King Kong opened in April 1933, The Son of Kong opened for Christmas 1933. The rush shows. The special effects really suffer–for whatever reason, when Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack are added to the little Kong’s shots, it’s fine, but when little Kong is added to Armstrong and Mack’s… it’s not. It’s like the focus is off on the rear projector.
But the story suffers more. Son of Kong runs a lean seventy minutes, with almost forty-five gone by before the little Kong shows up. That pacing is actually fine. It gives the movie time to catch up with Armstrong and skipper Frank Reicher, get them out to sea in a new story and then introduce the girl. There’s got to be a pretty face. And when Helen Mack shows up, Son of Kong takes a decidedly darker turn. It’s a downer–Mack’s stuck on a tiny port village with no prospects thanks to an alcohol father (a disturbing Clarence Wilson). Armstrong runs into an old acquaintance, who ties into the first movie, played by John Marston. Marston’s also playing a down and out drunk and the whole film sort of wallows in despair.
It opened with a fine comic sequence with Armstrong avoiding process servers, which mixed the character’s despair with being an amusing film experience… but later on, writer Ruth Rose apparently didn’t want to curb it. The scenes at the port are so depressing, it’s fully believable when Armstrong and Mack soon connect onboard the ship–even though their fortunes aren’t much better. At least they aren’t in that port anymore.
The relationship between Armstrong and Mack is Son of Kong‘s best feature. The sequel’s entirely superfluous and, at its best, is a simply another seventy minutes the viewer gets to spend with Armstrong. Here he gets to develop the character free of narrative constraint and his performance is excellent. Reicher also gets a lot more emphasis and he’s great too. But with Mack, Armstrong’s performance comes alive. There’s nuance and subtlety to their interactions, something more sublime than the film could ever hope for. It doesn’t hurt she’s a perfect counterpart to him, down to her voice.
When the film gets to the island and little Kong and the assorted monsters, it does all right for quite a while. It’s all rapidly paced, but it gets into the kinship between Armstrong and the little Kong, which is affecting thanks to Armstrong’s performance.
Then the movie ends. Had it gone on for longer–and I’m not even talking about a decent Armstrong and Mack kiss–I’m just talking about some more content, it would have been much better. Because the entry to the island, the set-up there, is all fantastic–and then it stops. Instead of the bigger sequel of today, it’s the smaller sequel–the pre-Empire Strikes Back sequel. When Skull Island sinks at the end, it almost seems like the filmmakers are ruling out any further, even cheaper returns… and it’s damn unfortunate this one wasn’t given more of a budget. As an inessential sequel goes, The Son of Kong has a lot going for it and it’s a shame it wasn’t able to fully realize it.