The Son of Kong (1933) *
See what you get when you half-ass things? The Son of Kong was made, literally, for about half the money RKO spent on its predecessor, on a shooting schedule so cramped that the film was finished, not only the same year that pre-production began, but later the same year that the original King Kong hit the theaters! By way of comparison, consider that preproduction on King Kong had begun as early as 1930, but that the film didn’t see release until three years later. And let me tell you, the rush job on the sequel shows. It shows in the casting, which brings back only the lesser (and presumably less expensive) of King Kong’s major characters. It shows in the sets, which are so far below the standard set by the original that even the famous styrofoam rocks of “Star Trek” look good by comparison. It even shows in Willis O’Brien’s special effects-- the real stars of the movie, after all-- which have a conspicuous hurried look to them. And most of all, it shows in the story, which seems to have been cobbled together from rejected ideas for the previous movie’s script.
That story (much like the production of the movie) picks up a mere three months after the conclusion of King Kong. In a charming touch of realism that is nearly all that this movie has going for it, the government and people of New York City have repaid Carl Denham (Richard Armstrong again) for bringing Kong to their town by bombarding him with lawsuits. Between the process servers and the newspaper reporters, Denham can scarcely leave his apartment without a confrontation. Eventually, though, he manages to sneak out with the help of one of those process servers (who likes Denham for all the business he has brought him), and make his way to the docks for a meeting with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher, also reprising his old role). Englehorn is itching to get away from New York. He knows it’s only a matter of time before it occurs to someone that he, as captain of the ship that transported Kong, could be held liable for some of the destruction wreaked by the monster. Denham agrees in principle, but it isn’t until his process server “friend” tips him off that he is about to face criminal charges connected with Kong’s attack on New York that he feels compelled to act. Englehorn hires a skeleton crew for his ship, and the SS Venture leaves that night for the South Pacific, far outside the reach of the New York municipal authorities.
Their efforts to make a living running freight between the ports of the East Indies are less than perfectly successful, however. With the industrialized West still in the grip of depression, what do you think the economy of Malaya looks like? One night, to take their minds off their troubles, Denham and Englehorn go out on the “town” with their Chinese cook, Charlie (Victor Wong, whose far greater importance in this movie than in the original [in which he had about three lines] should tell you something about how shallow the idea pool had become when the time came to make this sequel). They end up watching an excruciatingly bad show, in which trained monkeys dance and play music, the “Sagacious Seals” do something that we never see (truly God is merciful), and a girl named Hilda Peterson (Helen Mack, who was also in the 1935 version of She) sings off-key and plays a ukulele. Denham and Charlie seem to be the only people present who enjoy the show (such bad taste these men have!), and Denham of course takes a moment after it ends to talk to Hilda.
Then it’s Hilda and her father (he runs the show) at home. The old man is a lush, and he spends the scene drinking in the company of a man named Helstrom (John Marston), whom Hilda clearly doesn’t like. She’s got good reason, it turns out. By the time both men are almost too drunk to stand, they get into an argument. Hilda’s father gets on the subject of how Helstrom lost his ship (so he’s a sea captain, is he?), accusing him of sinking it himself for the insurance money. Dad apparently hit a nerve there, because Helstrom lunges at him, turning their argument into a drunken slugging match. Helstrom knocks the old man out, and accidentally sets the circus tent that serves as his home and show-space on fire in the process. Instead of doing the right thing, Helstrom confirms his status as the villain by fleeing the scene, leaving Hilda to try to save her father. She gets him out of the tent, but apparently Helstrom hit him harder than he realized, because the man dies despite Hilda’s rescuing him from the fire.
The next day, Denham runs into Hilda trying to round up her monkeys. They talk again (Denham’s stellar opening line: “You’ll never catch a monkey that way!” Hilda’s unknowingly ironic reply: “When did you ever catch a monkey?”), and sooner or later, the conversation moves around to Hilda’s show, which of course she won’t be doing anymore. Hilda is hopeful at first that Denham is a showman himself, and might thus be interested in taking her on, but he disappoints her, making no mention of his former career. Even so, Hilda thinks it might be fun to hitch a ride on Denham’s ship, just for the sake of getting away from her dead-end surroundings.
A little while later, Hilda has a run-in with Helstrom. She knows Helstrom killed her father-- fires don’t leave bruises, you know-- and she tells him as much. Then she hints in a not-so-subtle way that she intends to turn him in when the area’s magistrate (who seems to follow a circuit throughout the Dutch East Indies) arrives in a few days. Helstrom blusters at her, but it’s quite clear that he knows Hilda’s got him by the balls.
So where does Helstrom go to unwind from the stress his encounter caused him? Goddamned right-- the bar. And whom should he meet in said bar but Carl Denham. It turns out the two men know each other; in fact, Helstrom was the previously unnamed Norwegian captain who gave Denham the map of Skull Island in the first place! In another of the film’s all-too-few good parts, Denham offers to split his Kong-related windfall with Helstrom-- his eleven lawsuits and pending criminal charges. Then Helstrom says something that piques Denham’s interest. He asks the American if he found the treasure when he went to the island. No, of course he didn’t. Now, you know as well as I do that Denham found no treasure because Helstrom is just making the story up as he goes along, but Denham is a desperate man, and he is in a position to be taken in easily. Helstrom talks Denham into taking him on as a crewman, and the Venture soon sets sail again for Skull Island.
There are two major complications along the way. First, Charlie discovers a stowaway in the forward hold. You guessed it-- it’s Hilda. Second, Helstrom has been making awfully chummy with Englehorn’s crew, and it turns out that he’s been telling stories about the dangers of Skull Island in an effort to incite a mutiny. Helstrom, you see, doesn’t want to go to the island, not really. He just wants to take Denham and Englehorn to Skull Island, leave them there, and then claim the Venture as a replacement for his lost vessel. He also naturally assumes that he would become the leader of any mutiny, and that the other sailors would be content to accept him as captain once the mutiny had succeeded. For such a manipulative asshole, Helstrom is a very naive man. His mutiny succeeds, alright, but Helstrom finds himself thrown overboard along with Denham, Englehorn, and Hilda when it does. (Charlie leaves the Venture of his own accord; he never liked the new crew anyway. Oh-- and notice that the movie is surprisingly explicit about the mutineers being communists.)
As it happens, the castaways have to land on the wrong side of Skull Island, because the natives still remember Denham and Englehorn as the men who turned Kong loose to destroy their village. And as you might have guessed on the basis of the title, the wrong side of Skull Island proves to be the home of another giant gorilla (and it’s about fucking time, too). This one is just a baby-- merely twelve or thirteen feet tall-- and he has white fur rather than black. And when Denham and Hilda first see him, he’s buried up to his armpits in quicksand. Hilda suggests that they rescue the creature, and Denham (whose conscience has been bugging him ever since Kong was shot off the top of the Empire State Building) agrees. And so begins what passes for the action phase of the film.
First, Denham and Hilda get separated from Englehorn, Helstrom, and Charlie. Then, giant cave bears, Styracosaurs, and big lizard-like creatures begin popping up for no apparent reason whenever the filmmakers begin to suspect that the audience is getting bored. (Their suspicions, by the way, are usually right on the money.) Then, in a chain of events whose triteness is almost beyond belief, Denham accidentally discovers that there is a Treasure of Skull Island after all, Helstrom sees Little Kong for the first time and flees to his death in the jaws of a sea serpent, and the entire island is destroyed without warning or explanation (or concern on the part of the filmmakers for its native human population) by a natural disaster which is portrayed as either an earthquake or a typhoon, depending on which shot you’re looking at. As Skull Island sinks beneath the waves, Denham finds himself trapped on its last above-water pinnacle, while the other surviving characters attempt to row their boat over to him. Denham is saved at the last by Little Kong, who holds the man up above the surface even as he himself drowns with his island. And then-- deus ex machina-- a passing ship appears on the horizon. The end.
If I had to pick one thing that ruins The Son of Kong more decisively than any other, I’d have to point to its severe case of Universal Syndrome-- the tendency to try to squeeze more life out of a successful horror/monster movie franchise by reducing the monsters themselves to agents of slapstick comedy. (And yes, I realize that it is, strictly speaking, anachronistic to talk about Universal Syndrome in the context of a movie made in 1933-- only one of those awful Universal monster comedies was made before the 1940’s. However, the Frankenstein to Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein transition is probably the best-known example of the phenomenon, so that’s what I’m going to call it, even though the phenomenon itself is older than the films in whose “honor” I have christened it.) The Son of Kong plays its titular monster primarily-- indeed almost exclusively-- for laughs, and the new monster’s excessively cute facial features signal us to expect this like a huge flashing sign. It’s almost as if the filmmakers are saying to us, “You know, we came to the conclusion that we were absolutely powerless to take this movie seriously as a sequel to King Kong, so in the end, we decided we weren’t even going to try.”
But the ill-conceived recasting of the film as a comedy is far from the only thing working against The Son of Kong. I’ve already mentioned the conspicuous cheapness of the whole production-- the clunky sets, the threadbare-looking stop-motion models and the slapdash animation of them, the “Fay Wray wanted too much money” casting. But The Son of Kong might have been able to survive that were it not for the shortcomings of the script. This is about as poorly thought-out a screenplay as you’re ever going to see, and the lack of mental effort expended on it is nowhere so evident as in its climax, which appears out of nowhere for no reason at all, as though writer Ruth Rose were simply looking for a way-- any way-- to end the movie right now. I confess that right then certainly seemed to me like a good time to end the movie-- I had lost all interest a while before, actually-- but to see it ended in a way that bore some kind of connection to the rest of the story would have been appreciated.