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King Kong (1933)

Even at 90 years of age and after years of CGI magic on screen, King Kong remains an amazing achievement. Its innovations were many. It was the first film to use rear-screen projection of actors that were matched with model animation shot one frame at a time. It was one of the first films to use Linwood Dunn’s optical printer to bring shots of the animated models and live action together. And Max Steiner’s score was one of the first fully composed musical accompaniments for a sound film, with themes for characters, locations, and relationships, including a love theme for Kong and the woman who wins his heart.

None of that would have made King Kong a pop-culture icon without a strong script from a story by Merian C. Cooper and thriller writer Edgar Wallace, powerful direction by Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and a strong cast headed by Fay Wray as the penniless actress enlisted to travel to Skull Island to star in a film based on the legends of a giant creature. Her journey through a prehistoric jungle in the paws of the giant ape required her to dub in a day’s worth of screams she called her “Aria of the Agonies,” which would be used in countless other films as well.

Another key factor in bringing Kong to life was the skill of Willis H. O’Brien, a sculptor who had been creating films with animated models since 1915. His biggest silent effort was The Lost World (1925), which featured both a remote plateau filled with dinosaurs and a brontosaurus raging through London. That provided the inspiration for King Kong, just as O’Brien’s work would inspire generations of future special effects artists, including Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, and the current masters of CGI effects.

d. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 105 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics