[Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.]
Our own era is dominated by special effects blockbusters, and a lot of our ongoing cultural love of oversize entertainment stems from one of the films under discussion today. Critic William Troy wasn’t overly enamored of King Kong as a whole, but expressed in a succinct and thoughtful review, he does get at a lot of why audiences were and remain so. He prefers the somewhat quieter horror of The Invisible Man, a film from Universal’s original horror cycle that tends to be highly regarded and perhaps ironically underseen. Ryan and I greatly enjoyed Troy’s mastery of the short form review, finding ourselves ruminating ourselves on why certain films remain forever popular while others die out of the zeitgeist.
In this pair of short reviews, we have a distinguished literary critic and professor reviewing two pioneering special effects films from 1933 – King Kong and The Invisible Man. It’s interesting that he praises both films for their technical ingenuity, but he seems to believe The Invisible Man is much more successful in its story and setting than King Kong, which he thinks failed by trying “to unite two rather widely separated traditions of the popular cinema – that of the ‘thriller’ and that of the sentimental romance” and in so doing “strained our powers of credulity.”
So first of all, what I loved about the Troy pieces was the way they were – as the introduction tells us – an “occasion for some larger essayistic rumination”. While I’m a believe in the long form, I also understand that there’s a need and a want for shorter “capsule reviews”. But what I love about these posts is that they prove that a short piece can still be a way for a critic to get into an idea a film prompts…and not waste valuable words and space recapping what the movie is about.
And all of this back when there were so fewer places to learn what a film was about!
I wondered if you’d latch onto the idea of Troy’s reviews being “larger essayistic ruminations.” No joke, I wrote in the margin “Ryan does this with his reviews, too.” Not to get off track on this, but it’s one of the things I like about your reviews – I always know I’m going to get more than just “here’s what’s in this film and it’s good/bad/mediocre.” Troy does it in a very small space indeed. You’re right, I hadn’t thought of it, but he barely recaps the movie at all – recapping can be done well and intertwined with thoughtful criticism, but Troy makes the best use of the space he has to tie the film to something grander and more thought provoking.
Easy there, Hardesty – you’re makin’ me blush.
Though both these films are valued today by fans of early horror/sci-fi cinema, it’s unquestionably Kong that looms larger (pun intended) in our collective memory today. Do you think that it’s merely a question of special effects – that we value the showier special effects on display in Kong and that appreciation of scale that Troy attributes to the American mindset? Or is Troy just wrong about Kong’s marriage of the thriller and sentimental romance?
There’s something about the myth of Kong that makes it loom larger. The funny thing is, it’s not a tremendously complicated film – it’s a natural expedition with a wild ending. However, there’s something about that ending that leaves us feeling dwarfed and breathless. Maybe that’s the lasting legacy – that it wows us so deeply in its finale that we carry that with us back out of the cinema and into the street.
So I don’t completely think it’s the effects that give Kong its heft so much it is the ride up the river to that waterfall of an ending. had it just been “Look! There’s an ape climbing the skyscraper!!” I don’t think audiences would have been as affected. Instead, as Troy underlines, we watched it get built. We craned our necks further and further back as the cinematic landscape grew taller and taller. That’s what makes Kong loom so much larger.
Your thoughts on Kong echo Troy’s as well, with his suggestion that Americans in particular crave scale, and Kong fulfills both the extremes he points out – bringing an enormous ape from the wild to New York City to be gawped at is both the height of decadence and an indulgence in the wonder of childhood.
…It is a characteristic hard to define except that it is related to that sometimes childish, sometimes magnificent passion for scale that foreigners have remarked in our building of hundred-story sky-scrapers, our fondness for hyperbole in myth and popular speech, and our habit of applying superlatives to all our accomplishments.– William Troy, American Movie Critics 
Perhaps that’s an extension of what I really meant by special effects – not just the technical aspect of making a giant animatronic ape move on screen, but the bigger than life quality of Kong that makes it seem a much more impressive feat on every level.
Troy doesn’t bring it up, but I feel like so much of that comes from the way Cooper interlocked photography of the humans into the frame and had them reacting and interacting with the larger beasts. Had he not, audiences might have just shrugged off the Hollywood man making his toys move. With them in there, you get a genuine sense of awe and fear.
We have had plays and pictures about monsters before, but never one in which the desired effect depended so completely on the increased dimensions of the monster.– William Troy, American Movie Critics 
The funny thing is that with his dissatisfaction surrounding the romantic subplot (besides the fact that it plays up that human interaction I just described), I feel as though Troy didn’t want the story to be tactile. He didn’t want it to feel real, to be of this world, to be relatable. I get the feeling that more blockbusters could be well-served to follow that direction; to worry less about being a parable for the world we inhabit, and be more about building their own worlds. Not everything needs to be “real”, “dark”, or “gritty”…sometimes you can take just as much from a movie about a big monkey in New York.
On a sidenote – I always love being reminded just how little of Kong is set in New York.
I’m at a slight disadvantage with The Invisible Man, since I’ve never seen it (I know, right?).
To be honest, it’s been several years since I saw The Invisible Man myself; you could maybe sense that my memory of it is weak in the way I formulated my opening questions. I was curious why, when both films are well-regarded and Troy seems to favor The Invisible Man, is it only Kong that sits indelibly in my memory? Why do I remember the final line “Why, I’m the Invisible Man!” from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein much more strongly than the original film itself?
Maybe because one’s an exercise in spectacle where the other is an exercise in subtlety? (Says the guy who’s never seen the latter).
It’s interesting to see assessments from contemporary critics that turned out to be, if not necessarily incorrect, to give a different weight to films than we would eighty years later. It makes you wonder which films from our era are going to loom large in 2090, and even which films from the 1930s will continue to enjoy popularity. Will it be the same ones we enjoy now? These are not questions that have answers – we’re not prophets and shouldn’t try to be, but it’s humbling and sometimes heartening to remember that everything is ripe for reassessment as the years pass.
Whenever people say “It seems like Hollywood is cranking out more bad work than they used to”, I usually counter with “That’s because they bad work they used to crank out has long since faded into obscurity. But hey, in an age where turkeys from just ten years ago are re-examined under the “Why You’re Wrong About…” title, my guess is that we are living in the epicentre, and will never know the actual effects – for better and for worse – until much later.
Troy’s thoughts on The Invisible Man left me with two reactions – besides, again, being impressed how many ideas he could get across without wasting too much time on plot.
The first is that he approaches the critique with a very measured balance of like and dislike. I feel as though criticism is becoming too divisive sometimes. That you must be squarely for a film or squarely against it, and any pieces that don’t wear a “Team (blank) ” tee shirt are seen as waffling. Ever read a review and felt like you could hear the sounds of a trench being dug?
Then Troy – in both pieces – says “here’s what worked, here’s what didn’t” and does take a side, but leaves you with ruminations for and against. In doing so, the review feels more thorough…even though they are so short! Am I nuts?
I’m not sure if we’ve discussed it yet in this series, but the extremism of criticism and of opinion in general on the internet is one of my least favorite things about our current culture. If you’re not with us, you’re against us, and there’s no middle ground. Troy is a literary critic first and a movie critic second, and you can sort of feel him distancing himself a little bit from the cinema, though he doesn’t treat it like an inferior art form. He’s still a far cry from the more enthusiastic critique you find on the internet today, for better or worse.
The second reaction I was left with is the way he underscores just how far the medium has come. He underlines (quite eloquently) how hard The Invisible Man would have been to achieve just a few years prior:
A body without a voice we have had on the silent screen, but not until this picture have we had a voice without a body.– William Troy, American Movie Critics 
Ever feel like we should take a moment with films that are technical achievements? That considering “how far we’ve come” deserves some consideration, or must it all serve the narrative?
I feel like there’s probably a whole book to be compiled of critics dealing with the transition to sound – Troy rightly points out not just the technical advance of being able to have a voice without a body, but that this particular story would’ve been impossible without sound. In other words, I think this is not really a case of admiring technical achievements regardless of how it serves the narrative, but an understanding that technical achievements find their fullest expression when they DO serve a narrative. Sound cinema didn’t really come into its own until it started doing things like this, and things like the use of the whistled song in M, and the use of interlocking sound and music in Love Me Tonight – telling stories through means that the silent cinema simply could not.
That’s the wild thing – even though it feels like we’ve barely made a dent in this book, we have finally reached the place in history where critics have stopped griping about the medium and started paying attention to the message. We’re thirty-some-odd years beyond our starting point, and only now have the nerves been fused well enough in the brains of critics to allow them to bitch less and think more.
Fascinating how long it can take a technological leap to latch on, ain’t it?
At this point in the book, it seems like critics are no longer defending the medium with every other breath, for sure, which is refreshing. Interestingly, we still aren’t quite to the point in history where most people pin the beginning of real film criticism (Otis Ferguson, who we’re still five or six critics away from in our reading) – and it’s worthwhile remembering that the Golden Age isn’t until the 1960s-1970s! We’ve come a long way, and we’ve got a long way to go before the heights of Sarris, Kael, Ebert, and more.