The more I see King Kong the better it seems. Actually, the more I see any King Kong film of any kind, the better the original seems. It’s nearly a perfect movie, paced with a sense of perpetual forward momentum, with the stakes constantly raised until the final moment when Kong dies on top of the Empire State Building. There’s no dross, no meandering plot, the effects are impressive, Kong commands sympathy (the poor guy’s got a bad case of Galahad syndrome), I even like the lead actors as a foil for Kong. It didn’t initially look like much to me, but viewing subsequent remakes has illustrated just how special the original was.
In 1933, not a remake, but a sequel was hurriedly released the same year that King Kong was such an outstanding success. It’s called Son of Kong and is distinctly subpar, though entertaining enough for what it is. Neither Fay Wray nor Bruce Cabot reprise their roles, but the film does bring back Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, Frank Reicher as Captain Englehorn, Victor Wong as the ship’s cook, Charlie, and even Noble Johnson as the native chief, though his role is infinitesimal. The film also brings back director Ernest B. Shoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper (who originated the idea of Kong Kong and partnered with Shoedsack on many other films), composer Max Steiner, and stop motion animator Willis O’Brien.
The story opens three months after Kong’s epic demise in New York City with Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) broke and besieged in his home by lawsuits, court summons and reporters. Captain Englehorn was with Denham in the original film and is concerned that he could lose his ship, the Venture, so he proposes that Denham and he slip out of New York and pick up work shipping cargo around the Orient.
Work is sparse for Denham and Englehorn and their crew is troublesome, led by the subtly named Red (Ed Brady). But when they stop at a port city called Dakang, they meet shifty Captain Helstrom (John Marston), the man who gave Denham the map that lead to Kong’s island. To convince Denham and Englehorn to take him along with them (he intentionally sank his ship and the authorities want him), he tells them that there is treasure on Kong’s island. Denham and Englehorn are apparently desperate enough believe him.
Also on Dakang is Hilda Peterson (Helen Mack), who’s father is a drunken former circus performer now touring his rather pathetic monkey show around unappreciative audiences in obscure locations. After he dies – as the result of an altercation with Helstrom – Denham is kind to her and she stows away aboard his ship.
Unfortunately, Helstrom has no intention of looking for treasure and instead provokes the crew to mutiny. Denham, Englehorn, Hilda, and Charlie are dropped off on Kong’s island and when Helstrom tries to take over as captain, he too is kicked off. The crew is evidently modelling their ship on communist principles and have no intention of having a captain at all (I wonder how that works out for them).
On the island, Denham expects a welcome from the natives for having removed Kong, but the chief (Noble Johnson) warns them to leave since they’ve caused enough trouble (their village was nearly wiped out by Kong in the previous film). So the group have to land on the more dangerous side of the island where the dinosaurs roam. And finally, after forty minutes in a sixty-nine minute film, we meet the son of Kong. He’s stuck in quick sand and Denham helps him get out (prompted by remorse over what he did to Kong and encouragement from the animal-loving Hilda). Baby Kong is grateful and fights a dinosaur and a giant bear for them (I don’t know what it is about the island, but in both King Kong and Son of Kong, the moment people arrive on the island wild animals start coming out of the woodwork to attack them; is this usual or is it just the presence of the humans that inspires these attacks?). They also find a little treasure. Oh, and the island sinks.
Part of what makes this film subpar is the meandering plot. Written by Ruth Rose (wife director Ernest B. Shoedsack and author of the original King Kong screenplay), there is none of the urgency or sense of forward momentum so well employed in the first film. Denham seems to just float around from one situation to another without a sense of going anywhere in particular. By the time we get to the island, everything goes by so fast that we don’t have time to properly enjoy it fully.
Another problem is baby Kong. He’s played for cuteness rather than awesomeness. We never fear him. I have to admit, he is very cute, but I miss the sense of awe that Kong commanded. I don’t recall baby Kong once thumping his chest after defeating a foe, though he does look at his fingers in perplexity when they are injured and looks coy when Denham and Hilda snuggle. The stop motion animation also looks a trifle rushed.
Denham, at least, is a consistent character from the original. He wasn’t an evil guy, so it makes sense he would feel remorse in the sequel. He was just, in the words of Captain Englehorn in the original, “enthusiastic.” Like a big kid who gets so excited about stuff he has to share it with everyone. He is remarkably generous. I was impressed at how casually he divides the treasure he finds equally with Englehorn and Charlie (the cook). Denham is a sadder, more subdued man now, but his showman instincts still come irrepressibly to the surface.
Helen Mack is a plucky, if underdeveloped, heroine as Hilda. She’s had a hard life, but is game for whatever comes her way and seems to know monkeys and animals well. One could imagine her doing rather well for herself if she were ever carried off by a giant ape. She would probably keep a cool head and try to establish a rapport.
The ending totally came out of the blue. There is a sudden earthquake and the island sinks. I felt bad for the natives, who have the worst luck in these films. Baby Kong rescues Denham and then drowns. It’s so abrupt, you’re left with the feeling of “Umm…okay.” Now that Denham befriended Kong’s son and Kong’s son rescues Denham, is everything squared now? At least Denham now has some money, though I’m not sure he could ever return to America.