The Son of Kong (1933)
“The Twelve Foot Ape Befriended them On the Island of King Kong!”
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cast: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher
Synopsis: The men who captured the giant ape King Kong, return to his island and find his equally gigantic, but far more friendly, son.
Given that in the original King Kong movie the title character was noticeably lacking any, erm, sausage-and-two-veg, and that we never catch a glimpse of Mrs Kong in either of the two movies, it’s something of a miracle that the dear departed Kong ever had any offspring if you ask me. Of course, the parentage of the young giant ape in The Son of Kong is purely an assumption on the part of Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), but it’s a reasonable one to make, given the absence of any other full grown giant apes wandering around on Skull Island. It’s not as if they’d be easy to miss. Before we can set foot on Skull Island, however, we have to sit through forty minutes of build-up which, in many cases would be a reasonable proportion of a movie’s running time for the purpose, but with The Son of Kong clocking in at only around 66 minutes long, this gives Kong Jr. and his mates disappointingly little time in the limelight.
The Son of Kong picks up just a few months after Denham’s disastrous unveiling of Kong, and the ape’s impromptu and unorthodox tour of the Empire State Building. The impoverished entrepreneur is certainly suffering from the fallout from that night; in an opening scene we learn that the origins of the compensation culture stretch all the way back to at least the 1930s as Denham lurks nervously in his one-room apartment, protected by a protective landlady from the attentions of a legion of debt collectors bearing lawsuits from those who feel they have suffered financially from his ill-fated venture. When he learns that he’s also about to be indicted, Denham enters into a partnership with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), the skipper of the boat which transported Kong back to the States, who also fears that he too might soon come within the sights of litigants and law-keepers. The deal is that they will sail the South Pacific as traders and earn a quick buck while out of the reach of the law.
As far as avoiding litigation goes, the plan works fine, but when we next meet Denham and Englehorn, they’re down on their luck in some place called Dakang. Denham persuades Englehorn to accompany him to a stage show featuring cute performing monkeys and ‘sagacious sea-lions.’ It’s not much of a show. The tiny monkeys pretty much just pluck at their miniature instruments as a vaguely recognisable tune plays over the soundtrack, while the sea-lions don’t even put in an appearance. The show is run by a drunkard (Clarence Wilson) who was once a big name in vaudeville, while his daughter Helene (Helen Mack) also performs on stage between animal acts. Late that night, Helene’s father gets drunk with a Norwegian skipper called Helstrom (John Marston) who whacks him over the head with an empty bottle during an argument, causing Helene’s father to knock over a lamp which sets light to hay on the ground of the shabby show tent which doubles as his bedroom. Helstrom flees, while Helene awakens and rescues her father (after first releasing the animals, which sort of casts an unflattering light on her priorities). Nevertheless, she’s suitably upset when dad croaks in the aftermath of the fire, and isn’t slow in letting Helstrom know she blames him for his death.
Later that day Denham runs into both Helen and Helstrom at different times. He meets the girl trying to coax her monkeys down from a tree (‘did you ever catch a monkey?’ she asks him with unknowing irony) and strikes up a friendship, while Helstrom turns up at the bar in which Denham is later drowning his sorrows with Englehorn. It turns out that Helstrom is the captain who provided Denham with the map to Skull Island, and he now asks Denham whether he ever found the treasure there when he captured Kong. Now we know this is a whopper, and that Helstrom is making it up because he needs to get away from Dakang before a prosecutor arrives, but Denham and Englehorn are so desperate that they bite, and before you know it the three men are making plans to return to Skull Island.
We’re about half-an-hour into the movie by now, and as you can gather there’s not a whole lot going on so far. But then, the first movie took its own sweet time establishing characters and conflicts before presenting the main attraction, so in that respect The Son of Kong follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor even if it is totally unlike the original movie in almost every other way. The ship isn’t long at sea before two things become apparent: they have a stowaway on board in the form of young Helene, who presumably grew tired of trying to talk her monkeys down from the trees, and a troublemaker in the form of Helstrom, who is going around causing unrest amongst the crew in the hope that they will mutiny so that he can take charge of the ship. His plan sort of works: the men do indeed stage a mutiny, casting Denham, Englehorn, Helene and Chinese cook Charlie (Victor Wong) adrift in a lifeboat, but when Helstrom tries to assume command they also throw him overboard after them.
At last, our heroes finally pitch up on the shores of Skull Island, and things start to pick up a bit. Perhaps understandably, the natives aren’t friendly, so our hardy band are forced to row around to the far side of the island, and it’s here that Denham finally encounters Kong the younger. Aaaannnd — that’s when we finally come to realise that The Son of Kong is actually supposed to be a comedy. Little Kong is a cute chap with a semi-permanent smile on his face and a knack of pulling funny expressions who instantly makes friends with Denham and Helene when they manage to free him from a pool of quicksand that was threatening to pull him under.
The Son of Kong is an early example of two Hollywood tendencies that can almost entirely explain why sequels are usually so much worse than the original movie (other than the obvious fact that, by definition a sequel can’t be an original idea): Firstly, the studios attempt to maximise profit by slashing the budget, which is why the effects here are much more low key than in the first, why the script is so ordinary, and why the big names from the first movie (Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot) are nowhere to be seen. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion work still looks as impressive as it did in the first, but it’s confined to a generic landscape of rocks and vegetation, and there’s much less interaction between man and beast. Secondly, all too often the sequel simply reverses key elements of the first movie rather than attempt to explore any new possibilities created by it. Kong was a dangerous beast in King Kong, so now he’s cute and cuddly; the tone of the original was ominous and doom-laden, so here it’s as light and airy as a Boy’s Own adventure.
On the plus side, the fight between Little Kong and a giant bear, while not as technically impressive as his dad’s tussle with a dinosaur, is still good fun to watch, as are all of O’Brien’s other creations — it’s just a shame that, presumably because of budgetary constraints, they’re all crammed into the last twenty minutes of the movie.
(Reviewed 11th September 2013)