Ed#420 From Gorillas to Ducks

20 November 2012 Alan Attwood

Ed#420 From Gorillas to Ducks

No doubt there are film buffs who remember Bureau of Missing Persons, a Bette Davis movie from 1933. Also The Ghoul (with Boris Karloff), Hold Your Man (Jean Harlow) and perhaps even a Douglas Fairbanks Jr vehicle called Parachute Jumper. They came out in 1933, too, as did Duck Soup, now often nominated as the Marx Brothers’ finest film. But none of these has had the staying power, or capacity for endless reinterpretation, of another graduate of the movie class of 1933: King Kong. In that movie, the damsel in distress was played by Fay Wray who, in the same year, also starred in The Mystery of the Wax Museum. But who can tell you anything about that one? The big gorilla, meanwhile, has come back for at least two other big-screen depictions and will soon star in a stage musical.

What is it about this story? Our great apes expert, Sophie Quick, reveals some of the answers in the cover story of this edition. Now that she’s signed off on this assignment she has confessed that the resonance of King Kong was not a topic she ever expected to tackle. But so it goes in the modern media: a US presidential election one week; a gorilla up a skyscraper a fortnight later. One thing seems safe to say: Merian C Cooper, director of that 1933 movie, would be surprised not only by the story’s endurance but also some of the complex interpretations it has engendered. King Kong, he insisted, “was escapist entertainment – pure and simple”. Ah yes, but perhaps William Shakespeare shrugged off Hamlet as “just a play about a bloke who can’t make up his mind”.

The cartoons in this edition are the work of Michael Leunig, who has been winning admirers since the 1960s. It was in the early 1970s that I first saw his cartoons – in Nation Review, an ‘alternative’ newspaper that seemed to me to be both raffish and exhilarating. A little later – by which time my copy of his first collection, The Penguin Leunig, was already dog-eared – we both worked for a slightly more respectable publication, The Age. In those pre-fax, pre-email days, when everyone hung out in the same newspaper office (instead of being scattered everywhere, but linked by technology), I used to invent lame excuses to wander down to cartoonists’ corner just to see Leunig (and also Les Tanner, Ron Tandberg, Peter Nicholson, John Spooner and Bruce Petty) in action. I soon discovered that no excuses were necessary; these wonderfully creative people were always up for a chat. It beat working. To mark the publication of his latest book, in which he returns to those early days, I asked Leunig to make his own selection of cartoons and explain their genesis. What he came up with (ducks included, of course) gives a rare insight into what’s going on beneath that shock of curly hair.

Meanwhile, in letters and emails and submissions, responses to ‘Skinny Love’ (Martha Brown’s account of anorexia nervosa from Ed#418) continue to come in. Now we publish a mother’s perspective on this insidious disease. This description of a 16-year-old girl’s battle with anorexia demonstrates the way in which whole families are adversely affected. It ends: “[this] has been the hardest experience we have ever faced as parents. The fight for us is not over until she is well. However long that takes.”