If you thought that a hastily thrown together sequel rushed into production and released as soon as possible as a cynical gash-grab to capitalize on its far superior predecessor was a modern phenomenon you are sorely mistaken! That’s been happening since pretty much the advent of filmmaking in general. Case in point: Son of Kong.
Now to be fair Son of Kong isn’t a bad film – it’s actually quite charming in its own little way – it just does not come close to matching or even attempting to rival its predecessor in any way.
First of all it is a comedy. In fact Ruth Rose who wrote the script for the film said she intentionally made no attempt to make it a serious picture. Since there was no way to surpass the original in scope and tone it was decided to go in a much different direction. Or as Rose put it, “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier.”
And so they did – with interesting results.
Son of Kong (1932)
“Say, that’s no way to talk. ‘I wasn’t very good. The show wasn’t very good.’ Cut it out. You wanna tell everybody how good you are. Throw out your chest. Brag about yourself.” – Carl Denham
What I Remember
This is another movie that I first saw on my portable B&W TV set late night at night. I want to say that it was played the week following the airing of the original King Kong because that seems like how it should have happened, but to be honest I’m not really sure if that is a fact or not (memory is weird that way). I can say for certain that I saw it fairly soon after seeing the original. And whereas when watching the original I mentioned that I was disappointed, almost bored, that it took quite a long time for Kong to show up in that movie in this one it didn’t bother me as much when the same thing happened. You’d think it would bother me more since “Little Kong” in this film takes even longer to show up (about 43 minutes in to a 70 minute film to be in fact) but this movie has a completely different feel than the original and so that wait time did not seem as important. In fact the giant ape part of the movie feels almost incidental.
Because this is a comedy there is a very different vibe to the story. It resembles more of a Hope/Crosby road film or an Abbott and Costello genre romp than a pseudo fantasy action thriller. And the result of that is a completely different experience than of the first. The anticipation to see the giant monsters and the non-stop action associated with it is instead replaced with some goofy comedy and not-very-tense set pieces. Even Little Kong himself is played for laughs and he is more lovable and cuddly than terrifying killing machine.
Now as I’ve mentioned many times on this blog I feel as if I was a weird kid. I loved old movies – particularly the black and white ones from the 30s and 40s – and if there was a monster or a giant animal in them all the better. And the funny ones at the time were a particular favorite as well. Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers, Hope/Crosby, Laurel and Hardy, and all the screwball comedies made at this time I found endlessly watchable. So Son of Kong for me fell into that category.
It has all the beats of a 30s comedy with a little action thrown in for good measure. (And of course a musical number. God films at this time loved musical numbers didn’t they? Sure, sometimes it was germane to the plot but more often than not it was a way to pad the run time. Son of Kong falls into the latter category.) I remember watching the movie like I would one of those comedies with no anticipation for the monster at all, so when Little Kong did show up for his deus ex monkeyna (can’t lie – I cracked myself up when I wrote that) at the end I remember thinking that was just a bonus – like a man in a gorilla costume – played for laughs followed by a rush to the credits.
Does It Hold Up?
Well, no. But to be fair I don’t think it was meant to. I said at the top that this was a cynical cash grab but I don’t think that is exactly true. Oh, it was a cash grab for sure, specifically designed to capitalize on the success of the unexpected hit of the original, but I do think there was a genuine attempt to make an entertaining film.
For modern audiences there are some questionable depictions as was common of the era. The character of Charlie for instance (credited as “Chinese Cook”) is played as comic relief in the most stereotypical ways you can imagine. He is played by a man of Asian descent rather than a white guy in yellowface – so that’s a plus I suppose – still it can be cringe-worthy much of the time. And the island natives are similarly depicted, as in the original, as “savages” and that can also be a bit tough to stomach. Still, in one of the more amusing bits of the film, upon returning to the island Denham believes he will be received as a hero by the natives for ridding them of Kong only to find he is despised for ruining their culture and society. I would love to say this is a critique on colonialism – and could easily be read that way today – but let’s face it this was just a gag at the time this was made with no other implications inherent in it. It is still rather amusing though.
The end does have a bit of tragedy to it as well. Due to “reasons” the island sinks into the sea and our heroes (read white people) are saved from drowning by Little Kong along with a big-ass diamond for good measure. The image of Little Kong’s hand holding Denham above the water in order to be rescued is tragic and a little sad – it’s a stunning image for sure…
But I’m more concerned with the hundreds of natives killed because Denham wanted to exploit them and make a lot of money. Basically, Carl Denham is a really bad person.
But a deep reading is not what this movie is about. That is not what this movie is. As I said before Son of Kong does have some quirky charm to it. This was never meant to be an all-time classic that will echo down the annals of moviedom, it was not a film to make you think hard about the issues of the day, or contemplate the philosophical ramifications of colonialism. Rather it was created to be a quasi-comedy follow-up of a wildly popular predecessor to entertain audiences in the tiny window of time after that major hit. It’s a romp, a little popcorn flick to make the kids smile in matinee showings. It was meant to come and go quickly and make as much box-office revenue as possible while being as entertaining as possible. So it’s fine. Nothing groundbreaking, just fine.
And in the end you really can’t go wrong with a comedy romance that also has giant monsters in it.