Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

The Son of Kong (1933)

May, 2017

RKO Radio, 1933. Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack. Screenplay: Ruth Rose. Camera: Eddie Linden, Vernon Walker, J.O. Taylor. Chief technician: Willis O’Brien. Music: Max Steiner. Film editor: Ted Cheesman. Cast: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher, John Marston, Victor Wong, Ed Brady, Lee Kohlmar, Clarence Wilson.
            We’ve all been reminded recently that the story of King Kong, a story now well into its ninth decade and going strong, still exercises a potent appeal in our culture. Not to disparage anyone’s latter-day efforts, or any current filmmaker’s sincere wishes to pay tribute, but there are a good many of us who will always believe that there is only one King Kong: the original 1933 film. That irreplaceable classic occupies a unique niche in American cinema history, combining the tradition of documentary film— specifically the documentaries of Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, who essentially put their own story on the screen in Kong—with the craft of stop-motion animation, specifically the work of the brilliant Willis O’Brien, who was at the zenith of his powers in 1933. Somehow these disparate elements, and others, were combined in a film that instantly established a singular identity all its own. Today it’s still one of the most widely recognized films of all time, and therefore an unlikely candidate for this column.
            Simply by association, its sequel, The Son of Kong, maintains a high profile too. At the same time, The Son inevitably languishes in the shadow of Kong, eclipsed in every way by the more famous original. As a result, it receives only a fraction of the attention. That’s a shame, for The Son of Kong, viewed on its own terms, is a thoroughly enjoyable film in its own right.
            Sequels, in general, suffer a stigma of inferiority among film enthusiasts—and all too often that reputation is deserved. The Son of Kong is different, I think, for several reasons. For one thing, it really works as a continuation of the first film because it was produced immediately afterward. King Kong opened to sensational box-office success in March 1933; before the month was out, the cameras were rolling on The Son. With the same director and one of the same writers as the original, produced mostly by the same technical crew, and with the continuing roles portrayed by the same actors (Robert Armstrong as Denham, Frank Reicher as Capt. Englehorn, and several supporting players), The Son picks up exactly where King Kong leaves off. The opening scenes find Armstrong barricaded in his hotel room, hounded by creditors and process servers trying to collect astronomical sums for the destruction Kong has wreaked on New York. When Reicher offers to partner with him and ship out, transporting cargo in the East Indies, Armstrong leaps at the chance to escape. Circumstances lead them back to Skull Island, where they find fresh adventures—and the “Little Kong” of the title.
            It’s true that RKO, despite the enormous success of King Kong, allotted only a modest budget for the sequel. Everything about the second film is smaller: the film itself runs a scant seven reels, and Little Kong is pictured as a mere twelve feet tall (“You’re not a patch on your old man,” Armstrong tells him). But the filmmakers find creative ways to deal with their reduced resources. Scenarist Ruth Rose later told film historian George Turner: “It was a case of ‘if you can’t make it bigger you’d better make it funnier’.” And, indeed, the script is leavened with subtle humor, including some in-joke references to the original film. In one scene, after her father’s cheap tent show has burned down and the trained monkeys have escaped, Helen Mack tries to lure some of them down from a tree. Armstrong happens along and offers advice, to which she retorts, “Did you ever catch a monkey?” Armstrong smiles, half to himself: “Did I ever—? Lady, you’d be surprised!”
            A highlight of both films, of course, is Willis O’Brien’s legendary stop-motion animation. O’Brien, too, was on a limited budget for The Son of Kong, but his artistry in the finished film is unimpaired. Building on his recent experience in King Kong, he produced some scenes that equaled or even surpassed the original in sophistication. Little Kong, possessed of a more benign nature than his father’s, displays nuances of psychology—warming to his human visitors (though Armstrong at first fails to recognize it) and ultimately sacrificing himself to protect them. Film enthusiasts have long relished the elaborate setups O’Brien and his crew constructed for King Kong, involving animation, miniature projection, and double-matting. Similar effects, equally intricate and sometimes embellished with such further complications as a driving rainstorm, appear in The Son of Kong.
            A word about the musical score. It’s well known that Max Steiner’s score had been a significant factor in King Kong’s success—evocative and compelling in itself, as well as an important milestone in the art of film scoring. The sequel, too, is enriched by Steiner’s musical presence. Major themes from the original are appropriately reprised here, along with new material, including a lovely romantic theme for Armstrong and Helen Mack. With so many factors going for it, The Son of Kong is one sequel that doesn’t deserve its obscurity. No other film can take the place of the original King Kong, but The Son is a worthy companion to the original. Produced on a diminished scale, but thoughtfully written and expertly crafted, it adds new facets to the Kong legend.

J.B. Kaufman