Saturday, May 21, 2005

King Kong at Large in the 1950s Bronx

The Big Ape on the Small Screen:
King Kong at Large in the 1950s
in the Bronx

by Paul Levinson


[first published in King Kong is Back,
ed. David Brin, BenBella Books, 2005]


It was an age before DVDs and VCRs. There was
no cable to speak of, except in a few rural areas,
where cable piped in the networks. Sitcoms, Westerns,
soaps, news programs, and variety shows were all the
rage on the air. Few if any movies made it to the little
black-and-white screens.

Hollywood moguls had earlier scoffed at television
and its power. Who would sit home and watch a
flicker on the screen when you could walk a couple
of blocks to a local theater, and see a big double-feature
for a quarter? Sometimes these movie houses even
brought back great old movies from earlier decades.
That was the only way a kid in the 1950s could
enjoy the media past.

But we heard tales. From friends with
older siblings. From hipper parents. For some
reason, a film about a huge ape riven with love
and bullets on the Empire State Building caught my
attention.

Meanwhile, things were afoot in the corporate
media world of that day. General Tire had acquired
RKO Radio pictures and its movie library in 1955.
This meant that WOR-TV in New York City -- the
local Channel 9 -- had access to lots of movies
from bygone years.

Channel 9 had little else going for it. It was
not affiliated with any of the major networks.
But soon it had the Million Dollar Movie.
The station was so starved for programming that it played
the same movie every night during the week, plus
three times on each day of the weekend.

On Thanksgiving and the surrounding week, it played
King Kong.


The View from the Grand Concourse


You can see the Empire State Building
from some parts of the Bronx. A tower of Oz
at the end of the yellow brick road of Broadway --
which in fact runs from the Bronx all the way
downtown through Manhattan.

I used to wonder, when I was watching that
fabulous heart-rending end of King Kong, if I would have
been able to actually see the ape on a clear
day if he had been on top of the Empire State Building --
clutching on to Fay Wray, swatting those damned
strafing bi-planes -- and I on the Grand Concourse
or University Avenue up in the Bronx.

I settled for seeing him in my living room,
on the small, blurry, black-and-white Motorola
that my father had picked up "for a bargain"
some place in the early 1950s. It gave
us plenty of aggravation -- my father hated
to pay the repairman, who was needed at
least several times a year -- but it also gave
us miracles every night, and some nights
more than others.

Television was the second medium to bring
entertainment electronically into the home.
Radio was the first, and therefore had
to invent lots of programming -- news and entertainment
-- as it went along. Television was able to
swoop down on radio, and pick up some of
its stars and a lot of its programs. Jack
Benny and Gunsmoke both made the jump into vision.
And then TV turned to Hollywood and scooped up some of
its movies, too.

There was and is a world of difference between
seeing a movie on a big screen in a public
theater and a small screen in the bosom of
your home. It was more than not being hit
by a Goober candy or Ju-Ju Fruit thrown by
some kid in the back row. It was more than
not having to pay a quarter for the ticket.
It had to do with intimacy and convenience.

Somehow, watching King Kong in my underclothes
made me more vulnerable, more engaged, more
agape at his power than if I had seen him
on the screen in the Allerton Movie Theater
near my apartment building. He and Fay Wray
and Bruce Cabot were just a few feet
away from me, for God's sake. Sometimes,
when I stretched out on the scuffed parquet
floor, my nose up to the screen, they were
just inches from me. Skull Island and the
Empire State Building both were in easy
reach, as close as the pennies under the couch.
When Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong)
intoned "It was Beauty killed the Beast," he was
imparting that weighty lesson only to me.


Multiple Visions


And then there was the repetition. When it's
something you love, or are on your way to loving,
repeat performances are a good thing. Movie
theaters of course allowed people to come back
and pay as often as they liked. But even if
the money was no problem -- and, in the 1950s,
quarters added up, especially to kids on
a quarter-a-week allowance -- who had the time
to walk the three blocks to the theater every
day and/or evening? Some theaters allowed you to
stay as long as you wanted, and see a second or
even a third showing, at no extra charge. For
those that did not, you could try hiding out in
the bathroom. But even in those cases, no seat
in a movie theater was as comfortable as the
floor of your home.

Few media in the 1950s offered satisfyingly multiple
renditions, at home or at large. Rock 'n' roll radio
played the same songs over and over again, but not
so that you could count on hearing the specific
song that you wanted. Books could be renewed from
the library, but lugging them back and forth was no
pleasure. No one I knew could afford to buy too
many books for enjoyment -- well, at least we had
comic books. Most of television was as fleeting as
lightning, but there was the Million Dollar Movie.
When Kong was on that show, it was a comic book come
to life. Kong and comic books ... but Kong was more.

Repeated viewing allows attention to detail.
King Kong on television rewarded it. I was struck,
even as a kid, that this was not just an ape-gone-wild
or a horror movie, but a show about show
business. The expedition to Skull Island is
led by show-man Carl Denham. Kong is brought back to
New York to make money. It's not just beauty that killed
the beast, but the exploitation of venal stardom and
untamed nature.

Denham's schemes may have gone awry, but the 1933 movie
that told his fantastic story grossed almost two
million at the box office, I found out later. And
Channel 9 did ok with the ad revenue it generated from
the movie. A cash register rang every time Denham
spoke Kong's epitaph.

There were other provocative aspects of the story which
struck me later, in retrospect. King Kong is a big,
black ape. His attraction to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray)
plays right into Southern racist stereotypes about
the lust of black men for white women -- and
a knock-out blonde, at that. The ever-pithy Denham
observes on Skull Island, as a native chief takes
notice of Ann: "blondes are scarce around here".
And later, when Jack Driscoll (played by Bruce Cabot)
objects that getting Kong off the island won't be easy,
Denham regards Ann and replies, "but we've got something
he wants."

How many children or even adults got all of this
in a single viewing of King Kong in a movie theater
back in the 1930s? Television, often criticized for diluting
profundity and reducing complexity in story-telling --
for going for the lowest common-denominator in its programs
-- turned out to be the best friend the creators of
King Kong ever had. Writers Merian C. Cooper and
Edgar Wallace (and James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth
Rose) couldn't have asked for more. The subtleties and
depth and overtones of the plot -- as well as the nuances of
the direction and cinematography -- all rose to the gleaming
surface on the small screen's multiple showings in the
living room.

The Million Dollar Movie thus presaged some of the
advantages of videotapes and DVDs. In fact, I watched
King Kong more frequently during most Thanksgiving
weeks than I see a movie I rent from Blockbuster or
cable-TV's Movies-on-Demand today. The main advantage
of watching movies on current TV screens -- other than
the size and color -- is that you can pause and re-wind.
Kong could neither be stopped nor reversed once he
began his gloriously ill-fated journey on the
Million Dollar Movie. But you could count on him
coming back for a series of return engagements every
single year.


Vertical vs. Horizontal Myths


The nature of the Million Dollar Movie audience was
also different from movie-theater audiences before and
after the 1950s, and DVD audiences today, and worked
to the advantage of King Kong. People usually see
movies in theaters with just one or two or a few more
friends and relations. They might talk about the movie
for a few minutes or maybe a few hours on and off after
leaving the theater, but the next day they are not likely
to discuss the movie with any one else, unless they too
have very recently seen the movie, or the subject
comes up for another reason (such as the Academy Awards
night on television is near). DVD rentals engender
even more fragmented audiences -- the likelihood
that someone outside of your immediate family
will want to talk about a DVD you just saw is slim.

In contrast, King Kong was a hot subject of
discussion for me and my pals for a good week
or more. Thanksgiving helped us out. We
were off from school for a few days, and
had less than usual homework (not that it would
have mattered if we had had a ton of homework).
We could not only watch the movie repeatedly, but
talk about it in between, go over particular
scenes and dialog and details, and be primed
to look out for them in the next viewing. We each
had favorite scenes. Jordie loved the jungle.
Ray and Phil went for the scene in which Kong
broke free of his chains. We all hissed the
bi-planes. (What was my favorite part? Well,
I liked Fay in Kong's arms -- I'm a hopeless
romantic, what can I tell you....) Our
group mind was brought to bear in appreciation and
analysis of the movie -- before such a phrase even
was common in sociological parlance. Our
hyper-scrutiny left no stone unturned.

The application of many minds to an idea, theme, or
story is an engine of myth-making. In the old days --
in classic times, or, actually, all times up until
the electronic age -- the only way a story could be
embroidered by many minds was over time. An oral
account, a handwritten manuscript, even a printed book
other than an immediate best-seller just took too
long to disseminate and percolate to become a myth any
time soon. In order for the critical mass of mind
power to be reached, the theme or story had to be
passed down and commented upon by generations of
people. I call this process "vertical" myth-making.

With the arrival of the electronic age -- actually,
not telegraph or telephone in the 19th century but
radio in the 20th -- a new way of generating myths
was at hand. Huge numbers of minds could imbibe a
radio show at the same time. Radio was the first
instantaneous simultaneous mass medium. With the
advent of national networks in the 1920s, radio
could reach the mass of minds needed to make a story
into a myth in a heartbeat. I call this "horizontal"
myth-making.

Motion pictures in movie theaters never quite had this
capacity. The theater offers pockets of simultaneity,
not a single wave that pulls in everyone listening
at that moment. Although the requisite number of minds
to make a myth could be reached in motion picture houses
a lot faster than in bookstores and libraries, it was
still hit or miss in comparison to first radio and
then television broadcasts. Indeed, anything less than a
huge hit movie with a very long run at the box office was
unlikely to have any long range impact upon our popular
culture.

King Kong was of course a pretty big hit movie in
1933. Had it not made a strong and continuing impression,
it would not have been picked up by the Million Dollar
Movie
in the 1950s in the first place.

But once on television, King Kong played to a very
different audience. A world of kids unencumbered by
jobs, free to stoke their imagination and cultivate
their craving to watch and talk about the big ape
fighting for love atop the Empire State Building, again
and again.

The "kids" part of this equation is crucial. Only children
(of all ages, but usually not yet fully adult) have that
unquenchable desire, the intensity, to want what they
enjoy over and over. Only local, low-budget television
was in a position to satisfy that need back in the 1950s.

King Kong was there for us on the Million Dollar Movie
in New York City year after year, as we grew up. The
brave, doomed ape and his enduring lessons remained
the same on the screen, as we got older. Just like a
Passover seder, in which the ancient story of how
the Jews broke out of their bondage is re-told around
the table once a year. Except ... well, Kong's
story had no happy ending, and yet was much more fun
Even a sad movie beats an upbeat religious tradition.


Repeat Performances


In the movie, King Kong moves both horizontally and
vertically -- across the expanse of the globe, as Kong
is brought from Skull Island to New York City, and up
(and down) the Empire State Building, as the ape makes
his last stand for love.

The pattern was also played out in the way Kong built
his myth in America. Horizontally, as people first saw
the movie in theaters across the country in 1933.
Vertically, as word of the movie and occasional return
engagements simmered in ensuing years. Horizontally
again, in a big way, when kids in New York City saw
it over and over again at the same time on the Million
Dollar Movie
. And topped off with a vertical thrust, as
kids saw the movie year after year on the Million Dollar
Movie
at Thanksgiving time.

The broadcasting of the exact same program on a yearly
basis was something unique for media in general and
television in particular. Movie theaters of course had
return engagements, but not a guaranteed yearly schedule.
Specific television programs were rebroadcast as reruns,
series and sitcoms continued for years, but none with the
metronomic rhythm of the Million Dollar Movie and its
holiday presentations, which you could count on like
clockwork.

This wasn't limited to just King Kong on Thanksgiving.
Yankee Doodle Dandy was shown every year for a week around
July 4. March of the Wooden Soldiers with Laurel and
Hardy was shown on a rival NYC TV station -- WPIX (Channel 11)
-- as great counter-programming to King Kong every
Thanksgiving Day. But King Kong made the longest lasting
impression. There are no re-makes that I know of scheduled
for Yankee Doodle or Wooden Soldiers.

Patriotic musicals and Christmas comedies no doubt strike
chords in our popular culture very different from the
spine-tingling chimes of horror-adventure movies.
Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman have enjoyed sequels and remakes almost every decade.

But King Kong did it the hard way -- the same movie, the
same ape, the same nearly forgotten actors on little screens
in living rooms. The more you consider King Kong on the
Million Dollar Movie in New York City, the more it all fits
into place. Kong goes down fighting from the top of the
Empire State Building -- which, by the 1950s, was not just
the tallest building in the world, but the very tower from
which television transmitters were broadcasting their
programs to the city. Kong came from a prehistoric island
-- not only was the 1933 movie prehistoric by filmmaking
standards in the 1950s, it was black-and-white at a time
when film and TV were both set to make the leap into
living color. This synchrony between the story of King
Kong and the circumstances of its presentation on the
Million Dollar Movie helped make it unforgettable.

Indeed, I doubt that Peter Jackson would even have remade
King Kong in 2005 had it not been for the ape's
extraordinary sojourn on television in the 1950s. That
small screen was a time capsule with a window that
carried Kong first into our living rooms in
the dawn of television, and then into our psyches and
permanent popular culture the half-century after. Kong
stayed reassuringly the same on the small screen for
a few years, and then grew into mythic proportions in our
recollections and imaginations.

So enduring was King Kong's impression on the small
screen, that when the 1933 movie was released in
black-and-white VHS in 1998, a typical review on
Amazon.com began: "As a young child in the nineteen-fifties,
I used to watch this film whenever it appeared
on TV on 'Million Dollar Movie'. I loved it
then. I love it now. Time has not diminished
the capacity of this film to mesmerize and
hold the viewer in its thrall." The review was
signed by "Lawyeraau". It could have been written
by me, but it was not. (I don't believe in
pseudonyms. Denham taught me the value of fame.)


Postage Stamp Resurgent


Television has grown enormously since the 1950s.
Where once there were three or four national
networks and a smattering of small local stations,
today there are hundreds of stations on cable
and satellite. Where once what you saw on TV
was gone the instant after you saw it, and repeat
performances of something you loved were a gift
from on high, today we have TiVo and movies-on-demand
and VCRs and DVD players and any number of ways
to see something as often as we please. Where
once the screen was small and black-and-white and
blurry, today our screens are clear and colorful
walls.

But the small has survived and has even mounted
something of an amazing comeback. Cellphones
have come in on little cat's feet -- or
people's little fingers -- and they're not just
for phone calls anymore. "Mobisodes" and "V-casts"
are offering new kinds of television for cellphonic
viewing, with episodes just a few minutes long.
Beyond that, pretty much anything available on
the Web is becoming accessible on the cellphone.

So I'm looking forward to Peter Jackson's King Kong.
But in an ideal world, I'd hop into my Mini Cooper
after the movie and drive to a nice, quiet spot on
the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. I'd make sure
I could see the Empire State Building. Then I'd
call up the 1933 movie on my little cellphone screen....

I know I'd watch that last scene a few times -- hey,
I'm not so enamored of the past that I don't take
advantage of modern perks. And as I drove down to the
highway afterwards to get back to wherever I was going,
I'd put the phone to my ear, so I could hear Denham say,
"It was Beauty killed the beast," one more time, right
in my ear.

Then I'd call up some of my friends from the 1950s --
Ray, Jordie, yeah, I'm still in touch with a few
of them -- and we'd talk about it...

What part of that is more fantasy than reality for
me these days? Only the Mini Cooper -- but, hey, you
never know....

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