner to share with Kong in his moment of triumph.

Reference Sources
The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius by Steve Archer
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 1, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 2, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner
All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck
Special features on the two-disc special edition, King Kong (1933) by Warner Home Video Inc.
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch King Kong...
Purchase a King Kong DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent King Kong at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2012 Lee Price

1 comment:

  1. Really curious to see how this play out, Lee! And the images are extremely striking-- "fiddling about" with them seem to have their own benefits, as I was truly able to appreciate the work of the island builders in a way I might not have had otherwise! They're so expressive I couldn't help but turn on Rachmaninov's "Isle of the Dead" as I read through your post. :D