Although I’ve tended to link my lifelong obsession with the movies to a father-son bond formed over weekend and vacation double bills at the Thalia on West 95th Street, or down on Times Square, it was actually my grandmother, back in the suburbs of Camden, New Jersey — where I grew up, despite my adolescent pretensions to being some kind of honorary New Yorker — who fired up the projector. Judging from a dim recollection of brightly twinkling lights and bustling crowds on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, glimpsed over the back seat of my grandfather’s still-purring Model A, it may have been after a day of Christmas shopping at Gimbel’s or Wanamaker’s that Grandmom and I, for the one and only time in our lives that I can remember, ducked into a movie together. It was a revival of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong. I must have been 5 or 6. It was, I’m almost certain, my first time at the movies.
Years later, as I watched it upward of 10 times over the course of one week — in the living room of my dad’s Riverside Drive apartment, as it screened twice a day on WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie (cue “Tara” theme) — King Kong also occasioned my first big, aching movie-star crush. On Fay Wray, not the monkey. Those lips, those eyes... and most of all, those slender, milk-white arms! Stretching through the sleeve of a threadbare cloth coat toward that fateful applecart (a moment, judging from the trailer, that is faithfully reproduced in Peter Jackson’s new movie). Or stretched again, and bound this time by jungle vines, on the stone pinions of a sacrificial altar. Or flung across those almond eyes, those pursed lips, as the “golden woman” screamed and screamed again in terror. The famous — and baffling, until the restoration a couple of decades later, when we finally saw Kong peel Ann Darrow’s clothes off like skin from a ripe banana — glimpse of nipple in the underwater scene was a nice touch too.
My pleasure as a little boy, though, had nothing to do with touching Fay Wray, or myself for that matter. It was all about drums, and incantations (“Wasaba... tanamaka... otarame... rama... et cetera... Kong!”), and torch-lit ramparts, and all those Cabin in the Sky extras gallivanting about in feathers and bearskins. (Years later, Grandmom dressed me up, for Halloween, in war paint and boxer shorts, spear and shield and headdress, but I don’t remember whether this was a nod to Kong or Ramar of the Jungle. I am sure, though, that she didn’t send me out of the house and into the cold October night in that outfit.) Then came the stegosaur, the brontosaur, the tyrannosaur, and finally the pop of the flashbulbs, the burst chains, the stampeded opening-night audience, the doomed elevated train, the Empire State Building, the angry, buzzing squadron of biplanes, and all those dizzy, swooping aerial views of Manhattan where my daddy lived.
Into my mid-30s, I counted King Kong among the handful of movies I’d never tire of watching, no matter how many times I saw them. Today, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has held its place on that list. Kong has not. I will still sit through it now and again, when it airs on TV, and there are still moments that grip the imagination — the Big Guy pouting over the pinprick of a shipman’s knife; the high dive off Skull Mountain; the big, hairy, querulous face at the skyscraper window — and I most definitely will beg, borrow or steal the new special-edition video release. But truth be told, for much of the movie my mind will wander.
As Andy Sipowicz would put it, I’m sorry for my loss — and enticed by the return to primal awe and terror promised by the clips I’ve seen from the Peter Jackson version. King Kong, I’m told, grabbed him as a kid too, and he seems determined to re-create the aura of the original, to let Kong be Kong, Naomi Watts be Fay Wray — and that at only twice the length of the original! I’m a little worried about too much CGI, but then, Jackson struck a nice balance in Lord of the Rings. Most of all, a part of me is hoping (and half-believing) that I’m about to get my 5-year-old’s-first-time-at-the-movies mojo back.
Part of me, anyway. Another part looks askance at the whole project. “Forget about the Big Ape,” I tell myself. “You’ve been the Big Ape! You’ve wrestled the lizard, smashed the train, found the girl, thrown her away! You’ve had your rampage! You’ve climbed the Empire State Building! Give it a rest. Get serious. Get a life.”
“Yeah, sure, go ahead,” pouts the battle-scarred 50-foot gorilla inside me. “Starve me. Clap me in irons. Run me through the heart with your candy-striped cardboard spear! Like I haven’t suffered enough already.”