Saturday, October 15, 2011

"It was beauty that killed the beast."

1933 photoplay novel
Willis O'Brien made King Kong come alive.   An 18 inch tall metal armature, bulked up by sponge rubber and covered in rabbit fur, reached out and emotionally touched millions of people.  King Kong was a lone creature captured and brought to a strange land; there is no doubt in the viewers' mind that Kong was a living breathing character that did feel pain, and wanted to feel love.

An audience often projects feelings on an actor, and in the process unknowingly creates a much more powerful theatrical performance.  There have been film editing studies done in Russia in the 1920's, testing an audience to view a stone-faced actor, edited back and forth with a wide variation of different scenes.  The audience would give feedback that they thought the actor showed incredible pathos or restrained joy or some other wildly varying emotion, all depending on if the scenes they were cutting to and from were traumatic or touching.  The actor was given no direction but was instructed to simply remain still.  The editor, and the minds of the audience members, did all the work.

Willis O'Brien's creations resonate so strongly because when the audience is looking at Kong's face, or body movements, they may think they are seeing a stop motion animation figure, but are actually peering into the deepest, darkest places of Willis O'Brien's soul.  Kong was like putty in O'Brien's hands, and it is possible he funneled all his life's grief and pain into that creature.

By his own account, Willis O'Brien was pushed into marrying Hazel Ruth Collette by her family.  In 1919, they had the first of their two children.  As time went on, Hazel emotionally unraveled, resulting in a divorce in 1930, with shared custody of the children.  After multiple ignored warning signs, Hazel's mental instability culminated with her shooting and killing both of their young children.  She then turned the gun on herself.  This tragic incident coincided with the height of Willis' career with the production and release of King Kong and Son of Kong in 1933/34.  Unlike her children, Hazel did not immediately die from her own wounds, but wasted away in a hospital while awaiting trail for her actions.

Unbelievably, O'Brien picked himself up, briefly dated another woman named Hazel, Hazel Rutherford.  Pictures are hard to come by, but she was apparently beautiful.  The last time he heard from her was through a note she left him at his home while he was away.  She wrote that she had been diagnosed with an advanced case of breast cancer, that could only be combated with a radical mastectomy.  Hazel was not willing to bear the disfigurement.  This was a goodbye note.  After leaving O'Brien's home, Hazel climbed to the seventh floor of the Mayfair Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, and plunged to the street below.

Thinking about the process of stop motion animation, O'Brien would have had to shut out the world, close the door to all his problems, clamp down all moving pieces and oversee an enormous gorilla let loose on a miniature, gleaming, art deco cityscape.

Whether intended or not, O'Brien infused his creations with life that far exceeded a simple animation technician.  As he made in his screen debut of 1933, there was grief written all over the face of King Kong.  But on display was truly Willis O'Brien's raw rage at a civilization that let him down, a life that seemingly consisted of nothing but sorrow.  His family was ripped from him.  No matter how many biplanes he lashed out at, he was stuck; there was no way back to Skull Island.

I'd like to thank Monsters From the Vault Magazine for introducing me to the private life of Willis O'Brien, and the extensive research compiled by Don Shay in Cinefex #7.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your post on O'Bie! I think his animation of Kong examining his wounds atop the ESB is the most emotionally powerful piece of stop motion work - ever. He truly was THE master!