Think that all of those franchises, cash-ins and crappy sequels we endure each year is a post-Jaws blockbuster phenomenon? Think again. This sequel to the celebrated 1933 version of King Kong was rushed out in the same year – nine months later, in fact – in order to capitalise on the original’s huge success. It takes a couple of fairly major characters and returns them to Skull Island where – yes indeed! – King Kong’s son ‘Little Kong’ is busy monkeying around, beating his chest and scrapping with dinosaurs.
It certainly feels rushed, with one or two mistakes appearing in the script and plenty of dodgy acting by the leads. It also has a short run time of just over an hour, partly as a result of budget and time constraints, but it’s not charmless and there’s a spirited daftness throughout that ought to raise a smile or two on most viewers’ faces.
Picking up a month after the end of King Kong, harassed filmmaker / producer Carl Denham (again played by Robert Armstrong, taking on a starring role after playing second fiddle to Bruce Cabot first time round) is amusingly being sued left, right and centre by angry New Yorkers because of damage caused by Kong to their property. As a result of intense press interest he decides to leave the city with the captain of The Venture, Englehorn (Frank Reicher, also reprising his earlier role), who is certain that he too will become embroiled in lawsuits sooner rather than later. The boat sails for Dakang, where a young performer named Hilda (Helen Mack) joins them after her father is murdered by another seaman, Nils Helstrom (John Marston). (Ingeniously the ports that the boat visits along the way are listed on top of a shot of the wake pattern generated by the vessel; exactly the kind of neat touch Spielberg would later recall with his plane travel / map sequence in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.) On the way to the island a mutiny takes place, and Denham, Englehorn, Helstrom, Hilda and Chinese chef Charlie (Victor Wong, another returnee) are left to fend for themselves on the island with just one available gun. And you most likely know the rest: embarrassing depictions of savage ‘natives’, lots of screaming, a big monkey and a few roaming dinosaurs.
Screenwriter Ruth Rose, who had co-written King Kong, decided that the considerably smaller budget from RKO Radio Pictures and success of the original film meant a completely different tone was required second time round. She stated ‘if you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier’, and so The Son Of Kong goes all out for laughs and revels knowingly in the silliness of its premise. At times it seems more like a spoof of the original than a legitimate follow-up, a Scary Movie to King Kong‘s Scream, if you will. It is extremely daft, especially with regard to its treatment of Kong Jr. In a neat twist on the original story the animal doesn’t fall in love with the heroine, and the embarrassed look on its face when it peers round the corner and catches Denham and Hilda in a tender moment is priceless. Most of the laughs come from the fights with dinosaurs, though, which seem to descend quickly into slapstick headlocks and pummeling. At one point the beast crawls out from beneath the legs of a dinosaur who continues to punch the ground, unaware that Junior has escaped its clutches. You could quite easily substitute Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or any one of The Three Stooges for the ape at times.
It’s a shame the budget was slashed and the production rushed, as the reduced running time means there is no space for emotional investment as per King Kong. When Kong dies in the original it’s a sad moment, and the poignant and tender love story that develops between the beast and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, whose screams were so good they were dubbed into the sequel) is obviously crucial to the story. Nothing similar is attempted here, and thus it’s a very straightforward treasure hunt adventure story with no added bells or whistles. Wisely it doesn’t repeat the ‘Kong on the rampage in the city’ ending of the first film, but unfortunately the budget cuts meant that scenes of tribal warfare and a climactic dinosaur stampede contained in the script were not filmed. The ending isn’t flat, though, and a certain James Cameron must surely have been inspired by the film as it is quite similar to the ending of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. But let’s be clear – it’s nowhere near as exhilarating as the Empire State Building climb and battle.
The acting is generally poor, but particular mention should be made of John Marston, who seems to incorporate fifty different accents from fifty different countries in his portrayal of Norwegian skipper Helstrom. Still, he makes for a decent villain of the piece, although the better bad guy is mutinous crewman Red (Edward Brady, out-acting everyone else by a country mile), who is shamefully dispensed with half-way through the movie. Armstrong is game enough, and the actor declared his preference for the sequel over King Kong, as there was more character development for his Denham (who said actors are a self-serving bunch, eh?). Mack, however, is sadly a poor, wide-eyed imitation of Fay Wray, but she isn’t required to do all that much except gaze adoringly into Armstrong’s eyes on cue. Her character suffers the ignominy of being referred to as ‘Hilda’ in the credits, but her father refers to her as ‘Helene’ with little inference that it’s merely a stage name. Denham, presumably just as confused as the rest of us, refers to her throughout as ‘Kid’.
As well as the continuity offered by a few returning actors, co-director of King Kong Ernest Schoedsack helmed the sequel and the legendary effects man Willis O’Brien also carried out some work on the movie, albeit mainly in a supervisory role; he felt the script was cheesy (he wasn’t wrong), asked not to be credited, and left much of the stop-motion animation work to his assistant. Some of the models of the first film were re-used, although Kong Jr does seem a little puny when compared to his father, but I guess that was deliberate.
While it’s no classic, it’s not all that bad. It’s just a bit of pointless fun, and even though it is a blatant cash in, at least those involved tried to make something a little bit different in tone. The monster effects – for the time – aren’t bad at all and despite the dodgy acting and holes in the script you can feel that there was some conviction behind the project. In some ways, despite the lack of quality, that makes it just as worthwhile as the big budget 1976 and 2005 remakes of King Kong.
Directed by: Ernest Schoedsack
Written by: Ruth Rose
Starring: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher
Running Time: 69 minutes