'If you can't make it bigger, make it funnier.' This is the basis on which screenwriter Ruth Rose approached this rushed sequel to RKO Radio Pictures' smash-hit money-spinner "King Kong" in 1933, the film going into production mere months after the original opened. Rose had been one of three screenwriters on "King Kong", helping to bring to vivid life a fairy tale rendering of the co-director and producer Merian C. Cooper's strange, obsessive vision --weirdly, composed of all the major events and elements of his life (for Cooper had been both an aerial combatant in World War 1 as well as an ethnographic adventurer and documentary filmmaker alongside cinematographer, and Kong's co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack) -- in what remains the granddaddy of all monster movies.
The sequel was inevitable, and so was the fact that it would never match its progenitor. Perhaps with this firmly in mind, "The Son of Kong" -- now completely a product of the Schoedsack and Rose partnership (the two had married in 1925) with the former co-director now made producer and sole director -- the film deliberately makes this gorilla offspring a considerably diminished spectacle when placed alongside his old man. If you takes seriously one interpretation of the original, which locates Kong as white society's representation of the oppressed black man and its fear of his rising up in rebellion, then "The Son of Kong" is the soothing antidote to the previous film's unassailable nightmare. Here, the monster is only a cuddly twelve foot tall albino version of daddy, called little Kong in the film and nicknamed Kiko by fans; he's prone to getting himself into comical scrapes and has to be rescued or given first aid by his daddy's former tormentor from the first film, Carl Denham (played by a returning Robert Armstrong), now paying for past sins by forming a chummy partnership with the previous giant ape's considerably friendlier, neutered (and much whiter!) offspring, until the mist-shrouded Netherworld of Skull Island is vanished altogether beneath the sea in a freak underwater volcanic eruption, Denham being raised to safety above the crashing waves in a drowning Little Kong's outstretched palm.
This is a fantasy in which the brute masculine aggression of Kong is finally tamed and made domestic and comical, and the sexual frisson of the original film, which was formerly displayed in the relationship of sexual curiosity between Fay Wray and her giant furry native kidnapper, is disipated for the sake of a gentle bumbling partnership with Little Kong, who proves himself more anxious to please and ingratiate himself with Denham than he is to perv over the alluring young female presence of Wray's replacement, Helen Mack.
Despite neither Fay Wray nor Bruce Cabot returning to reprise their roles from the original movie, all the secondary characters are back and actor Robert Armstrong is said to have much preferred this sixty-five minute sequel to the original, since it spends far more time on developing both his character, Carl Denham, and that of the S.S. Venture's Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher). In fact, there are nice performances throughout by both man, monkey and monster.The story opens three weeks after the events of the first film with New York understandably having become a little angry with the film-making Impresario: the press are camped outside his apartment and he's having to fend off various summonses for all the death and damage caused by Kong's rampage.
After a tip-off that the Grand Jury is planning to indict him, Denham escapes the City and joins Captain Englehorn on an extended trip aboard the Venture around the East Indies, delivering freight to the smaller ports in the region such as that of Dakang. While there looking for cargo, they come into contact with Hiilda, the ex-ballet dancing daughter of a former Dutch circus ringmaster called Petersen (Clarence Wilson), now reduced to introducing a flea-bitten, down at heel musical review show which (rather incongruously) promises 'Laughs!' and 'Thrills!' curtesy of his headlining daughter (billed as 'La Belle Helene') singing whimsical blues numbers supported by a troupe of costumed musical monkeys and 'sagacious seals'.
Petersen's only buddy is the drunken ex captain of the Norwegian barque who originally provided Debham with the map he used to locate Skull Island. It turns out that he wreaked his own ship deliberately in an insurance scam that didn't come off. In a drunken argument, the ex captain murders Petersen and burns down his makeshift circus show, but after learning that Hilda is aware of his culpability, Captain Helstrom (John Marston) tricks Englehorn and Denhem into providing him with passage aboard the Venture by pretending that there is hidden treasure to be found on Skull Island which he can lead them to. However, the homeless Hilda has also stowed away aboard the ship!
There is an obvious reference to the growing nervousness about the spread of communism in the U.S. during the late thrities, symbolised in the events depicted aboard the Venture as Helstrom turns the crew's thoughts to mutiny by telling them that Englehorn and Denham are willing to risk all their lives by returning them to Skull Island. Helstrom's plan is to encourage a mutiny, and himself then take over captaincy of the Venture. but things don't work out, for once having set Englehorn, Denham, Hilda and reliable Chinese stalwart from the first movie, Charlie (Victor Wong), adrift in a rowing boat off the shores of Skull Island, the crew decide that they don't want any captain at all, and turf Helstrom over the side, forcing him to make amends with the people he's just betrayed rather quickly! A timely parable on the dangers of Trade Unionism and commie infiltration!
All this takes up well over half the film's all too brief running time, so that the adventures in the prehistoric jungle which follow are trotted through at a fairly brisk pace. The group get separated, and while Helstrom, Englehorn and Charlie are pursued by an angry triceratops, Denham and Hilda stumble upon Little Kong near an ancient temple structure, where he's got himself trapped in some quicksand. They help him to escape by cutting down a nearby tree he can use to yank himself out with, and Little Kong seems to take to them both instantly -- protecting them from a variety of odd prehistoric lizards and even a giant bear, whilst providing amusing comic pratfalls and pulling humorous facial expressions almost constantly.
Willis O'Brien once again provides the stop motion animation as he did in the original, and although there is nothing here as considered or complex as that which was seen in the first film, OBrien seems to have realised just how much personality can be wrung from such simplistic stop motion techniques, and makes this Little Kong puppet a hilarious comic performer, gurning and mugging to camera the whole time while Max Steiner recycles cues from the original score.
The key scene comes when Denham rather bluntly apologies for gassing King Kong and admits to being responsible for his death while haphazardly bandaging Kiko's finger. The little furry guy seems to understand and forgives him! Just to add even more implausibility to an already unashamedly unlikely series of events, Denham discovers that there really is treasure inside the ancient island temple after all, and Denham and Hilda hook up in the final scenes just after Denham's been rescued by Little Kong and the island sinks beneath the waves forever. The whole thing plays like an unlikely wish-fulfilment fantasy for the Denham character: one almost expects him to wake any moment to discover he's been living some kind of Lynchian dream-life escape from reality, and that he's still back in New York the whole time, running from the aftermath of the original King Kong's rampage of destruction.
"The Son of Kong" comes to UK DVD as part of Odeon Entertainment's Hollywood Studio Collection and features a fairly nice print with minimal damage and a small photo gallery as the only extra besides the grainy and crudely edited theatrical trailer. The gallery does contain several colour storyboard sketches for the film, through, as well as the usual small selection of film stills. Produced in a rush and very deliberately silly, "The Son of Kong" is nevertheless pretty enjoyable, and achieves just what it sets out to: i.e., make an inconsequential but perfectly watchable comic appendix to an all-time classic.