Column: The Vault of Secrets: Son of Kong (1933)


Son of Kong (1933). Directed by: Ernest B. Schoedsack. Starring: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, & Frank Reicher.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s movie is proof positive (if you needed it) that Hollywood has always been willing to cash in on success with a hastily-contrived sequel. Son of Kong was produced and directed so quickly, in fact, that it hit theaters later the same year as its much-more-famous predecessor. (The gestation period wasn’t quite nine months, with King Kong released in April and Son of Kong reaching marquees before the end of December.)

Robert Armstrong reprises his role as Carl Denham, and Frank Reicher and Victor Wong from the original film also return, along with stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien and director Ernest B. Schoedsack (the less-famous half of the uncredited directing pair behind the original, though Merian C. Cooper’s name is conspicuously absent from the sequel). The only writer who returns is Ruth Rose and Son of Kong sees Helen Mack replacing Fay Wray in the role of female lead, though she’s destined to do a lot less screaming.

Son of Kong establishes the formula that would come to define the lackluster blockbuster sequel up to the present day. It opens with Carl Denham flat broke and hiding from process servers after being sued by “everyone in New York” for the fiasco with Kong in the last movie. (Shades of the beginning of Ghostbusters 2, among others.) It doesn’t take long, though, for the film to get the cast together under flimsy pretenses, with Denham back aboard the Venture and out into the West Indies, where we meet the new characters: Helen Mack’s female lead and John Marston’s duplicitous Captain Hellstrom. Son of Kong uses half of its brief 69-minute running time setting up a situation to get all of them back onto Skull Island, but, once there, they don’t waste any time before meeting the film’s titular character, the 12-foot-tall, albino Little Kong.

From there, the special effects shots come hot and heavy. Denham and Hilda (apparently the name of Helen Mack’s character, according to the credits, though Denham only ever calls her “Kid”) save Little Kong from quicksand. After that, he becomes their friend, protecting them from a cave bear and a big dragon-like dinosaur with spooky eyes, shaking down coconuts for them from a tree, and even reaching down the island’s treasure (fist-sized diamonds) from a cool-looking statue. (Meanwhile, the other characters get cornered in a cave by a styracosaurus.)

The shots compositing living actors with models are all pretty great, especially stuff like the jokey scene of Little Kong shaking the coconut tree. And the stop-motion monster fights, while not nearly as brutal as the ones in King Kong, are fun enough. The whole thing ends with a pretty spectacular storm and earthquake that destroy Skull Island and kill Little Kong, but not before he saves Denham’s life yet again.

Son of Kong has a bad reputation, but it’s not really a bad movie. The effects are nice and Helen Mack’s character is absolutely adorable. Son of Kong‘s problem is that it has some extremely big shoes to fill and it just isn’t trying all that hard. The story has it that writer Ruth Rose had no intention of making a serious film, on the grounds that there was no way it could live up to its predecessor. “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier,” she’s supposed to have said, a sentiment that a lot of movie fans would probably not take very kindly to. So, Son of Kong comes out slight and goofy, full of jokes and without any real dramatic weight, which means that it tends to get dismissed, at best. But it really is a charming enough film on its own merits. The problem is that King Kong was a legitimately great film, while this is merely a cute one.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but join us next time when we try to figure out just what that is on Satan’s claw. Ketchup?