Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writer: Ruth Rose
Producer: Merian C. Cooper
Stars: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher, John Marston, Victor Wong, Ed Brady
Not long after King Kong’s death, Carl Denham finds himself returning to Skull Island where he confronts the beast’s son.
“Son of Kong” may have set the original land speed record for how fast a movie sequel went from first draft to finished feature. In a fitting period for birthing a baby, it was almost nine months to the day from the time “King Kong” (review here) had its official world premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on March 23rd, 1933 to the time its offspring was publicly unleashed on December 22nd of that same year.
Nowadays, Hollywood puts a sequel in the pipeline before its predecessor finishes pre-production. For a studio during the Great Depression to react so swiftly to mammoth success and capitalize on public demand is truly remarkable. The movie they made, maybe not so much.
“Son of Kong” opens one month after beauty killed the beast at the bottom of the Empire State Building. Disgraced filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is doing all he can to live in anonymity. He is about as successful at that as he was at controlling Kong.
Something admirable about “Son of Kong” is how it deals with the ramifications of “King Kong’s” conclusion. Here you have this imaginative fantasy where biplanes circling a major metropolis battled a giant animal stolen from a prehistoric island where it was worshipped by a primitive tribe. Mass panic ensued. Many people died. It’s nearly impossible to envision this actually occurring and anticipating how the real world might react.
Yet “Son of Kong” starts with Denham in hiding as he tries to avoid countless creditors, investors, publicists, theater owners, and victims’ families suing him for shock, mental anguish, property damage, and much more. Some might see boredom in this buildup of legal liability, not necessarily unlike “The Phantom Menace” burdening its beginning with talk of trade tariffs and senate committees. But being that this is exactly what would really happen if an oversized ape went on a Big Apple rampage, it’s hugely refreshing to see “Son of Kong” starting on such grounded footing.
Dialogue gets good gags out of Denham’s woes too, like this exchange with a landlord who is supposed to keep away disguised reporters and litigants looking to put hands around his neck:
Mrs. Hudson: “There’s a newsboy and a peddler and a taxi driver out there.”
Denham: “I’ll bet you a nickel they’re all process servers.”
Also feeling the heat is Captain Englehorn, whose ship brought Kong to New York in the first place. As Englehorn, Frank Reicher joins Armstrong and Victor Wong as Chinese cook Charlie to complete the trio of actors reprising roles from “King Kong.” Englehorn proposes that Denham join him in building a freight operation to keep them out of hot water by hiding them in international ones. Denham agrees and they set out to sea.
The men eventually port in a place where they take in local entertainment that includes performing monkeys, you’d think they’d have had their fill of that, and attractive young singer Hilda, whose name is oddly never uttered once in the film. Hilda has troubles of her own, as does displaced Norwegian skipper Helstrom, who sold Denham the Kong map way back when and now needs a new crew to join.
In the interest of time, and to keep some beats of the story a surprise, let’s simply say that everyone ends up aboard the Venture on a return voyage to Skull Island. If this sounds like a lot of setup, it is. “Son of Kong” only runs 69 minutes and other than animated birds against a matte painting, we aren’t treated to our first glimpse of “Little Kong,” as Denham dubs him, or a proper Willis O’Brien stop-motion effect until 43 minutes into the movie.
You’re forgiven, no questions asked, if this is too long of a wait to maintain interest. No doubt it was in 1933, explaining the poor reviews and low box office returns from disappointed critics and filmgoers alike.
There is a charm to the movie’s relative simplicity and straightforward approach to creating human characters however, that finds more favor in 21st-century eyes. It can be a drag getting to the title attraction, and Helen Mack is no Fay Wray (who is?) as the blonde beauty’s brunette replacement. But I found the sincerity of the performances growing on me the more “Son of Kong” moved forward, minding less and less that the action and suspense of “King Kong” isn’t as prevalent.
Admittedly, and also expectedly given the time constraints being worked with, Kong’s albino offspring is underwhelming, and a little bit goofy. “Son of Kong” doesn’t have anything as epic as King Kong’s Tyrannosaurus tussle or midtown mayhem. It doesn’t help that at only 12 feet tall, which puts Little Kong at barely twice the height of Denham and half that of his father, the scope and stakes never feel as big. Then there are moments when Little Kong gets bonked on the head and his eyes roll to kazoo music while impersonating the Bumble from Rankin/Bass’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
After Little Kong, alternatively called ‘Kiko’ by the production team during filming, takes the spotlight to dispatch a big bear and a dinosaur, the film finds itself with less than ten minutes remaining until its ‘The End’ card. “Son of Kong” then summons the strength of French and Greek gods for a force majeure deus ex machina that completes the film in wildly unexpected fashion. It’s an ending as rushed as the rest of the movie, but its supreme absurdity is somewhat stunning for being big, bold, and virtually out from the blindside of left field.
When rush job restrictions are taken into account with “Son of Kong,” it’s easier to forgive the departure in tone and dip in quality as necessary evils for falling in the shadow of a behemoth. “King Kong” is genuinely a literal and figurative titan of cinema. Who could realistically expect any follow-up film to fully fill its footsteps anyway?
Not screenwriter Ruth Rose, returning to scripting duties on “Son of Kong” after taking top credit for the first film. If Wikipedia is to believe, and it has to be because I couldn’t independently corroborate this, Rose operated under the assumption that attempting to surpass “King Kong” would only be a fool’s errand. Electing to inject a family-friendly streak of humor into the sequel, Rose reportedly said, “if you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier.” That much at minimum, she definitely did.
Review Score: 60