Now is the winter of our greatest ape. "King Kong" is returning yet again, renewing old acquaintance and, presumably, terrorizing and beguiling new generations, too. On Tuesday, Warner Home Video will release "Kong" on DVD for the first time, in two deluxe packages that include featurettes, memorabilia and the less frequently seen gorilla films from the same producers, "Son of Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young."
Meanwhile, Turner Classic Movies, most valuable and elegant of all cable entertainment channels, will premiere a documentary about the man chiefly responsible for those movies, a fabulous character who was, like Kong, easily larger than life. "I'm King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper" briskly and affectionately profiles the short and stocky Cooper who, with his toweringly tall partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, turned a stringless marionette just 18 inches tall into the most fabled monster in movie history.
All the Kong activity can be seen as a fanfare for Peter Jackson's much-ballyhooed remake of the film, one of the biggest holiday theatrical releases. The last attempt at a remake, produced by Dino De Laurentiis in 1976, was a laughable bomb.
Turner Classic Movies will air the one-hour documentary (also included in the DVD packages) at 8 and 11 p.m. Tuesday, with a showing of 1933's "King Kong" at 9 and a 1925 Cooper-Schoedsack documentary, "Grass," at midnight. In "Grass," Cooper and his camera follow a tribe of 50,000 people herding a half-million animals across hazardous terrain that included part of what is now Iran. A lesser effort from the team, "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1935), will follow at 4 a.m., in case you happen to be up and in the mood for a gladiator picture with a big boom at the end.
As described in "I'm King Kong," Cooper bore some resemblance to another wild man of the era, Howard Hughes. Cooper loved aviation and for a time was director of Pan American World Airways. He also had a relationship with Terry Moore, the pouty and bosomy actress whose career spanned decades. Hughes secretly married her; Cooper starred her in his third gorilla movie, "Mighty Joe Young" (1949). Schoedsack again directed -- even though he was legally blind by this time and had to have an assistant describe the camera setups.
"Mighty Joe Young" includes one of the campiest and most insane sequences ever in an adventure film: Moore, seated at a grand piano on the stage of a giant nightclub, slowly begins to play Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer." As she continues, the orchestra joins in with a bombastic arrangement of the song as Moore and her piano rise higher and higher. Then at a climactic moment, the lights come up and we see that the round platform on which Moore sits is being held aloft by the eponymous hero of the film: Mr. Joseph Young of Africa, a friendly, oversize ape.
It's one of the great goofy jaw-droppers of all time, and yet there is about it something inexplicably affecting.
"King Kong" was a handmade masterpiece. Its effects included matte shots, glass paintings, models and miniature rear-projection screens, but the key that wound the monkey was stop-motion photography, a painstaking process that animates three-dimensional objects. A technician would move, say, one of Kong's arms a tiny fraction of an inch, expose one frame of film, move the arm another little bit, expose another frame, and so on. When projected, Kong appears to be moving on his own.
In a commentary track on the DVD, we hear the voice of Cooper himself, as captured on some ancient recording. "Everybody wanted me to put a man in a gorilla suit!" he sputters, but he stuck to plans to use the more costly and time-consuming stop-motion process.
The newly struck print on Warner's DVD might be a bit flat and lack contrast, but it also shows intricate details of the images more clearly than they have looked in years. That includes the previously lost footage of "Kong" that was restored late in the past century but which always looked muddy and jerky, out of sync with the rest of the film. The footage, which had been cut for a rerelease of the picture in 1938, shows Kong sitting on a cliff with Fay Wray in his grasp, deftly removing, and sniffing, her clothing.
Making monkey movies was hardly the only achievement of Cooper's quixotic career. A champion of the Technicolor process, he reputedly helped talk David O. Selznick (executive producer of "King Kong") into using it on "Gone With the Wind." Cooper was also behind one of the great technological wonders of filmmaking, the super-sized Cinerama process -- something like today's Imax films except that Cinerama was shot with three cameras and shown with three projectors on a gigantic curved screen.
Ray Bradbury, one of those interviewed for the documentary, says of Cinerama: "A big mouth reaches out and goes 'Gulp!' " -- swallowing up the audience. Those old enough to remember it also will recall gripping the armrests of their theater seats during sequences shot on a roller coaster and in a plane flying through a canyon that follows the Colorado River. Since the screen extended even to a viewer's peripheral vision, one truly was engulfed, and when the airplane tipped slightly to one side, it felt as if the entire theater were moving.
A few years ago entrepreneurs in the Midwest tried to hold a Cinerama festival, somehow locating surviving prints of the thrilling first film "This Is Cinerama," and a few travelogue sequels. But attendance was not overwhelming. For the Cooper documentary, producer-directors Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird have been very clever, simulating the curved Cinerama screen by warping the image in the same proportions.
The character of filmmaker-explorer Carl Denham in "King Kong" is obviously patterned on Cooper. But Cooper's life was even more adventurous. He took to the air to fight "the Reds" and help Polish troops in the early '20s, was captured and imprisoned and managed to make a heroic escape. While locked up, he read A.E.W. Mason's "The Four Feathers" and was so impressed that he later made a film of it.
Even audiences who have seen all the "Star Wars" films and the "Jurassic Park" and "Lord of the Rings" movies -- with their array of state-of-the-art effects -- are likely to be impressed by the charm, as well as the technical skill, of Cooper's crazy, impudent visions. "He had no fear of anything," an admirer says, and that combination of bravery and bravado resulted in movie imagery that long ago qualified as iconic -- no image more so, of course, than the "Kong" finale, when the great ape, having been kidnapped from his jungle home, slaps at airplanes that try to shoot him down from the top of the Empire State Building.
In one shot, Cooper and Schoedsack portray a pilot and the guy wielding the machine gun.
"It was beauty killed the beast," Denham says over King Kong's corpse, but it was also technology. "King Kong" was depicting, in its own circuslike way, the great struggle of the century: the battle of men vs. machines. It's a war that has only intensified in the computer age, and so the story of the big ape in the big city has really lost none of its relevance. On the other hand, it was technology, and computers, that made it possible for "Kong" to be restored to full luster for DVD.
But never mind that now -- for the gong atop the giant wall has sounded, there are thunderous footsteps approaching from the distance, Ms. Wray is on the altar screaming her soul out, and we are about to be astonished once again.