Max Steiner

King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong is a perfect film. I don’t think I’d realized before. It’s always hard to talk about films like Kong, influential standards of American cinema. I want to talk about how its structure still sets the tone for modern films–the gradual lead-in (it’s forty-some minutes before Kong shows up), the non-stop action of the second half, how establishing characters well in the beginning means they can go without dialogue for twenty minutes and still be affecting. Or the special effects. I’d love to talk about the special effects, like how I’d never noticed the absolutely brilliant sound design–the most effective stop motion moments are the ones with the people Kong interacts with. Murray Spivack’s sound brings them fully to life–best evidenced as Kong’s rampaging through the village and attacks a house. It engenders concern for the inhabitants, who must have been six inch dolls.

But Kong isn’t a perfect film for its impact. It’s perfect because of itself. The film opens with the scene on the docks, quickly establishing the peculiar tone of the first half. Everyone sort of takes Robert Armstrong’s gung ho filmmaker with a grain of salt. They’re bemused by him. Armstrong’s perfect for the role, big and amiable, it’s hard to be mad at him when he does something selfish and stupid. Just like the characters, who get themselves into the mess by listening to him and knowing better, so does the audience. Armstrong’s like a big kid for lots of Kong, always coming up with the best action after the consequence.

That first scene also goes far in establishing Bruce Cabot. Cabot’s character is Kong‘s most interesting–as is the way the film handles him. The scene with Cabot ranting to Fay Wray about women not belonging on ships–we’re supposed to understand it’s Cabot who’s off, not Wray. Regardless of whether or not he’s right, the first forty minutes of Kong are about Cabot learning to stop acting like a little boy (which Armstrong never has to do). It makes the romance between Cabot and Wray a wonderful one to watch unfold–that “Yes, sir” following their first kiss elicits a fantastic mood.

These scenes all happen long before Kong shows up, long before the roller coaster starts. I didn’t even get to the coffee shop scene, where Armstrong’s enthusiasm even gets the viewer going–promising everyone, viewer and Wray alike, the wait will be worth it.

And when Kong does show up, it’s clearly worth it. King Kong doesn’t really make the monster a sympathetic character. He tends to chomp on people and his curiosity usually leads to someone dying in a horrific manner, but they do make him into a real character. Utterly insensitive to the chaos he causes, Kong still has these wonderful, inquisitive moments. He’s frequently confused by the little people and it rounds out the film, bringing about emotional concern for him without having to light it in neon. The film reduces Wray’s part to victim at the halfway mark–and she certainly never shows any concern for Kong–which is narratively reasonable. It also puts the onerous on the viewer–if he or she wants to care for Kong, it’s because of his or her response to him, not because the film’s dictating.

Once Kong gets back to New York, the whole thing seems to wrap up in fifteen minutes. There’s the interesting monologue from Armstrong though, regarding what he’s done to Kong. He’s fully aware he’s been culturally insensitive, as well as zoologically, but he doesn’t care. The people don’t care what they’ve done to Kong and Kong doesn’t care what he does for people. It creates an interesting, ego and superego free narrative. Anything the audience wants to bring to it or attribute to it, they’re bringing themselves.

King Kong‘s a lot of things audiences and critics had to come up with new adjectives to describe back in 1933–a romance, an adventure being the two easiest–but it’s simply just a fantastic way to spend a hundred minutes.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker and Kenneth Peach; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; production designer, Carroll Clark; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Skull Island native chief), Steve Clemente (Witch King), James Flavin (Second Mate Briggs) and Victor Wong (Charlie).


Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin)

Wow, Watch on the Rhine’s got it all. Not only does it have a nice metaphor for the United States waking up to the horrors of the Nazis and determining to do something about it (which the United States never did), it’s also got a nice ending telling mothers their place is to send their children to certain death. Watch on the Rhine is an odd piece of propaganda. First, it’s a little too late. The film came out in 1943 and the events take place in 1940. It’s selling a particular false history. The play–from co-screenwriter Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett gets the main credit–came out in 1940, so I suppose it was at least honest… Second, the film’s a mash of a family drama, a play adaptation, and the propaganda. The first quarter of the film, until Bette Davis gets home with her German resistance fighter husband and oh-so-precious kids, is an amusing family drama. Lucile Watson, playing the matriarch, is absolutely fantastic, even if she is playing a metaphor for isolationist America. All of her scenes, as she gets excited for her returning daughter (Davis) and the grandchildren and the son-in-law she’s never met, make Watch on the Rhine something special. These scenes bring honest human emotion to even the most extraordinary circumstances.

Then, once Davis and her husband arrive (Paul Lukas, who’s saddled with some bad dialogue, but his performance is incredible–so incredible the word’s making its return here to The Stop Button to describe it) and the film changes. Davis has a number of monologues and, for a moment, the viewer forgets it’s a play adaptation and thinks she’s talking to her family. But the moment passes quickly because the shots never change. Director Herman Shumlin is the least exciting director I’ve seen recently. Watch on the Rhine, at times, positions itself like Casablanca, reminding just how important Michael Curtiz was to that film. It’s not a technicality, these lack of reaction shots, it’s the absence of the characters. The film is from the perspective of the family, of Watson and son Donald Woods, even from bad guy George Coulouris (who’s also great and brings a real sense of dread to Rhine). When there are no reaction shots, the film is floundering. Davis is good and her delivery of the monologues is good, but, in a film, monologues aren’t delivered. There are only three or four but they’re all important and Shumlin messes them all up.

Hammett’s dialogue ranges in quality. When it’s a bunch of Nazis talking shop, it’s fine. When it’s the romance subplot… it’s not. From his IMDb filmography, it looks like his only credited screenwriting credit. He’s particularly bad–this might be from Hellman’s play, I don’t know–with the children’s dialogue. While they’re supposed to be wise beyond their years (as children of a resistance fighter), they’ve also got a lot of cute dialogue. And the eldest son, Donald Buka, has an important part and Buka’s awful.

Obviously, Rhine’s worth watching for the lead performances–particularly Lukas and Watson–but it doesn’t deliver the flawed film the first act promises. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been special.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Herman Shumlin; screenplay by Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, from a play by Hellman; directors of photography, Merrit B. Gerstad and Hal Mohr; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Sara Muller), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Fanny Farrelly), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Beulah Bondi (Anise), George Coulouris (Teck de Brancovis), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Henry Daniell (Phili Von Ramme), Eric Roberts (Bodo) and Donald Buka (Joshua).


Mission to Moscow (1943, Michael Curtiz)

Mission to Moscow is straight propaganda. There’s a lot of Hollywood propaganda in the early 1940s, even the late 1930s, but usually, with those films, there’s at least the pretense of dramatic storytelling. There’s a love story attached, maybe a love triangle, something. There’s nothing attached to Mission to Moscow. It’s essentially a long advertisement for the Soviet Union. Most amusing, I suppose, is when Stalin himself shows up. The film’s from 1943, so nobody knew about him yet.

Walter Huston plays the ambassador to Russia and his story sort of guides the film. It follows him, but the way he moves is for the exposition, not for the character. There isn’t a single conflict for his character in the entire film. Huston’s fantastic, of course, but he’s better at the beginning. For most of the film he looks concerned or he gives speeches, but at the beginning there’s still some dramatic excitement. There are a number of other good performances, particularly Oskar Homolka.

As long as Mission to Moscow is, it’s competently told–writing this screenplay later got Howard Koch blacklisted–and there are a number of nice segments. The film ought to be famous as Michael Curtiz’s follow-up to Casablanca (but isn’t) and it’s probably his strongest directorial effort. There’s one particular scene, at a formal reception, which is beautifully constructed. The camera moves from each country’s representatives, both establishing their political situation as well as the particularities of the characters. It’s too bad this scene–as well as an excellent trial scene–are surrounded by such boring material.

The film plays on Turner Classic Movies from time to time and I read Warner Bros. is considering a DVD release (though I don’t know as part of what collection–no one knows Huston or Curtiz anymore).

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Curtiz; screenplay by Howard Koch, based on the book by Joseph E. Davies; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Owen Marks; music by Max Steiner; produced by Robert Bruckner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Walter Huston (Ambassador Joseph E. Davies), Ann Harding (Mrs. Marjorie Davies), Oskar Homolka (Maxim Litvinov, Foreign Minister), George Tobias (Freddie), Gene Lockhart (Premier Molotov), Eleanor Parker (Emlen Davies), Richard Travis (Paul), Helmut Dantine (Major Kamenev), Victor Francen (Vyshinsky, chief trial prosecutor), Henry Daniell (Minister von Ribbentrop), Barbara Everest (Mrs. Litvinov), Dudley Field Malone (Winston Churchill), Roman Bohnen (Mr. Krestinsky), Maria Palmer (Tanya Litvinov), Moroni Olsen (Colonel Faymonville), Minor Watson (Loy Henderson), Vladimir Sokoloff (Mikhail Kalinin, USSR president), Maurice Schwartz (Dr. Botkin) and Joseph E. Davies (Himself).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 1: Dream Factory.
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