Willis O’Brien: Triumph and Tragedy

I’ve been thinking of Willis O’Brien lately.

This comes of no real surprise to me. I have Tom Waits’ King Kong on my playlist and O’Brien gets name checked at the end of the song. I’d just watched some gawd awful trailer collections with trailers for a lot of his stuff, whether projects he worked on (The Giant Behemoth) or projects he tried to develop (Valley of the Gwangi and, to a no doubt lesser degree, King Kong v. Godzilla). His name has popped up, as it were. It be more of a shock if I hadn’t been thinking about him to some degree or another.

Among other things, O’Brien was a special effects man. He started off working for the Edison Company, doing short films for the movie company. He achieved a great deal of notoriety for his stop-motion animation work, though in truth he only made a few films. No more than fourteen, in fact. Not all of them dealt with prehistoric beasts (or even in some fashion or another, but most of them did.

Going through the list comes up with some classic science fiction/fantasy names. I’ve already mentioned The Giant Behemoth (which was good), but there’s also The Black Scorpion (which is not), Mighty Joe Young (which is better than it has any right being) and the 1925 The Lost World. According to legend, this last film amazed professional magicians and reporters alike. They thought it might be real.  No one had ever seen anything like it before. It was the first. It was unique.

Still from the 1925 LOST WORLD
Still from the 1925 LOST WORLD

Seen these days, The Lost World can seem a bit underwhelming. The dinosaurs look off in places. Fake. But a closer examination revels a great deal of care and detail work went into the making of this film. Compare it to a lot of later stop-motion efforts (excluding, perhaps, Ray Harryhausen‘s masterworks) and I think it comes off quite well. Superior, in fact.

There is one notable exception to this, though. That would be King Kong.

Had they been released in modern times, those who care about such things would no doubt scream about how Kong being a carbon copy of the earlier Lost World. In both, explorers set out to bring back proof of Lost World region. Once there, they have difficulties with the local fauna. One crisis follows another until they manage to escape. Only in the process of leaving, they manage to capture a creature. They bring it back to civilization, where it breaks free and cause havoc in a city. Damn near a carbon copy, if you ask me. Let the Internet burn with the righteous fury of the masses.

Thing is, original or not, Kong is perfect in story. It takes the elements of the earlier movie and refines them, refocuses them in such a way that it makes everything sing. Everything is so well done in terms of story that even the slightly wooden performances of the human actors can’t take away from the viewing experience.

And I do mean wooden. Bruce Cabot‘s Jack Driscoll is damn near a coffee table (his love scene on the Venture practically gives splinters). Fay Wray‘s Ann Darrow is better, but that’s no compliment. Fact is, the bright, shining light of the film is Robert Armstrong‘s Carl Denham, to the point you wish the film was about him and not the other two. And even he is more ham than anything else.

Still from the 1933 KING KONG
Still from the 1933 KING KONG

These criticisms, though, are slightly unfair. For one thing sound films were a relative new thing, and in 1933, when Kong boldly entered theaters, acting was still playing catch up with the medium. A lot of movies back then come across now as very stilted productions.  The art was growing, and it’s churlish to kick it in the teeth for that.

The other thing is that while people might have come to see the human actors when the film first came out, no one else has for years. Viewers come for Kong! Eighth Wonder of the World! Few go away disappointed. This is O’Brien at his best. The effort and care he put into every frame shows. From the dinosaur fights to Kong’s all too Shakespearean death at the end, there is not a moment that doesn’t speak of love. Of a master craftsman’s work.

Something about Kong must have set fire to the American movie public, because it made $2 million for RKO, the studio that released it. By today’s standards, that’s nothing; it’s not even a good movie budget. But even after taking inflation into consideration, it’s still an impressive feat. Remember that the country was coming out of the Great Depression. Not a lot of money to waste on trivial matters. For them to put so much into a simple fantasy flick says something. It struck a chord in the psyche, and still does to this day. Even the remakes, with the better budgets and acting have a hard time equaling it. I don’t think either of them surpass it. Not really.


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