King Kong (1933) – Film #0060

Directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1991 
I first watched it in or around December 2005 

What It’s About:

A headstrong filmmaker, a starving actress, and ship full of crewmen travel to a mysterious island in hopes of creating a film with the mythical creature that lives there, but they get more than they bargained for. 

My experience with the film:

I initially watched this around the time that the 2005 Peter Jackson remake of King Kong came out. I’m fairly sure that I watched it before going to see the remake, but I’m definitely sure that I picked it up from my local library (which I reminisced heavily about in this entry) to do so. I remember that my feelings about it were something along the lines of “it was probably really impressive when it came out, but it looks pretty silly by today’s standards, and it’s kinda boring.”

Then, I rewatched it for a second time a little over a year ago (largely because I knew it was an influential film, and because my taste in movies has changed significantly since 2005, so I expected to get more out of it.) However, I was surprised to find that my feelings were relatively unchanged. 

Despite my fairly recent rewatch, I decided to go ahead and watch it again in order to write this entry to coincide with the release of the film Godzilla vs. Kong. I still thought that the effects looked dated, but this time, I kept myself engaged by trying to figure out exactly how the images that I saw were created. Obviously, many of the shots were just straight-up “claymation”/stop-motion animation. Others were obviously actors in front of a screen with an animated sequence in the background. But what about the more intricate scenes? I realized there were several scenes that were much more complicated than that—scenes where characters transitioned back and forth between real people and clay models in the blink of an eye, and scenes where live actors couldn’t merely be standing in front of a screen. How did they create those shots? I still thought that many of the visuals looked obviously fake/silly, but I suddenly found myself interested in learning how those scenes were made.

My post-watch custom of watching the Blu-ray special features and doing some light internet research produced a treasure trove of results. There is way too much for me to sum up here, so I definitely recommend the resources below (especially the making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray), but here is an attempt to describe their process: 

Many of the more intricate scenes involved several panes of glass with paintings on them that would be spaced a few feet apart in between the camera and the miniature “set” where the stop motion scenes were filmed (this was done to create a sense of depth in the scenery). They also integrated small movie screens into these sets where they could project one or more live action sequences into the set so that you could have the interaction between the animated characters and the live actors. It was wild. Seriously, watch the documentary on the Blu-ray. 

It turns out that they straight-up invented many of these processes, which would go on to change the way visual effects were used in film. This film (and its eventual box office success) proved to Hollywood execs that you could have a special-effects-driven, visual spectacle blockbuster. It literally paved the way for all future flashy blockbusters, from Star Wars, to Jurassic Park, to Lord of the Rings, to Avengers. 

And if that wasn’t impressive enough, that wasn’t the only major thing that King Kong contributed to blockbusters, or even films in general. Prior to this, American-made films used their score mostly just as background music to add a little flavor to the film (keep in mind that they were only a few years removed from the silent era, where music had to be either played live or from a recording in the theater showing the film). Max Steiner, the composer for the film, decided to use his score to contribute to the storytelling of the film, so he created musical themes for each character, and often had the music reflect what was happening on screen. That may sound pretty obvious now, but it was revolutionary back then. Moving forward, this was a huge influence on the way that music was used in film. It paved the way for the composers who would give us the memorable film scores that we love, like Bernard Herrman, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer. Are you in love with the exciting John Williams music that opens every Star Wars film, and the way each major character in those films is associated with their own piece of music? You can thank King Kong for that. Do you love the sense of excitement and adventure that you feel every time the Pirates of the Caribbean theme begins to play? You can thank King Kong for that as well. As a massive fan of film scores (they’re easily one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking), I never realized how much I was indebted to King Kong.

However, there’s yet another essential aspect of blockbusters that you can thank King Kong for—unnecessary sequels. King Kong was such a massive box office hit when it came out that they immediately rushed a sequel into production, Son of Kong, which came out only 9 months after the release of the original. Like many blockbuster sequels meant to capitalize on the popularity of the original, it was a critical flop.

I know I just mentioned this in my last entry, but I’m realizing more and more just how much learning about a film adds to my appreciation and enjoyment of it. In preparation for writing these entries, I often try to watch the film’s commentary (when there is one available), and it was no different this time. I do that partially to learn more about the film, but it’s also largely to give me a chance to watch the film a second time and look for all the things I learned about during my background research. As I watched the commentary for King Kong, after learning everything that I mentioned above and a whole lot more, I was much more impressed with the film. Even if the special effects don’t look particularly real, once you know how they were made, they’re incredibly impressive to watch. If I’m going to get on my soapbox for a moment, I suppose this is also a good reason to argue for the continued existence of behind-the-scenes features that are so common on physical media. Films are so much more interesting when you learn about their production history than when you just watch them blindly. It was watching the bonus materials with the Lord of the Rings extended editions back in the early 2000s that really ignited my love of film, and it’s by continuing to watch special features and learn about each film’s history that my love continues to grow with each entry that I write. 

Availability:

King Kong (1933) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/king-kong-1933 

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

Follow the NFR Completist on Twitter and Instagram

Dracula (1931) – Film #0282

Directed by Tod Browning (with many arguing that the cinematographer, Karl Freund, also deserves a directing credit, for his substantial work on the film) 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2000

“Listen to them—children of the night! What music they make!”

At the current time of writing (fairly early in my NFR Completist project, but not so early in my ongoing attempts to watch “important” movies), I’ve seen several films from the early “talkie” era. Some of them surprised me by how modern they felt (such as “It Happened One Night”). Others surprised me by how relevant they still were, despite feeling very much like an “old movie” (such as “All Quiet on the Western Front”). Then there’s a movie like Dracula, which I didn’t fully appreciate while actually viewing the film. Many of the special effects are incredibly dated (fake bats and spiders galore!), the film has no actual score outside of the opening and closing credits, and both the editing and overall pacing seem to be much slower than a modern movie. Not to mention the fact that outside of a very animated and eccentric performance from a supporting character, much of the “horror” that the characters either cause or experience is conveyed through silent physical acting, rather than any audible dialogue. However, as I began to research the film, I learned several different pieces of background information that explained many of these aspects. 

For example, the director, Tod Browning, made several silent horror films in his career before filming Dracula. In the extras on the Dracula Blu-ray, different film commentators noted that it is likely that Browning directed Dracula more like the silent films that he was accustomed to. (It should also be noted that “talkies” were only a few years old at this point, so the cinematic norms for talkies were still being formed.) Indeed, in those same extras, the niece of the film’s producer (Carl Laemmle Jr.) refers to this film as the “first talking supernatural thriller.” 

In fact, it may have been the first American “supernatural thriller” period. Up until this point, most American “horror films” (though they weren’t called that yet—more on that in a moment) were either somewhat grounded in reality, or the supernatural aspects were revealed to be grounded in reality by the end of the film (think Scooby Doo—it was just Farmer Johnson using smoke and mirrors and wearing a mask all along). Dracula was the first to play up and focus on the supernatural elements. Dracula also popularized the now common term for this genre, “horror movie,” as critics and audiences quickly began using this (then) unofficial term to refer to the film, and it’s stuck ever since. While the film seems simple and almost quaint by today’s horror standards, there are (possibly apocryphal) stories of audience members fainting at the initial screenings.

One terrifying moment occurs in the epilogue scene of the film, which was later edited out by censors after its initial theatrical run (unfortunately, only low-quality prints of the scene now exist). The fourth-wall breaking scene involves a narrator on a stage speaking directly to the audience. At first, he seems to assure us, but then, he does just the opposite: “Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! A word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield won’t give you bad dreams, so just a word of reassurance. When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains—and you dread to see a face appear at the window—why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all … there are such things as vampires!” 

Much of the film’s continuing success comes from Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the titular character. Lugosi was playing the role of Dracula in the same stage play on which the film would be based when he was cast in the role of the film (the play itself was, of course, based on the classic Bram Stoker novel). However, his role in both the play and the film seemed to occur by luck: he was cast in the play largely because the production had already gone over-budget before casting him, and they couldn’t afford to cast any well-known actors in the main role. Likewise, several other actors were considered for the film role (including Lon Chaney Sr., who was a well-known horror actor, but was battling terminal cancer at the time, and Boris Karloff, who would later go on to star as other monsters in Frankenstein and The Mummy,) before Lugosi was finally offered the job. Nonetheless, his performance was a hit, and has gone on to influence the modern image of Dracula as the “tall, dark, and handsome” type, more than the gruesome-looking figure that is depicted in the novel.

This portrayal was helped by Lugosi’s actual Hungarian accent (having only emigrated to the U.S. a few years earlier.) Legend has it that when he first played the role of Dracula in the stage production, he had to memorize many of his lines phonetically, since he was still learning English. However, some (including film critic Roger Ebert), doubt the authenticity of this story, and consider it to be more of a Hollywood myth. 

Despite his iconic performance (or perhaps because of it), Lugosi had a hard time finding roles for the rest of his career, as he was usually typecast as a monster or a villain in films that never reached the popularity of his breakout role. At times, he resented the way that the public continued to associate him with the role, but at other times, he seemed to embrace it. When he died, his wife and son chose to bury him wearing one of his capes that he wore in the film.

Dracula is a film that continues to impact popular culture today, though it may need some context for modern audiences to fully appreciate it. This background research provided me with yet another reminder of why I chose to undergo this NFR Completist project: as much as I enjoy watching these films, I sometimes enjoy learning about the history and context of them even more (and in so doing, usually gain a deeper appreciation for the film than I had while viewing it.)

Be sure to follow my NFR Completist project on Twitter and Instagram.

Availability:
Dracula (1931) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/dracula

Information sources and additional resources: