Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Son of Kong hasn't gotten much respect over the years. It was apparently turned out in a big rush after the massive success of its overachieving pater simians King Kong. It shows a definite pallor of sequelitis long before it was a Hollywood rule to immediately cash in on hot properties. Nowadays that seems the only merit a movie can have, to be popular enough to justify a second trip to the money well.
Made by the same people and benefitting greatly from the technical experience of the first film, The Son of Kong has qualities of its own that make it notable as a prime Depression-era movie ... the theme of failure and resignation to one's fate run through the whole show.
A month after the big Kong disaster, showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is beseiged by process servers. When it looks as though he's going to be prosecuted in the high courts, Denham's one faithful friend Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) takes him on as a shipping partner on the S.S. Venture. In an East Asian port they pick up Hilda, an orphaned, stranded musical performer (Helen Mack). Denham connects with Hellstrom, the unscrupulous sea captain that gave him the original map to Skull Island (John Marston), and they set sail to search for a mysterious treasure. Unfortunately Hellstrom's real aim is to seize the Venture for himself. Denham, Hilda, Englehorn and the cook Charlie are cast out in a lifeboat to land on Skull Island alone.
The Son of Kong was a television favorite among kids who loved the cartoonish albino offspring, dubbed 'Kiko' in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. The standard drill was to ignore the first half of the picture and tune in when the castaways finally reached Skull Island. I don't think I ever saw the opening of the picture until I was in college. We knew Skull Island by heart and always hoped we'd see more clues connecting it with the first film. As it is, only the Styracosaurus sequence has a feel matching the original, making us believe that it perhaps started as a scene that was left over in editorial. 1
As if writer Ruth Rose needed a rest from blood and destruction, Kiko is conceived as little more than a comic clown, scratching his head and wiggling his eyebrows like an animated character from a silent movie. He acts embarrassed when he finds Denham and Hilda kissing, a moment underlined by raucously lame "wah wah" musical effects added to Max Steiner's score. When we screened the movie in High School, a shot of Kiko waggling his bandaged middle finger brought the house down - it looked like an off-color hand gesture (as Woody Allen might say).
The effects are tame in conception but technically adept. The not-so-giant ape wrassles a cave bear and pummels a rather klunky dragon-like monster in rather rushed animated scenes that economize on the number of camera angles used. As with many of Ray Harryhausen's films later on, each angle is so labor- and time-intensive that action tends to be displayed in a wide master with just a few cutaways. The dynamism returns in the socko finish in which the island crumbles and sinks during an earthquake. Willis O'Brien's miniature camerawork is excellent and we forget for a moment that the magnificent Skull Island has been reduced to a couple of caves and a hidden treasure temple. The ending with Kiko saving Denham by holding him aloft as the island sinks is something little kids never forget. We aren't bothered by the fact that the ape has seemingly grown half again as big, to allow him to heft Denham in one hand.
Seen as an adult, The Son of Kong has an entirely different appeal that places it in the same context as bottom-of-the-Depression epics like The Golddiggers of 1933 and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. If the original Kong was the Big Party, The Son of Kong is like the next day's Hangover. Cooper and Schoedsack typically celebrated adventure and escape, but Denham is so mired in problems he finds it an effort to 'keep his chin up.' Frank Reicher's Captain has become a droll comic sidekick, offering sarcastic remarks when the situation gets grim. On Skull Island Denham gets excited at the discovery of a "little Kong," to which Englehorn cautiously asks, "How little?" That always gets a big laugh, along with Hilda's cheery assertion that "Animals always know when you're trying to help them." That quote should have been used in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.
The Son of Kong is all about despair and failure. Denham and Hilda meet as penniless outcasts with little to do but stare into the future. Grand showman Denham regards her father's pitiful trained monkey act as a depressingly ironic comment on his previous misadventure. They talk about having spunk and courage but can manage only weak smiles. They're not even welcome on Skull Island, where a new witch doctor refuses the refugees a landing and turns them back to the sea. The 'happy' ending is only happy on the technicality of splitting a fortune three ways instead of four. As seen in the eyes of this pair of forlorn lovers, the future is both affectionate and bleak at the same time.
The Cooper/Schoedsack/Rose team re-stage the hated Bolshevik revolution on board the Venture. Rotten crook Hellstrom incites the sailor rabble to mutiny. Ed Brady plays their leader, a lout named "Red." The mutineers take the boat and abandon both the old monarchy (Englehorn and Denham) and Hellstrom's new leadership. The story of the 20th century is written in the log of the Venture - it first plays a disastrous role in a 'colonial' adventure for profit, and then falls victim to political anarchy. As for Denham, he kidnaps and kills a prehistoric God of savagery, repents his hubris and is redeemed by the dead God's silly but good-hearted Son. How the heck does one interpret that?
Warner's DVD of The Son of Kong is an excellent transfer of near-perfect elements; this particular title has always looked good. All that is included is a trailer, as even the experts seem to consider the film as a footnote to its legendary father.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Son of Kong rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 22, 2005
1. Through Famous Monsters we knew that Kong, jr's name was 'Kiko' the same way we knew that the monster from 20 Million Miles to Earth was called a 'Ymir,' even though neither were called that in the films.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson