It was natural RKO would demand a sequel to Kong Kong, but by hurrying the production, huge sacrifices were made and it’s hard to imagine anyone was happy with the final product when it was release days before Christmas of 1933 – nine months after the first film premiered in New York City.
Why the rush? Perhaps it was the mindset of the studio, with an already active B-movie division cranking out second features for double-bills. The problem is a large section of the creative and technical talent from Kong – an A-list picture - were rounded up for the sequel, so while the pedigree was high, an impossible Christmas deadline severely hindered what could’ve been spun into a distinct film.
The premise is sound: Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) flees the United States as lawsuits have destroyed his reputation and left him penniless. His ally is Captain Egnlehorn (Frank Reicher), who proposes the two set sail and make some cash shipping goods in areas few sailors know well or may find risky. Included in their commercial enterprise is the ship’s cook Charlie (Victor Wong, again trapped in a clichéd goofy Chinaman role), as well as a reasonably sized crew who make a mid-journey stopover in a small island where they further their business plans.
During the layover, they attend a pathetic father-daughter burlesque show, with musical monkeys, and a gamine named Helene Peterson (pretty but vapid Helen Mack) who performs a song she wroted all by her very little self. Denham pretends to see talent in the girl, but he’s clearly smitten by the strange sweetness that seems resilient in a show only grubby sailors pay to see.
Unlike King Kong, in Son Denham finally gets to woo a girl, and his courtship provides a softer, more humane version of a character fallen from grace, and forced to live with certain humility.
The villain of the film is Nils Helstrom (John Marston), the sailor who gave Denham the original map to Skull Island. Now bankrupt and trapped in the same port as Helene and her father, his latent rage and intolerance erupts during a drinking binge with the elder Peterson. While the father is out cold, Helstrom sets fire to the tent and escapes into the jungle.
Sensing a perfect sucker, Helstrom tells Denham of a ‘secret treasure’ on Skull Island, and the men charter the ship for a new course, but when Helene is found on board, Helstrom orchestrates a mutiny that has Denham, Helene, Captain Englehorn, and Charlie the cook dumped into a dinghy. Tables are turned on Helstrom, though, and he’s also tossed overboard and fished out of the water by Denham – placing Helene’s killer inches from her.
When the dinghy reaches the island’s shore, they’re met by natives still pissed at Denham for letting Kong loose, and the white men + white woman quickly shove off again, heading to a more remote part of the island.
This is where the film more or less stops dead, and Kong scenarist Ruth Rose had no time to develop a second act. By this point we’re past the film’s midpoint, and when little Kong finally appears, he’s a cute but cartoonish creation lacking the finely animated detail and behavioral nuances stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien attached to King Kong.
In fact, Little Kong has very little screen time, and he’s been anthropomorphosized with slapstick gestures – head-scratching, eye rolling, raised arms (the international sign of ‘Gee, I’m frustrated!’) – that must have been forced onto O’Brien, because his creatures were always tied to natural behaviour. Even worse are whining noises that make the sleek little white ape sound like Scooby-Doo.
Murray Spivak’s sound work is merely perfunctory in the sequel, and composer Max Steiner focuses on the Skull Island theme from Kong, but works in the melody of Helene’s first song, “The Runaway Blues,” as the film’s semi-love/comedic theme, giving little dramatic weight to the overall score.
A battle with a big bear on the tropical Skull Island (is this where the characters of TV’s Lost were stranded?) is a retread of the T-Rex smack-down from Kong, with plenty of wrestling moves, headlocks, and punches to the head, and O’Brien also reiterated the closing gesture of the victor playing with the dead bear’s jaw.
There’s also a stegosaurus chase, but it all means little when scenes end with abrupt fadeouts. Little Kong also seems to understand every eureka statement made by Denham (‘That must be where the treasure is!’ Break it down, Little Kong!’) which is frankly ridiculous since the ape’s never socialized with humans.
The care that went into set designs is a patchwork of leftover art, and there’s no lineage between the black natives with distinctive outfits, and the giant Aztec statue that Denham finds, surrounded by two or three big jewels (aka “the treasure”).
A number of the effects also seem to be superimpositions instead of the in-camera effects done for Kong, and every dissolve transition yields a huge boost in grain. Whatever money was leftover seemed to have been split into two lots: one for O’Brien to finish up connective moments with Little Kong, and the idiotic finale that has an entire island suddenly falling into the ocean.
Feeling like an Our Gang skit, Helene shouts ‘It’s an Earthquake!’ after masonry in the Aztec chamber start to fall, but Denham stays behind to get the jewels. Little Kong stays, too, since he doesn’t want anything to happen to the friendly human who wrapped his hurt finger (from the bear fight) in a giant Band-Aid.
The little ape and Denham make it to the top of the mountain, but Little Kong gets stuck, and is dragged down underwater, but he holds his breath long enough to keep Denham alive above until Helene and the men snatch Denham from the ape’s hand into their dinghy.
It’s a pretty tragic finale, but it’s offset by Denham and Helene snug and safe in a big boat, en route to land, and very much in love.
That’s the undercooked story the filmmakers were stuck with, and it’s easy to see why Son of Kong is essentially a dud; it’s Jurassic Park 3 (2001) – a few stars running around in cheap scenes before a bizarre ending drops from the sky and wraps up the film in a running time far shorter than the original film.
It’s no surprise the sequel killed any further desire for a third installment. The uneven jumps in the script from drama to crime film, giant monkey movie to comedy, and disaster film to romance forced the filmmakers to rethink their next stop-motion project more carefully, and give the writers and animators reasonable time to develop a more fanciful (and less tragic) tale called Mighty Joe Young in 1949.
The Son of Kong is available separately or in a boxed set with King Kong and Mighty Joe Young.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan