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No one ever doubted the strength of the material, however goony it sounds when outlined on the printed page. Kong was the invention of one of Dino de Laurentiis' spiritual forebears in the movie business, a pioneer aviator and moviemaker named Merian C. Cooper. He knew instinctively that what the Beauty and the Beast legend might lose in subtlety by converting the beast into a gigantic ape it would gain in raw power: such a creature is capable not merely of defiling his human bride but of killing her with sexual kindness should he accidentally lose control of his basically good and innocent nature. Cooper also understood that lots of wow special effects would distract people from dwelling morbidly or censoriously on the erotic implications of his tale.
How right he was. Kong opened just after F.D.R. closed the banks in 1933. Even so, it grossed $90,000 during its first four days' run in New York and has sustained its popularity through an infinite succession of re-releases in the decades that followed. More important, it achieved the legendary status of classic kitsch, the charm of which remained undimmed by innumerable el cheapo rip-offs and overexposure on TV. The great monkey has become a pop culture staple in everything from cartoons to ad campaigns. Even before the movie's release, kids who could not possibly have seen the old Kong are eagerly awaiting the big fella's new incarnation. As for adults, even members of the testy, loyal cult that has grown up around the original film, how can they resist an a la mode Kong, coming at them off a wide screen with all the latest in special-effects techniques?
Special effects, of course, lie at the heart of the movie's appeal. Yet it may be that for all the ballyhoo about mechanics, the real secret of Kong's success will lie in the intelligence with which the screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple Jr. (creator of TV's Batman), approached the problem of updating Kong. "I'm not saying Kong is a serious filmwith quotation marks around serious," says Semple. "What I am saying is that I think the script was just serious enoughwithout any snide winking at the audience. The trick was to walk a delicate line between screen romance and high camp."
Delicate may sound like the last word to apply to King Kong, but that is the quality that springs to mind as the completed portions of the new film unreel. Semple has retained the original plot line; all the major incidents everyone remembers are still present, believably updated. But the talky, simple-minded exposition of the original has vanished. Characters have been given at least two dimensions (one more than they had in 1933) and some genuinely witty lines. The movie is on to itself. It knows it is trafficking in absurdity. What matters is that this ironic self-awareness does not shatter the drama or the audience's growing sympathy for both the terrified girl whom the natives capture in order to sacrifice her to their ape god, and the befuddled creature who cannot help loving her unwisely, not to say impossibly.