It’s Worse When You Smile



You know what’s a better film than you might think? Frank Mangold’s Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz vehicle KNIGHT AND DAY (not to be confused with NIGHT AND DAY in which Cary Grant plays a gay man as a straight man — it’s totally different, honest!) The movie wouldn’t be that good if it was just a romcom or just an action film, but it succeeds at both by combining them, and Cruise is amazingly well used — he plays a rogue spy who has either been framed for crimes against the state or else is batshit insane. Obviously, it will turn out that the Cruiser knows the whereabouts of all his marbles, but for the first half, the movie is an amazing amount of fun, playing the actors’ usual tropes and tricks — intense staring, manic grinning, furious running with pistoning little karate-chop arms — as simultaneously evidence of his movie-star heroism and a suggestion that he might be an incredibly dangerous maniac. The film sags a little at the end, mainly because it’s decided to let us know he’s OK, so half the joke is gone.



You know what’s a worse film than you might think? The 1976 KING KONG. I know, you probably already suspect it’s terrible, and you may even have seen it, in which case you KNOW it’s terrible, but it is not actually possible for any mere mortal to know how terrible this film is. It’s awfulness cannot be contained in a human mind. You would need the skull of a forty-foot ape to encapsulate the wretchedness of the whole enterprise.

The positive aspects can be summed up rapidly. Hawaii looks nice. Although Jessica Lange mainly makes you feel embarrassed, the movie did sort of launch her career. Jeff Bridges demonstrates his awesomeness by managing to avoid ever appearing awful or awkward, in a movie where even Charles Grodin stumbles at times. But mostly Grodin is good too.

I guess Dino de Laurentiis had some kind of a great business mind, because he correctly deduced that the public would not pay to see a man in a gorilla suit, so a great juggernaut of ballyhoo was foisted upon the moviegoing public to convinced them that a 40 foot mechanical ape was going to maraud across the Panavision screen. It worked — I remember the queue round the block  at the Odeon, Clerk Street. I also remember thinking, “That looks a lot like a man in a suit,” and then, as Kong is exhibited in New York, “THAT looks like an unconvincing 40-foot mechanical ape.” As indeed it was.

The ape suit stuff is designed and acted by Rick Baker, and is probably as good a gorilla costume as audiences had seen. I would believe, if the film made it worth my while, that I was looking at some kind of man-ape. I just wouldn’t believe he was forty feet high. The foliage blowing in the wind behind him is blatantly miniature. He doesn’t move with the slomo heft of Godzilla (even though the big G is even more hilariously a man in a costume.) There’s an over-the-shoulder shot where his shoulder is transparent (an example of verfremdungseffekt that Brecht never thought off).



Baker’s performance is good, though he hasn’t quite worked out a convincing alternative to the authentic silverback’s knuckle-walking. Sometimes Kong seems to be merely out for a stroll. And there’s too much smiling. Willis H. O’Brien’s masterful Kong didn’t go in for smirking. Admittedly. the big mechanical head in the ’33 film was grinning maniacally, rather like Tom Cruise. But I never liked that head.

The smiling is all directed at Jessica Lange, who is worth smiling at, but that means this falls under the heading of sexy smiling, which I don’t want to see on a gorilla. Certainly not that close up. I feel as if I now know what it is like to have sex with Rick Baker, and this is not knowledge I have ever sought. Not consciously.

In some scenes, Jessica Lange is quite good, good enough to make us think she might be very good if her director was looking out for her, at all. Publicity genius de Laurentiis sold her as a completely untrained model, because everybody hates looking at trained actors, especially in films. Here’s the untrained model speaking about her work in The Creation of King Kong by Bruce Bahrenburg (the film was too epic for a mere “Making of”) ~

“How do you play to a huge ape who is romantically attached to you? I had to do some substitution and personalisation.”

Yep, no signs of training there.


Unfortunately for Lange, she is required to act batshit apeshit  insane half the time, writhing orgasmically as Kong blows on her to dry her off after she’s showered in a waterfall. Because warm air is sexy, always, and apparently nobody in this movie has a sense of smell, or maybe gorilla breath really is deliciously aphrodisiac. I have seen a zoo gorilla cram its mouth with fresh shit to scare off some annoying kids, so I am totally prepared to believe that gorilla breath makes women horny. It stands to reason.

Then there’s the undressing scene, which plays like curiosity, mainly, in the original. even if Max Steiner did scribble the title “Stinkfinger” on the sheet music for this scene (isn’t that a Frank Zappa composition?). Here it’s full-on rape-ape mode, with Rick Baker grinning as meaningfully as he knows how, mind bent upon the anatomically impossible. John Guillermin was always a director who would go a good bit out of his way to get some tits into his film. My old friend Lawrie knew him, and knew of his casting couch inclinations. I once read a Radio Times review of Guillermin’s EL CONDOR out loud to Lawrie: “Nasty, slick and superficial.” “That’s John!” he cried in delight. Like meeting an old friend.

Guillermin DID have considerable visual talent, seen in RAPTURE (1965) particularly, and I have a suspicion he was badly let down by his ape unit here. Lots of eye-level shots and long-shots which seem designed to make Rick Baker look smaller than he really is rather than, as Guillermin probably hoped, a bit taller.

If enthusiastic bumbler Carlo Rambaldi couldn’t manage a convincing giant ape, and he couldn’t, he and Glen Robinson did cobble together a pretty good pair of mechanical hands. I guess the opportunity of nudging Jessica Lange’s mammaries with a massive pneumatic digit brought out the best in them. It’s not an opportunity likely to come your way twice in a lifetime.



Supposedly, a team comprising Bob Fosse, Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon were at once point going to direct and write this monstrosity. Since the film shows every sign of being cursed, I don’t think that would have saved it, but Lorenzo Semple’s screenplay is pretty stinky. He kind of solves the question of “How could they ship Kong back to America?” with the oil tanker, but that still leaves the question of how they winched him aboard, and that question comes more sharply into focus with the surrounding mysteries cleared up. In the 2005 version, the whole issue is elided during intermission, which my friend Sam Dale objected to. “But isn’t that the case, basically, in the original?” I asked. “Yes, but the original goes like a train,” he countered. With pre-code pace, the audience has less time to ponder, and the movie is more like an unexpectedly genius potboiler, rather than a wildly implausible simian version of Heart of Darkness.

Since the Dino KONG is a super-epic, it can’t afford to get zippy at any point, so everything is gone over in great detail and at great length, although this doesn’t help it make sense. “I remember as a little girl,” said Fiona, “I was quite confused about her attitude to Kong.” In the original, Fay Wray is quite simply scared of the big guy. Admittedly, it always seemed that more could be done with this relationship. Entirely thanks to Willis H. O’Brien’s artistry, Kong had become a sympathetic character, chewing people’s heads off, smushing them into the dirt, and dropping them from skyscrapers, but essentially virtuous. An unscripted warmth of feeling was created between the audience and the ape (particularly in the moment where he hurts his finger, a beat missing here).

In the Peter Jackson arse-marathon, the relationship is tastefully desexualized, so that Kong becomes a big devoted pet, and on that level it’s extremely moving, thanks to great work from Naomi Watts and excellent animation (sorry, Andy Serkis, that’s not you up there). The seventies attempt ramps up the pre-code smut factor to an uncomfortable level. In 1933, Kong barely enjoyed a moment’s peace with Fay Wray without some Cretaceous interloper barging in, which was again useful to stop the audience wondering about stuff that shouldn’t be on normal people’s minds anyway. Here, there’s only a giant rubber snake, showing up at the exact optimum moment to serve as a Freudian symbol.

Of all Semple’s changes, the one most offensive to a schoolboy viewer is the deletion of all the dinosaurs, clear evidence that the film did not love its audience and did not have the technical confidence possessed of the filmmakers of forty-some years earlier. But the stupidest one is probably the ship’s crew setting a trap for Kong but then bolting the door of the big gate to prevent him reaching it. “Are you sure he can break through this thing?” somebody thinks to ask. “Just bolt it halfway.” is the compromise choice. I guess they figured leaving it open would MAKE THE GORILLA SUSPICIOUS.

One thing I kind of approve of, even though it’s also kind of awful, is the very seventies unhappy ending. After the Peckinpah bloodbath with Kong turned into a pink plush toy by his own spurting gore, Jessica doesn’t even get folded into the big strong arms of Jeff Bridges as consolation. He rather inexplicably hangs back, apparently feeling that this ordeal has turned her into a star, which is what she always wanted, and so she doesn’t need him, even though she is obviously distraught and does need him. It’s some kind of NETWORK type dark satire thing and was certainly incomprehensible to me as a kid, and seems unclear now. Maybe she should have grabbed a microphone and said “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine,” or “Mrs Norman Kong,” or something.



Poor Charles Grodin — in his lovely memoir he talks movingly about his childhood love of KING KONG and how he really didn’t want to be a bad guy in the movie. He particularly didn’t want to be the guy who gets killed by Kong and the audience cheers. They shot a scene where Kong seems to step on him but in fact just crushes his stetson. Audiences hated it. So they recut it to make it look — rather unconvincingly — as if Kong had indeed trodden on Grodin. But then they include a shot, a few seconds later, where Grodin, minus his stetson, appears to be fleeing alongside Jess & Jeff. That is what I believe is known as a continuity error.

They also cut out Grodin’s best bit of acting. Mostly in the film he impresses just with how unlike Charles Grodin he is. He has a moustache which obscures the distinctively curled upper lip (almost but not quite a sneer — just a look of “I can’t believe this,” always incipient if not actually manifest) and a sort of spray-on skull cap of hair like an Action Man doll. And he’s playing a loud jerk, which is not his usual mode. But when he sees Kong for the first time, he reacts in a way which is absolutely the essence of Grodinism, without in any way stepping out of character. It’s extremely funny, and because it’s so comic, even though it is completely truthful and should therefore be completely believable, it is kind of wrong for the film, so they cut it.

They were right to cut it. On the other hand, if they had left it in it would have been better than everything else in the film.

Charles Grodin’s best acting from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Anyhow, in The Creation of King Kong, there is a fair bit about Grodin complaining that his trailer isn’t as big as Jessica’s trailer or Jeff’s trailer — for a publicity book, it makes the surprising choice of making nearly all the principles look bad at one time or another. The seventies was a different era.

King Kong (1976)
King Kong [Blu-ray]
King Kong

31 Responses to “It’s Worse When You Smile”

  1. See? This is what happens if you don’t rehearse your reaction on the boat.

  2. Fiona here:

    Hey, I gave you the title for this piece! Oh…on gorilla suspicion. They’re highly intelligent. It’s quite plausible a gorilla, 40 feet high or otherwise, would be wary of a gate which was suddenly open after being locked most of the time. The pause might give them enough time to appraise a potentially threatening situation. On Jessica Lange. Even as a 10 year old I was stunned by how vacuous and stupid her character was. There was absolutely no indication of the talent she would later display. I was completely convinced she was a brain dead waste of cells. Good job Jessica!

    Then there’s this – It’s true that apes (both male and female) who are habituated to human beings can develop a sexual attraction to them. It happened to me in a zoo with a chimpanzee called Ricky! Thank god there was reinforced glass between us. You can now never un-know these facts. Now go about your business.

  3. Oh, that was me, Fiona, masquerading as the Cairnster. AS IF YOU COULDN’T TELL.

  4. F here again. Just had a completely random, but I feel, important thought. Kong, the dinosaurs and all the other flora and fauna on Skull Island need much higher levels of oxygen in order to survive because of their increased size. Which conjures up the image of Kong needing a mask and a special ginormous tank of air in order to live outside his usual environment. Which would somewhat hamper his new York rampage, and, lets face it, look silly.

  5. Pauline Kael, believe it or not, gave this King Kong a favorable review. I suspect she did so because of her admiration for Lorenzo Semple Jr. — who was a terrific screenwriter (eg. Pretty Poison) though not on this occasion.

    Today the film stands as a sort of memento mori of the World Trade Center.

  6. Cairns here.

    Semple did such good work elsewhere that one wonders what went wrong. The stuff involving Grodin’s reasons for going to the island was all OK. But I think he had a bad conception of the tone — something similar apparently happened on Superman. He thought something approximating his fine work on the Batman TV show would be appropriate. And if you don’t apply that consistently and to the right subject, you’re in trouble.

    I don’t think a 40 foot ape could function at all in Earth gravity, so the science may not apply. More a kind of consistent movie logic sort of thing. As in: the crew want Kong to fall into pit, so would they shut the door? He may be smart enough to be suspicious, but would they suspect this? They don’t have Bridges to advise them about primate intelligence…

  7. In the original King had a unique look and style that was utterly indelible. He was a manipulated model that in reality was smaller than Harry Earles but in context was compelling beyond belief. “Suspension of disbelief” meshed perfectly with “special effects” in a way that was never duplicated. Certainly not by Rick Bake in an ape suit.

    I especially love Kong’s last look at aye Wray before falling off the Empire State Building. Truly touching.

  8. It’s a great performance by O’Brien.

  9. Oh, if only Charlie Gemora was still alive to play Kong in this film. It still wouldn’t be a good film but it would be a bad film with a great gorilla performance in it, if his work in The Monster and the Girl is anything to go by.

  10. I was 13 when I saw the 1976 King Kong, and I loved it enough to see it twice. (Peter Jackson steals at least one shot from that Kong for his movie – the one where the reporters are climbing onto Kong’s chest to take pictures.) That same year the original Kong was shown on TV, and everybody at school agreed that it was “stupid.” Ah, youth.

  11. I was lucky enough to see the original on the big screen at The Odeon a good bit BEFORE I saw the Dino version on the same screen, aged 9. So I knew there ought to be dinosaurs.

    The irony is that in 1976 there still wasn’t a better way to fake a giant gorilla than there had been in 1933. Ape suit was the cheap way out. I think at least one can say that there was a technological reason for making the Jackson film when they did.

  12. Naomi Watts is no Jessica Lange

  13. Randy Cook Says:

    Certainly KING KONG (33) moved with a relentless pace. As daring as the dissolve from the beach to the Broadway marquee was the raft building in the Bronto (Apato?) scene. Pursuing Venture crew arrive at the swamp, “Let’s build a raft”, dissolve, men aboard the raft push off. 5 seconds, max. And something about the naive quality of the dialog and playing really helped with the artificiality of the visuals (and I don’t use “artificiality” as a pejorative term). Had it been as well written, played and directed as, say, the contemporary COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW, the picture might have seemed out of balance, and the artifice of the jungle and animals less palatable. As it was, it was all of a piece, and fantastic. But the Dino pic! Despite the fact that the publicity of the day had Dino’s technicians smirking about the quaint inferiority of the original, the remake fell far short of the original in the artistry department, especially when it came to the depiction of Skull Island. The O’ Brien/ Mario Larrinaga jungles were phony, but beautiful… breathtakingly so. Dino’s boys gave us something that looked phony and cheap; the log chasm set could have been borrowed from LOST IN SPACE. Some improvement. And they didn’t have a clue how to shoot the ape suit, either. Rick B was, what, 1/5 scale? The shot in the Grodin clip you linked showed a simple tilt up on KONG in the miniature jungle. Looks like it was shot on a Hi-Hat, maybe 2 ft off the ground…which equates to 10 ft in the air at that scale. And the camera was on a standard tilt head, which’d put the lens at a foot or so from the camera’s center of gravity, giving the impression that the camera was arcing at the end of a five foot arm. Technician’s trivia, of course, but that example alone demonstrates they had no clue. And there were many such demonstrations of technical ineptitude in this allegedly superior remake. And the “robot”! I heard a story (perhaps apocryphal) that Dino even convinced Guillerman (“one of the truly great incompetents” was Welles’ assessment, I believe) that he’s be using a robot. Guillerman, I heard, was planning a shot…he wanted the robot to round a New York street corner and stride past the camera. Someone apparently had to explain reality to Mr. Guillerman, on site. Ruined his day, of course.

  14. They certainly tried to convince the public that they had a life-sized robot. Possibly with Dino piloting it from the cranium, shouting instructions to Rambaldi down a tube…

    I think I have to watch King Kong Lives! now.

    I think Naomi Watts is a remarkable actress. Only time will tell if she’ll match Lange, but her Ann beats Lange’s dopey Dwan into a cocked hat. Of course, at the time they made their respective Kongs, Watts was way more experienced.

  15. Randy Cook Says:

    I think in KING KONG LIVES they give the big guy a gigantic artificial heart… as if, after falling from the Empire State building, his heart was his only problem. But I AM intrigued about Mrs. Kong…

  16. Oh, I mean World Trade Center. Now I’m sorry I even mentioned it.

  17. I do wonder what it would’ve been like if DeLaurentiis’s other director choices had accepted, Roman Polanski or Sam Peckinpah

    With Peckinpah, well it probably would’ve been like Convoy, all over the place and bits shot by other people, but with some good moments, and maybe it would’ve shown that he didn’t just direct Westerns, which is a typecasting that haunted him

    With Polanski, maybe he would’ve got Gerard Brach in there and they could’ve slipped some dark humour into proceedings. Maybe it would’ve been Pirates, but with a giant ape

    It does seem from those choices DeLaurentiis was looking for a black comic sensibility. And settled for Guillermin

    It could’ve been one of those strange Delaurentiian marriages of material and director that gave us Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon, David Lynch’s Dune and…er John Huston’s The Bible,

    From what I’ve read, everything about King Kong 1976, from the script to the SFX, was rushed to beat a rival Kong production from another studio, which would’ve cost more and probably looked better. Once this one was underway the other studio gave up.

    “King Kong Lives” is quite something, and shows how out of touch Dino got: convinced that everyone loved the first movie and wanted more. I read a recent interview with the writers, and they were really proud of what they’d done and how Guillermin filmed it.

    And don’t forget “Queen Kong”. The film that makes Kong 76 look good.

  18. If memory serves, the race included a legal battle over story rights. A magazine called “New York” (no “er”) had a long article about the madness, including a bizarre incident where Team Dino advertised auditions for a black man — really — to perform as Kong. Also an incident where they had the giant mechanical hand make a rude gesture as a gag, and it stuck that way.

  19. I’ll happily argue that the ’33 Kong is the greatest moving picture ever made, and I don’t often use the phrase “moving picture”. (And, forgive me, but I love this scene in Inglorious Basterds, foreshadowing where Tarantino would go next):

  20. One other memory: Every piece of promotional art had the same pasted-in face of Kong — which looked nothing like the one in the film.

  21. That is a marvellous reaction from Grodin. It has a touch of the George Costanzas about it. It makes me want to see Jason Alexander in this role with maybe Larry David in the Jeff Bridges part and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Ann.

  22. F here – I’m TOTALLY up for King Kong Lives! This sort of thing is the glue that holds our marriage together.

  23. The writers of King Kong Lives pitched the idea of a female giant ape and Dino was aghast. “Kong is a man!” Untl they said, “But Dino, Kong must have had a mother…” Good Italian psychology.

    The idea of introducing KK flat on his back in the sequel is actually an OK one because it means Rambaldi can build another Kong corpus and real people can interact with it. Establishes the big guy as full-scale. Then, of course, the effects team will do everything possible to destroy that illusion…

  24. The ’76 Kong led to Depardieu and chums finding KK’s corpse (or was it merely the discarded robotic handiwork of ‘enthusiastic bumbler’ Carlo Rambaldi?) in Marco Ferreri’s peculiar CIAO MASCHIO. Which may or may not be a good thing.

  25. Yes, we can say that the movie in a sense led to something better.

  26. Do recall that the Kong corpse was put on public display on a beach somewhere as publicity. Bring the kids!

  27. Bouncy Kong castle!

  28. I wonder if all of the ape-human woman love story thing elided from the 30s King Kong was not only because it was fast paced but also because all the sex got siphoned off into the Weismuller Tarzan films, were it was acceptable (at least until the censors toned it down and made it family friendly, by ironically adding a monkey companion!) for an ape-man and human-woman to be sexually attracted to one another!

  29. Regular Shadowplayer Randy Cook (smashed by Kong in the Peter Jackson version) pointed out that the ’33 Kong borrows quite freely from the first Tarzan film.

    For freaky bestiality, Sign of the Cross takes the cake, with women sacrificed to gorillas in the arena, a lurid DeMille detail which is apparently based on even more lurid fact!

  30. I have seen a zoo gorilla cram its mouth with fresh shit to scare off some annoying kids, so I am totally prepared to believe that gorilla breath makes women horny. It stands to reason.

    Dude, a gorilla in a zoo isn’t allowed to come out and beat the shit out of annoying kids, so he’s got to get creative. But Kong is a 40 foot tall god, so I doubt he’s eating much shit. So yeah, sexy gorilla breathe is TOTALLY possible!

  31. Well, but no toothpaste on Skull Island. Vegetarian diet might help, or might not. Somehow, Kong doesn’t LOOK minty fresh.

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