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FILM : Everything’s Monkey-Dory in ‘Kong’

<i> Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

The biggest monkey in show business finally got the respect he deserves.

When the Library of Congress announced its short list of films slated for preservation last month, there he was, among the chosen few. “King Kong,” that oversized ape with a yen for small women, was now officially a classic.

Of course, the 1933 movie, which screens Sunday at the Severin Wunderman Museum in an ironic and appropriate double bill with Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” has always been a favorite. It did stupendous box office for troubled RKO, giving the studio much needed money to finance future projects, including “Citizen Kane.”

And over the years, “King Kong” has come to epitomize one of Hollywood’s earliest, best and funniest (often unintentionally so) attempts at horror fantasy--it’s evolved into monster kitsch. The story, like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” has taken on the significance of a modern folk tale, layered with obvious moralizing and as familiar as personal history.

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“King Kong” opens with vague talk about a dangerous boat journey. From there, adventurer and movie director Carl Denham (the overacting but wry Robert Armstrong) takes his unknowing crew and newly found star, Ann Darrow (the overacting but lovely-while-screaming Fay Wray) on a mysterious voyage to Skull Island.

There, separated from the frightened natives by a huge wall, is a lush prehistoric jungle where dinosaurs and other giant creatures hang out. The biggest and baddest is King Kong. He may be tough, but he’s also lonely. When Kong falls for the diminutive Ann (she fits so nicely in the palm of his hand), everything accelerates.

Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack use Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects--spectacular state-of-the-art for the ‘30s--to develop a series of tumultuous action scenes, both on the island and in Manhattan, culminating with Kong’s famous star turn atop the Empire State Building.

There has been a heady amount written about “King Kong,” and some critical theories are further out there than others. Beyond its pure escapist value, Kong has been interpreted as a symbol for persecuted blacks and seen as a metaphor for man’s destruction of the environment, natural order and other things.

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What can’t be disputed, though, is its industrial-sized reshaping of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale. Actually, Cooper and Schoedsack beat us up with the point, having Denham recall the similarities several times as he spouts off about the Kong legend to anyone who’ll listen.

But when Kong tenderly strokes Ann, even fondling her breasts and hair during the mountaintop scene, and gently sets her aside when those mosquito biplanes zoom in, it’s hard to be indifferent to all that hairy monster-love.

What: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s “King Kong.”

When: Sunday, Oct. 27, at 2 p.m.

Where: The Severin Wunderman Museum, 3 Mason, Irvine.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Alton Parkway, east to Muirlands Boulevard. Turn right and head to Mason and turn right again.

Wherewithal: $3 and $6.

Where to Call: (714) 472-1138.

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