Love at an Early Age

The mellow sunlight was warm. Clumps of azaleas paraded in their magenta finery. In his backyard, a little boy squealed with delight as his old tire-swing drifted back and forth. Oh! What a delicious Saturday afternoon it was! Then his dad called from the back porch, “Son, come inside and wash your hands…we’re going to watch a movie.” The little boy loved watching old movies on the TV with us dad. “What’s the movie about?” the little boy asked. “A big ape!” The little boy had no idea that he was about to fall in love, a love that would last into his 68th year.

I fell in love all over again this afternoon watching the rerelease of KING KONG at the picture show. It was its first rerelease in 60 years since the big ape first frightened audiences in 1933. Due to the coronavirus panic, the theater was practically empty, which suited me to a tee! I climbed the stairs to my favorite spot—the seat directly under the projection booth window—and sat down with popcorn and a cold drink at the ready. The light dimmed, the overture music played, and then on an art deco backdrop the words, KING KONG, appeared. I was enchanted. I was a kid again. And I was safe in the arms of my dear father.

For those of you under fifty, who have not seen the 1933 movie, I wouldn’t recommend it. Alas, because you grew up with nothing but state-of-the-art movies, KING KONG’s black and white, stop-motion animation would most likely disappoint. But as I sat in the darkened theater, I tried to transport myself back to 1933.

What was it like to see and hear things that had never been experienced on the silver screen? Did seeing a robotic, 24-inch gorilla, created from aluminum, foam rubber, and rabbit fur that looked 18ft tall on the silver screen, make the audience ask…how did they do that? Would his lips, eyebrows, and nose fashioned from rubber, his glass eyes, and his facial expressions controlled by bendable wires in his aluminum skull have fascinated? Would the foam rubber dinosaurs, also jointed and robotic, with football bladders placed inside them to simulate breathing, have amazed?  Did Kong’s roar frighten, not knowing it was created via recorded growls of zoo lions and tigers played slowly backward? What about him beating his chest, unaware that the sound was created by strapping a microphone to a man’s back, while someone, at the same time, pounded on his chest with a bass drum mallet? What about that iconic fight scene between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, which took seven weeks to complete?

I could go on, but you get the picture about the picture KING KONG. It was a groundbreaker, using special effects, such as stop-motion animation, matte painting, rear projection, and miniatures, all of which were conceived decades before the digital age…and that’s what I like about it!

As Roger Ebert stated in a 2002 interview: “In modern times the movie has aged, as critic James Berardinelli observes, and ‘advances in technology and acting have dated aspects of the production.’ Yes, but in the very artificiality of some of the special effects, there is a creepiness that isn’t there in today’s slick, flawless, computer-aided images…. Even allowing for its slow start, wooden acting, and wall-to-wall screaming, there is something ageless and primeval about KING KONG that still somehow works.”  I totally agree.

For me —and the little boy still living within me—watching KING KONG on the big screen today, rekindled the same awe and mystery that I felt almost 60 years ago. And in a world gone mad over the coronavirus, I did what people did when the movie opened in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression—I escaped!  I escaped into another world filled with lush scenery, beautiful people, and a big hairy ape, all of which made me forget my cares for another day. And my friends…what’s wrong with that?