Monday, March 12, 2012

A Stegosaurus in the Clearing

Kong-blogging, essay 11 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, The First Dinosaur Encounter

The Stegosaurus in King Kong (1933).

Enter Stegosaurus, stage left.*

Our first look at the Stegosaurus is over the shoulders of the ship’s crew.  The dinosaur enters a clearing in the distance, oblivious to the men in the foreground.

Our first sight of the Stegosaurus in King Kong.
There are at least five planes of depth visible at this point.  In the foreground, the actors playing the crew are on a jungle-decorated studio set.  Then (rear-projected) there’s a fairly lengthy animation table, dressed with miniature trees, vines, and a log.  Behind that is a matte painting on glass with more jungle details.  Then another animation table behind which stands a painted canvas.  That’s five levels, and I may have missed two glass paintings, possibly one in front of the background canvas and another closer to the foreground.

You look for the genius of King Kong within the shots—that’s where the magic is.  It’s in the way birds fly across the screen, left to right, in the mid-ground, as that Stegosaurus placidly enters the screen in the distance.  The planes of depth are not static.  There’s movement taking place on three of them.

The Stegosaurus re-emerges nearer to us.
Action at one layer can even move to another.  That distant Stegosaurus on the furthest animation table wanders out of the frame (stage right) then emerges much nearer to us, now on the middle animation table.  The Stegosaurus lazily munches on some plants (a nice example of the gratuitous detail the movie loves to indulge in!) then sees the men.

“He’s going to charge,” shouts Carl Denham, the men’s leader.

The Stegosaurus charges.
The line between the set decoration in the foreground (where the actors are performing) and the rear-projected animation table is beautifully hidden.  The Stegosaurus barrels forward, rapidly getting larger, filling much of the frame with his bulk, before he’s finally brought down by a gas bomb tossed by Denham.

The dying Stegosaurus.
The death throes of the Stegosaurus are masterfully realized.  Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had watched many animals die during their adventures in various remote areas.  I can imagine them offering O’Brien advice on just how a large dying animal would act.

Even after the gas bomb explodes, the Stegosaurus still has life in him.  Denham shoots and the dinosaur sways back onto its feet, only to collapse again.  This time Denham shoots the Stegosaur in the brain causing its head to jerk upward, quivering.  As Denham and first mate Jack Driscoll walk alongside the dying body of the immense beast, its tail still undulates as its life ebbs.

Some books have reported that Kong’s Stegosaurus may have been an intentional cross between a traditional Stegosaurus and a Kentrosaurus because of its unusual eight-spiked tail.  Stegosaurus is now known to have a four-spiked tail while its smaller cousin Kentrosaurus has a whole series of spikes extending down its back to its tail.  But famous paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, who described the first-discovered Stegosaurus in 1877, approved a drawing of a Stegosaurus skeleton for the1896 U.S. Geological Survey that gave the giant animal eight spikes on its tail.  The following year, acclaimed artist Charles R. Knight depicted Stegosaurus with eight spikes, perhaps following Marsh’s lead.  So there may have been some scientific basis for the choice of eight spikes on the Stegosaurus tail—and, artistically, they sure look impressive as the tail rises and falls with a serpentine grace.

* Using classic stage directions, stage left refers to our thespian Stegosaurus’ left—the audience sees the dinosaur enter from the right side of the screen.

Part Two, The Eight-Spiked Stegosaurus

The eight-spiked tail of the Stegosaurus undulates
as the dinosaur dies in King Kong.

Eight-spiked illustration of Stegosaurus unngulatus approved by
paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh for the 1896 U.S. Geological Survey.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Charles R. Knight drawing of an eight-spiked Stegosaurus (1897).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Charles R. Knight painting of an eight-spiked Stegosaurus (1912).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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