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Remembering Fay Wray: Quick’s Notes

Hard to imagine a bigger movie landmark than the original King Kong, which was released to immense box office response in 1933.

From my childhood in the Fifties to the present, I have seen Kong a thousand times on TV, in art house theaters (including some incredible sex and violence outtakes that were edited from the film) and in video replay. And I have yet to tire of its genius.

Imagine my glee back in 1969 when Fay Wray, heroine of the movie, came to speak at noon at UCLA’s Ackerman Union. The place was packed with fellow boomer Bruins and for the first time I realized that I was not alone in my childhood King Kong obsession. Wray, a somewhat matronly 61 years old, was nonetheless aglow at her Westwood appearance.

She had just returned from a film festival in Europe where King Kong, then less than four decades in circulation, was already beginning to be honored overseas for its immense contribution to film history. I don’t remember many of her other comments, but I do remember a student asking her to give a sample of her signature scream and a dignified Wray refusing.

With the impending release of Peter Jackson’s (director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) remake of King Kong, the buzz is that the original 1933 King Kong was the greatest adventure movie ever made. One website even quotes sci fi giant Ray Bradbury as declaring King Kong simply the greatest movie ever.

This raises the obvious question, why a remake? Indeed, King Kong ’33 has already been amply worked over. In 1976, director John Gillerman released a blasphemously mediocre remake starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. Universal Studios subsequently installed hokey King Kong rides at its theme parks in Los Angeles and Orlando. Ted Turner’s film library bought Kong ’33 and colorized it. Is this any way to treat The Eighth Wonder of the World?

From my perspective, there is a much greater evil at work here than the defilement of Kong ‘33. Charlton Heston declared cinema the dominant art form of the 20th Century. He is right. From the silent era to the 1950s creative genius blossomed and the legacy is a film library that may well survive millenniums. But now film geniuses such as Peter Jackson seem content to remake the classics rather than taking a shot at creating classics of their own. Help!

When Fay Wray spoke at UCLA in 1969, then California Governor Ronald Reagan often drew comparisons between the fall of the Roman Empire and threats to the American empire owing to a decline in moral values. Perhaps the real danger is our emerging culture of imitation. Rome for all its military might, wealth and glory was a creative imitation of the earlier culture of Greece. It borrowed the Greeks’ architecture, sculpture, literature and even its religion/mythology. It had no creative soul of its own.

Likewise, Hollywood has become a culture of imitation with an endless stream of remakes, prequels and sequels. Instead of borrowing foreign glory as Rome did, we retreat to earlier American glory and borrow from our own past. Virtually my entire personal list of adventure film classics has been slammed by one or more remakes (e.g. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, War of the Worlds, Psycho, Invaders from Mars). It’s a dark time creatively in the Empire.

Kong ’33 closes with promoter Carl Denham (still Hollywood’s best rendition of Teddy Roosevelt bravado as played by Robert Armstrong) at the base of the Empire State Building declaring, “It wasn’t the airplanes that killed Kong. Oh no. It was beauty that killed the beast.”

Shame on us for not leaving beauty alone. Fay Wray died in August of last year, weeks short of her 97th birthday. An obituaries noted that she was once asked if she ever saw John Gillerman’s 1977 remake of King Kong. “No,” she replied, “why would I watch that?”

Right on, Fay Wray.Ed. Note: Earlier this month, Turner Classic Movies screened the one, only and original King Kong (in black and white), pairing it with its new documentary on the man who made the movie, I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. TCM will run Kong again on December 13, 17 and 26. And a new DVD of the original film has just been released.

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