It had been years since I last set eyes on Son of Kong, and I had forgotten just how disappointing this film actually is, but it does go to show us that quick cash grab sequels are as old as the film industry itself. Released a mere eight months after the blockbuster King Kong this sequel pales in comparison on practically every level. RKO decided on two key factors that would insure it made a ton of money; first cut the budget in half (cause that always results in bigger profits), and make it more “kid friendly” as the youth market is where the money is, though during the depression I’m not sure what disposable income kids had, but then again I’m not a big movie exec so what do I know. Ruth Rose, Son of Kong’s script writer, made no attempt to make a serious film out of this sequel on the grounds that there was no way it could surpass the success of the original, stating, “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier.”
The film starts out promising enough with Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hiding out in a boarding house from process servers, because everyone and his aunt is suing him for the carnage caused by the escaped Kong. Eventually he hooks up again with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and Charlie the ships cook (Victor Wong) as the only other returning cast members from the original. They set sail just ahead of a Grand Jury indictment and then try to make a go of it by shipping cargo in the Dutch Indies. It’s in the port of Dakang that we meet our other two key players; Hilda (Helen Mack), daughter of a drunken ex-circus ringmaster, who helps her father make a living by singing badly while playing the guitar, and Helstrom (John Marston) who in a drunken brawl kills Hilda’s father, and burns down the tent. Now Helstrom has a connection with the original film as he is the man who provided Denham with the map to Kong’s Island, and now that he really needs to get out of Darkang, what with Hilda threatening to tell to the magistrate that he murdered her father, he convinces the incredibly gullible Denham and Englehorn that there is treasure on Skull Island.
Hilda, who also wants out of Dakang, stows away aboard the Venture not knowing that her father’s murderer is now one of the crew. Helstrom, a coward at heart, has no intention of setting foot on the dangerous island so he fills the unruly crew with stories of how several of the previous crew died during Denham’s last trip to Skull Island, and in all fairness he’s actually telling the truth about this. There is a quick mutiny that finds Denham, Englehorn, Charlie, and Hilda being dumped into a lifeboat, but before Helstrom can wallow in his victory the crew toss the traitorous bastard overboard as well, and so lily-livered Helstrom ends up joining the group on their trip to Skull Island.
Now here is one of the film’s major problems, we are now at about the 40 minute mark in a 69 minute movie yet we’ve just now gotten to Kong’s island. This is obviously caused by the reduced budget, and the fact that the events on the island itself seem really rushed doesn’t help. After getting a rude welcome from the natives, a thrown spear and threats indicate that they aren’t all that happy with how Denham and company lead a rampaging Kong through their village during their last visit, so the group is forced to make their way to the far side of the island, and that is where they meet the son of Kong.
While Englehorn, Helstrom, and Charlie march off to look for provision, Denham and Hilda stumble on a small version of Kong trapped in quicksand. Feeling a bit guilty over getting this guys dad killed, Denham knocks over a tree and helps young Kong escape. Denham’s line, “He’s not a patch after his old man” pretty much sums up the whole film. The 12-foot white haired ape is played completely for laughs, and not particularly effective laughs either. They have given him the cooing sounds of a baby chimp, and the slapstick antics of a Max Sennet silent comedy star, none of which makes him a very effective character. When Denham and Hilda are threatened by a giant cave bear, looking more like a guy in a terrible bear suit than a ferocious animal, young Kong charges to the rescue. We are then treated to a fight that is more reminiscent of a couple of two five year olds fighting over a favorite toy than it does a titanic struggle between titans.
Meanwhile Englehorn, Helstrom, and Charlie had been chased into a rocky nook by a styracosaur. Trivia Note: The styracosaur was a left over dinosaur that was cut from the original King Kong. It was the dinosaur that chased the sailors onto the log bridge that Kong topples them off of, and here once again it is proven that the styracosaurus is not very effective when it comes to catching humans as all he does is eat their gun, and that it’s for that exciting moment.
After stumbling upon some ancient ruins Denham is sure he will find the treasure behind a rock wall, and with little Kong’s help they break into an old temple. Inside they find a huge altar and hanging from a nasty looking idol is a necklace containing a huge diamond, but of course as you know a dragon must guard all treasure, and so another lackluster fight ensues. The encounter between young Kong and this refugee from a fantasy film is less slapstick in comparison to the cave bear fight, there is certainly less eye rolling and tweetie bird sound effects, but it is in no way in the same league as the Kong/T-Rex fight from the original.
When Englehorn, Helstrom and Charlie return, the styracosaur we assume became as bored as us viewers and had just wandered away, the group is shocked to see this large ape hanging with Denham and Hilda. Helstrom’s panicked reaction to seeing a 12 foot ape is a bit much, after all compared to the dinosaur that chased them the night before little Kong isn’t very threatening, yet he flees like the coward he is. He is then quickly eaten by a sea serpent, so that makes it all right.
Then the island sinks. Yep, it’s that out of the blue. One minute Denham is holding his treasure and then the next the whole island is being racked by earthquakes, and set upon by hurricane level rain and wind.
Why did this happen? Was the temple cursed? Did removing the necklace anger the gods of the island? Your guess is as good as mine. While Englehorn, Hilda, and Charlie were able to make it to the boat, and get free of the cataclysmic events on the island, poor Denham and little Kong had to flee to higher ground as the island sank beneath them. All seemed lost, but the heroic son of Kong was able to hold Denham above the turbulent waters long enough for him to be rescued by his friends. Then his hand slips beneath the waves.
Our heroes float around the pacific for a while before being rescued by a passing ship, and it’s while on board that Hilda basically asks Denham to marry her. The End. Not quite the poetic “It was beauty killed the beast” ending we got in the original but at least we know no one is going back to that dangerous island ever again. It’s reported that Robert Armstrong preferred Son of Kong to it’s predecessor, and I can see why, this time out Denham is the romantic lead and the script goes out of it’s way to make the once callous film producer more likable. When they’ve been rescued at the end of the film he tells Hilda that, “We’ll split the treasure four ways,” and what’s great about that line is that it means Denham is giving millions to the Chinese cook without a second thought, which coming from a character in the 1930s is pretty impressive. Way to go Carl.
More than the rushed production and reduced budget it’s the tonal shift that makes this film really an unworthy successor to King Kong. The Skull Island we saw in the original film was a place fraught with danger at every turn, from the moment Ann Darrow was plucked from the altar by Kong to the battle atop the Empire State Building, the pace never let up. Yet in Son of Kong you never really get the sense of urgency or danger which was so prevalent in the original. Of course the slapstick antics of young Kong certainly didn’t help, between his rolling his eyes and other goofy antics he really was more of a cartoon character than anything the viewer could become emotional involved in. I seriously doubt we are ever getting a Peter Jackson remake of this one.