Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 film, King Kong, is one of the most popular films ever made. Besides being a box office smash on release–and then again and again on its rereleases–Kong is nearly universally praised, whether by the Library of Congress or the American Film Institute. In his first movie guide, Leonard Maltin called Kong a “moviegoing must”. The last edition of Maltin’s movie guide, has the same two sentence capsule, but in the intervening forty-six years, Maltin has added information about Kong’s remakes, restorations and colorizations. He has also included the subsequent notation–“followed immediately by The Son of Kong”.
Looking at the opening credits for The Son of Kong, one sees many familiar names from King Kong, but most duos are broken up. Ruth Rose is again on screenwriting duties, but her co-writer from Kong, James Ashmore Creelman, is absent. Schoedsack is directing, but Cooper is now just executive producing. Robert Armstrong and Frank Reicher are staring again, but Son is missing Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray.
Son of Kong does not have the reputation of Kong. It currently carries a thirty-three percent critics rating at “Rotten Tomatoes” (compared to the original’s ninety-eight),; the Leonard Maltin guide, in its first and final editions, awards the film ★★½. Much better than “Rotten Tomatoes” and actually quite fair. Son of Kong’s negative reputation–so infamous Peter Jackson made fun of the film in a zealous April Fools Day joke in 2005 while remaking the original–has stunted both scholarship of the film and discussion of it.
When comparing the films, star Robert Armstrong preferred Son of Kong, saying the role of Carl Denham was better in the sequel. Not sharing the screen so much with Cabot, Wray (or King Kong) meant Armstrong got “a great deal more character, swell dialogue and love scenes.”
RKO Radio Pictures started production on Son of Kong in early April, a few days before the nationwide release of King Kong. Kong had been such a success in its New York opening in March and had so impressed the studio brass, they had not just ordered the sequel, they had made Cooper the new head of production for the entire studio. Hence his inability to return to the sequel as co-director.
Cooper pitched the board a “bigger and more elaborate” sequel to Kong. He brought together Rose, Schoedsack and Willis O’Brien (who did the first film’s exceptional special effects) to put together a story in March 1933 before Rose went off to write the script. Everyone was very excited. And then the RKO board halved the budget.
Son of Kong was always going to open in the 1933 holiday season. RKO wanted a sequel when moviegoers were still excited about Kong and Cooper wanted to beat any stop motion imitations. While Cooper’s biographer Mark Cotta Vaz characterizes Cooper as disinterested in Son of Kong–Cooper, as the new head of production, ordered Son of Kong rushed and was only interested in the “bottom line” on the film, not the day-to-day progress of it.
However, RKO associate producer David Lewis characterizes Cooper as much different as a production head–at least when it came to films involving Ruth Rose. Rose was married to Schoedsack and Cooper took an active interest in the production of her scripts. He brought Lewis onto another film written by Rose, Blind Adventure, to make sure it got its best possible version. That film, released in August 1933–before Son of Kong wrapped principal photography for its actors–shared a director in Schoedsack and its leads in Armstrong and Helen Mack. Cooper, as RKO head, had halted production of Son of Kong to get Blind Adventure made.
There has been very little comprehensive research on the making of Son of Kong. Most citations come from a 1992 “American Cinematographer” article, which itself largely cites a 1975 book about the making of King Kong. Both article and book have an appreciative view of the film, but both also contain a number of historical inaccuracies. Vaz’s Cooper biography, from 2005, does not suggest scholarship on the subject is improving.
But if film historians have been interested (for the most part) but unable to properly chronicle the making of Son of Kong from the generative standpoint–the film crew’s troubles and tragedies during production are relatively well-known–at least those keen scholars are head of film critics. Son of Kong’s negative reviews did not start with “Rotten Tomatoes,” they started with “The New York Times” the day after the film premiered in New York. Even though the film was a hit in 1933–not just in the United States but also internationally, including in Malaysia (Son of Kong was “one of the few Hollywood-made films depicting that part of the world that looked sufficiently authentic to be accepted” by local audiences)–it has never had a good reputation.
That bad reputation started on a very cold day in December 1933. “New York Times” film critic Andre Sennwald must have bundled up–New Yorkers were dealing with a temperature of three below zero on December 29, 1933, the coldest day in the city in thirteen years–before heading to West 50th Street to see Son of Kong at the Roxy Theatre. The next day, Sennwald reported the film was a “low melodrama,” albeit one with “loud and satisfying” laughs. He was unsure if the filmmakers had intended the humor. Given Son of Kong’s first joke–a smart one–comes at the end of the opening titles, it is hard to understand Sennwald’s confusion. If only Sennwald read the movie gossip columns of the time–writer Ruth Rose had quite intentionally and openly “expanded” the already extant comedy to “compensate” for RKO’s halving of the budget.
In the first paragraph of his four paragraph review, Sennwald spoils the end of Son of Kong before going on to complain about the lack of spectacle in the film. He did report the film’s target audience–“the youngsters”–loudly enjoyed themselves during the same screening. So Son of Kong was for someone, just no one who appreciated the “mechanical ingenuity” of the original.
Of course, O’Brien and his crew utilized effects techniques they discovered while making the original. Technically, they were better at their craft on Son of Kong. They just did not have the time or budget to do the type of sequences in the original.
Reading Sennwald’s review today, having just seen Son of Kong–and his sentiment the sequel is “for kids” is widely held one (if people even bother to talk about Son of Kong)–it seems as though Sennwald and other critics have, over the years, seen a much different film.
Son of Kong is a depressing journey through poverty, both domestic and foreign, in an attempt not to find fortune but to find general comfort. That “great deal more character” Armstrong talked about in reference to his role? The events of the first film have left his character in deep depression, not to mention incredible legal trouble.
The film works on two very different levels. First, the one where Schoedsack and Rose joke at the idea of making a sequel to King Kong. Whether it is bringing in the unseen map maker, revealing him a murderous, dishonest drunken coward, or just having leading lady Helen Mack have a show with a bunch of cute little monkeys, Son of Kong defies the audience to get comfortable with the film. In Armstrong’s self-loathing, the film prods the audience into accepting their culpability for watching the first film and then going to see a sequel.
The Son of Kong, in 1933, is either the first post-modern studio sequel or the first famous one. And it is entirely unappreciated for that quality. The ending of the film–the one Sennwald so pointlessly (and thoroughly) spoiled–erases the “franchise.” Schoedsack, Rose, O’Brien and Cooper send it out with a bang too–Son of Kong’s Skull Island is no longer the lost world of the original film, it is a fantasy land. As it becomes more fantastic, Armstrong becomes more human. By the end of the film, he is practically a grown-up.
Since day one, critics have tried comparing the height of Son of Kong to its “father.” The film scholarship on Son of Kong is so tepid, leading lady Helen Mack’s character does not even have an agreed upon name. Called Hilda in the opening titles, no one ever refers to Mack as anything but Helene in the picture itself. No one seemed to notice this incongruity for fifty years.
Instead of being dismissed Son of Kong (it currently enjoys less regard than Schoedsack, Rose, Armstrong and Cooper’s 1949 Mighty Joe Young), the film should be appreciated and considered for its peculiarities, its singular elements. It’s strictly on the level, even with the funny business.
- Leonard Maltin, ed., TV Movies (New York: Signet, 1969), 251.
- Leonard Maltin, ed., Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide 2015: The Modern Era (New York: Penguin, 2014), 765.
- “Son of Kong (1933),” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed June 27, 2015.
- “King Kong (1933),” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed June 27, 2015.
- Maltin, Movie Guide 2015, 1309.
- Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, The Making of King Kong: The Story Behind a Film Classic (South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1975, 199-201.
- Ray Morton, King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2005), 99.
- Mark Cotta Vaz, Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong (New York: Villard, 2005), 234.
- Morton, Movie Icon, 93-5.
- Vaz, Living Dangerously, 248-9.
- David Lewis, The Creative Producer, ed. James Curtis (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993), 45-6.
- Goldner and Turner, Making of King Kong, 206.
- “Mercury 3 Below Zero, Coldest Day in 14 Years; Relief Here Due Today,” New York Times, December 30, 1933.
- Andre D. Sennwald, “The Screen: Another Jungle Monster,” New York Times, December 30, 1933.
- Morton, 95.
- Sennwald, “Jungle Monster.”