Friday, March 16, 2012

Kong and My Dad

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

Kong and My Dad

Kong on his ledge from King Kong (1933).

King Kong (1933) was the first movie that my father ever saw.  He was six years old and he saw it at the Southampton Theater, located just seven blocks from their house on Southampton, Long Island.  (No, not that super-wealthy Southampton, playground to the rich and famous, that you see on television but the quiet middle-class village dating back nearly 400 years that continues to exist, comfortably invisible behind all the celebrity excess.)

The Southampton Theater in the 1930s. 
In some ways, King Kong seems a poor choice for a first movie.  After all, wouldn’t all subsequent movies be a disappointment after Kong?

And I’m struck by the fact that he was six years old.  I can’t imagine not seeing a first movie until the age of six!  But this was 1933, household televisions were still science fiction, and I guess my grandparents didn’t believe it was appropriate to take really little kids to the theater.

For the occasion to see King Kong, I imagine my grandparents sat beside my dad in the theater.  And I can imagine them shifting uneasily during the movie, wondering if they hadn’t made a mistake:  Would their son be scarred for life by the giant monsters, the undressing of Ann Darrow, the brutal fights, and the sight of Kong munching on people?

If he was scarred, it was by a life-time fondness for jungle movies.  Near the end of his life, I gave him a Johnny Weismuller Tarzan DVD collection for Christmas.  We watched them together during one of my last trips to see him in Florida—in fact, it was the last time that I spent with him at his home.  A series of strokes had token a harsh physical toll on his body but his mind was still reasonably clear.  He no longer enjoyed the effort of attempting to follow the plots of modern movies, but he could follow a Tarzan story with ease.  It was like comfort food for him.

Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan in
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).
They were the last complete movies that my father and I ever watched together.  We’d position him in a semi-reclining position on his hospital bed and I’d pull up a chair.  Over the course of several days, we watched Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) with its introduction of the very young Johnny Weismuller and the very beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan, the juicy pre-code Tarzan and His Mate (1934) with its famous nude swim, and the lower-budget, more formulaic Tarzan Escapes (1936), Tarzan Finds a Son (1939), Tarzan’s Secret Adventure (1941), and Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942).

Neither my father nor I were ever a bit like Tarzan or Kong’s theatrical producer Carl Denham or the heroic first mate Jack Driscoll.  For most of his working life, my father owned a small grocery store.  I’ve worked behind a desk for twenty years.  Neither of us ever explored a jungle, swung from vine, or tossed a gas bomb at a giant prehistoric beast.  But we both shared a fondness for the jungles that we explored in movies.

When you think about it, there’s no real difference between the African jungle in a Tarzan movie and the Sumatran jungle of Kong.  These are not jungles you can locate with a GPS.  They’re remote landscapes of imagination, kind of like the island that Max sails to in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  My father and I liked movies that could transport us to the places where the wild things are.

It was really nice sharing that time watching the Tarzan movies with him for one last time.  I know we both enjoyed it.

It’s been two years now since my father died.  Last year, I tried blogging for the first time, entering the love letters that he exchanged with my mother during their courtship.  And here I am today, blogging madly away about my forty-plus year obsession with King Kong, dwelling on the past as usual but trying not to get too nostalgic or sentimental.

My teenage daughter watches videos on one computer while I capture images from my King Kong DVD on the other.  She hears Fay Wray screaming, and asks “Kong again?”  Mention Kong to her and she’ll probably always roll her eyes and think of Dad.  I figure it’s not the worst thing to be associated with.

My father preferred Tarzan to Kong.  That’s not my choice but I can respect it.  I understand how those old Weismuller movies could instantly transport him back to the days when he practiced his Tarzan yell in the woods and fields of old-time Southampton.  I’ll always be glad we had that chance to revisit Tarzan in those last days.

It wouldn’t be bad to watch Kong with my son or daughter someday, I’m thinking maybe about four decades from now (I hope it’s that long!).  I’d sit up in my hospital bed for a treat like that.  While I’m sure the old movie will be looking pretty antique to their eyes, I’m confident that Kong will remain fresh for me.  They can humor me about this.  Together we can watch Kong take his stand for the last time.

Kong on Skull Island.

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. Movies create a special bond. When I hear Victor Young's score for "Rio Grande", it is as if my late father is sitting on the couch with me, ready to ride like Ben Johnson and laugh at the "soldier's fight".

    Kong is huge in these parts (pun intended). My daughter gave me the tinned dvd as a Christmas gift a few years ago, knowing it would be special. Someday she'll have the movie memories of mom. However, for these girly girls it will probably be swooning over Dana Andrews in "Laura" or something like that.

  2. I don't ride horses in real life, but in my dreams I ride them just like Ben Johnson! It's nice that you mention Johnson since he co-starred with another important screen ape, the great Mighty Joe Young---a movie I adore. Glad to hear that your daughter has such great tastes in gifts!

  3. King Kong was my Dad's favorite movie. He talked about it all of his life. Like your father, he saw it when he was very young. My dad loved to watch his "stories" and they brought him great joy in his later years. It was just like you wrote-- he was transported on a wonderful adventure to the jungle with Kong and Tarzan, to the desert with the French Foreign Legion and on an expedition to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro where a monster lived! His favorite book was Lost Horizon.

    He loved to tell these stories to his children, his nieces and nephews, and to all the neighborhood kids. He held us spellbound on many nights and often ended with a cliffhanger, making us wait until the next night to hear the exciting conclusion. I remember kids going home and calling our house begging him to finish the story.

    Thanks for a wonderful memory.

  4. A lovely piece of writing. It's nice to be reminded of the basic similarities between these films, without the weight of 'art appreciation' always getting in the way. How we watched a film and who with is often so much more important. I watched the Tarzan movies 20 years ago with my grandmother, who died just a fortnight ago. Along with Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, and Charlie Chan, and all the silent comedies. But I hadn't stopped to think just how important those memories were to me until now. So thanks.