A disappointing second act?: Son of Kong (1933)

In the Depression-era United States, Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 cinematic epic King Kong was so popular that RKO higher-ups demanded a sequel be made right away. Unfortunately for the production team, “right away” meant “about as long as it takes a baby to gestate.”


We’re doing a bit of an ensemble piece, here, as Mike, Trevor, and Randall all had something they wanted to say about this film–but not enough that would constitute an entire article by itself.

Synopsis

Directly following the events of King Kong, it seems like almost everyone in New York is attempting to sue adventurer and director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). Kong’s rampage about a month prior caused a great deal of damage, and those property owners most affected expect Denham to pay for it. Avoiding criminal subpoenas like the plague and on the verge of financial ruin, Denham leaves New York aboard The Venture at the behest of Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher). While struggling to earn a living shipping cargo from the Orient, the two witness a show in Dakang featuring performing monkeys and a singer named Hilda (Helen Mack). Through a series of coincidences, the man who originally sold Denham the map to Skull Island gets into an argument with Hilda’s father and murders him. The map-man then runs right into Denham, who is angry not because Hilda’s father has been murdered, but because if this guy hadn’t sold him the map in the first place, Denham wouldn’t be destitute. Before Denham can add aggravated homicide to his list of crimes, the map-man tells him of a huge treasure rumored to be somewhere on Skull Island. Hilarity ensues as Denham, Englehorn, and a stowaway Hilda (among others) arrive on Skull Island and find both treasure and Kong’s albino son “Little Kong” (don’t ask how this was biologically possible).

Trevor Thomson’s Take

It’s well known that rarely, if ever, do sequels live up to the promise of their predecessors. Only towards the end of the 20th Century, & into the beginnings of the 21st, do you find the most noteworthy examples to the contrary. So, it’s no surprise that Son of Kong, as a quickie sequel that doesn’t, & really couldn’t, live up to the firecracker of a cinematic stamp that the original made, is often looked down upon.

But, as is often the case for this viewer, I see something in the maligned sequel that others rarely seem to. When it comes to expertly paced theatrical spectacle that defined a generation, few things tend to match the original Kong. Given the rushed circumstances it was made under, there’s no way Son could. But, one asks: Does it need to? Or is it realistic to have such expectations?


This seemed an appropriate place to put this image.

Whereas Kong takes us by the hand out of the mundane & melancholy world of the Great Depression, & into the most fantastic adventure ever conceived for the Silver Screen (to paraphrase Ray Harryhausen), Son lets us explore the meanderings of someone who’s misguided venture to keep himself out of misfortune put him right back into it, & then leaves him with no other alternative then to return to the fantastic, yet even more dangerous, world that he hoped would be his salvation.

My favorite character from Kong is now the focus of Son, that fella being Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a larger than life dreamer whose reach exceeds his grasp. He isn’t the classic, square-jawed hero that Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) was in Kong, but he is a more complicated person, who doesn’t always succeed at his ambitions, but is nevertheless engaging. Carl sees traits & potential in people & things that most others wouldn’t, preferring encouragement rather than dismissal. This is something I see in myself, & as such I find Carl relatable.

Equally relatable is our new leading lady, Hilda (Helen Mack), who, as opposed to the more iconic, yet mousy & helpless damsel Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), is the only one maintaining order in her life whilst her father, an elderly drunk, puts his faith in the wrong people, which leads to a fiery end for the family’s only means of living, thrusting her into contact with the equally down on his luck Carl. “She’s got personality”, Carl says, something that could be said of the both of them.


I wouldn’t mind macking on Helen. Rawr.

Whilst Jack & Ann were like a Homecoming King & Queen thrust into an adventure they wanted no part of, Carl & Hilda are the thoughtful outcasts seeking a larger meaning to their mundane existence. When they talk to each other, there’s reflective meaning, not just a couple of pretty people filling the time before they must flee in terror once more.

Son spends more time with its cast, creating a quirky, often humorous slice of life as opposed to a thrills a minute adventure. Denham & Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) set off on a course where their prospects aren’t for certain, creating a dynamic duo that in itself has appealing adventure undertones; I would literally just watch an entire movie or series with them trying to make a living in the South Seas & East Indies. And that’s what is so appealing to me about Son, the fact that the people are so interesting.

Sure, all the action involving the new creatures of Skull Island comes at the back end of the movie, whilst the characters have to watch their backs when dealing with a traitorous, yet incompetent companion (who instigated a mutiny that leaves them seemingly stranded on the Island, itself a fun crinkle to the story), but again, Son need not, nor can it, exactly replicate the lightning in a bottle that Kong captured. Willis O’ Brien’s work still captivates, amazingly so in spite of the rushed production schedule & hellish personal life issues he faced at the time.


Son of Kong does indeed feature some solid stop motion puppetry from Willis O’Brien.

“Kiko”, the nickname applied to Kong’s albino offspring by some in the fandom, might be a goofball, but he’s leagues preferable to Minya/Minilla from the franchise of Kong’s infamous rival, Godzilla. And while Harryhausen joined the chorus of dissenters against Son, one can see its influence in some of Ray’s own creations & story beats, such as the assistance of Trog to Sinbad & Co., in Sinbad & the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

Writer Ruth Rose & star Robert Armstrong probably put it best, Ruth having said “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier”. And while Robert probably liked the focus on him, it’s undeniably true that Carl & the others around him feel more like actual people, because they are afforded the time to do so.


“Kiko” with the crew of The Venture.

Randall Malus’s Take

Son of Kong‘s official mass release date is listed as December 22, 1933–a little over eight months after King Kong was originally released for public consumption. (April 7, 1933). That means that this movie was written and filmed (with stop motion animation) in under eight months, more likely six or less to allow time for editing and distribution. I’m sorry to say that this timetable is evident in how sloppy the film is.


I find it hilarious that RKO cared so little for this film (other than as a blatant cash grab) that they didn’t even bother to remind their art department to avoid putting spoilers on the poster.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate this film. I actually agree with what much of Trevor said regarding character development, the acting, Willis O’Brien’s monumental talent, and the like. Son is in many ways a more dynamic work than Kong. Unfortunately, some of its strengths are also its weaknesses.

Willis O’Brien is indeed at the top of his game, but all of the monster action scenes are loaded into the last quarter of the film. The monsters that the human characters and Little Kong encounter are fearsome–a Styracosaurus, a giant cave bear, a Nothosaurus, a sea serpent–but they are few compared to the movie that came before. Skull Island, too, feels much smaller than it did in Kong, and the air of menace that existed in that movie just isn’t present here–regardless of how dark Son gets at times.



Another issue I have with the film is that it really feels like two films to me. While I agree with Trevor’s sentiment that watching Englehorn and Denham try to earn a living in far off lands is endlessly fascinating, it–along with Hilda’s family drama and the treasure hunting plot–makes me wonder if Ruth Rose pulled from an old script treatment for a generic adventure film that found its way into RKO’s slush file, or if she picked elements from an older non-Kong idea of hers to help pad the story and keep everything within budgetary restrictions. Either way, the first half of the movie, while fantastic in its own right, doesn’t feel like it belongs with the second half. What looks and sounds like an adaptation of some obscure H. Rider Haggard story abruptly turns into a Kong short for kids halfway through, and it’s jarring to me. This dual-natured narrative also makes the film feel shorter than its runtime, which can be a boon if the film is bad but Son isn’t a bad film; just an unpolished one.

I wish I could say that these were minor gripes, but they aren’t. Pacing, tone, atmosphere, narrative focus–these are all significant problems, but I’m convinced these would have been ironed out (with the aforementioned strengths of the film remaining intact) had Ruth Rose and the crew working behind the scenes been given more time. RKO didn’t do anyone any favors, and 1935 or 1936 would have been soon enough to produce and release a sequel worthy of bearing the name of Kong.


Somebody needs a hug…!

Mike Podgor’s Take

I have no personal attachment to Son of Kong, having seen it exactly once last year, though I do recognize his status as one of the three true monsters along with Dracula and Blacula. You may ask why he holds this status as he never does anything truly monstrous in his film and, if anything, is the victim of the world itself seeking to destroy the poor lad and his island home. What exactly has this ape scion done to deserve a place next to two undead mass murderers? The answer, I think, lies not with the Son of Kong but rather the waste of the potential he had while alive.


The face (and nipples) of pure evil.

While his father, an old-fashioned ape if there ever was one, lorded over the villagers on Skull Island using fear and tyranny the Son of Kong could have utilized his peaceful ways to establish a more peaceful mutually beneficial relationship with them and perhaps make Skull Island the global superpower it was certainly always meant to be. This more peaceful progressive take on the Kong character is actually the basis of my currently unproduced script, Kong Goes to College, and I think should it ever be purchased and produced the Son of Kong’s status as a true monster will finally be rectified and he will be replaced in the triumvirate with, I don’t know, some giant bipedal whale or something.


NEXT: King Kong Appears in Edo (1938)

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