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October 2010

The Son Of Kong

cast: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher, John Marston, and Victor Wong

director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

69 minutes (PG) 1933
Odeon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Son Of Kong

Every hot property demands a sequel. A principle as true at the dawn of Hollywood as it is now. And few properties are as super-hot as King Kong. So, for instant reference purposes, this film opens with a close-up of a King Kong wall-poster strap-lined 'the eighth wonder of the world'. When it comes to monster movies, Willis O'Brien's stop-frame animation wrote the rule-book. By investing his most famous creation with near-human expression and characteristics he ensured that all subsequent creature features had to incorporate pathos as well as mayhem.

For 'Carl Denham's monster', the biggest ape of them all, there have been periodic inept remakes, but no one can touch the original 1933 production. It's true that previous to the film, the idea of Skull Island was already in the air, at least since Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World (1912), which locates dinosaurs on a remote South American plateau, or more specifically Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional Caprona, the lost island of The Land That Time Forgot (1918).

Creepy to think back then there was no Google-Earth satellite mapping, flight itself was in its infancy, and there was still terra incognita where dragons might just possibly lurk. It wasn't necessary to do the Jurassic Park gene-thing to manufacture monsters, they were just there, awaiting discovery! Burroughs' Caprona lies somewhere off Antarctica, Skull Island is in the Indian Ocean, but - with some slight and probably exaggerated input from Edgar Wallace, when they ordered up a giant ape to complement the island's prehistoric fauna, they got more than they'd bargained for.

It's impossible now - after Walking With Dinosaurs all the way from One Million Years BC, to gauge the effect on 1930s audiences of actually seeing such creatures on screen. Surely King Kong must have been the Avatar of its day? - while utilising the same technological trick that brings us Wallace & Gromit, today. Less celebrated - in fact, near forgotten, is Kong's sequel released in December of that same year in direct continuation of the story and characters. A stripped-down nucleus of the original Kong crew led by director Ernest B. Shoedsack and his writer/ wife Ruth Rose, ensure that it is lighter and intentionally more playful than its predecessor, but valuably retains O'Brien's animating genius.

Robert Armstrong returns as mild-mannered pipe-smoking filmmaker Carl Denham, first glimpsed sneaking warily from his room to a cartoon-capers soundtrack. He's furtively avoiding reporters-in-disguise, lurkers serving writs and summons, lawsuits and the grand jury indictment which all flow from Kong's New York rampage. The wall-poster in his apartment is all he has left to show for his great adventure. "Broke?" he admits "I'm shattered!" Frank Reicher also returns as glum Captain Englehorn who helps him escape it all via his tramp-steamer on a far-east voyage that ends up with them in the Malayan port of Dakang.

The sharp digital monochrome print is impressive, even in the places where the back-projection and inserted stock-footage lets it down. And some of the sequences, such as the performing monkey-musicians, are downright weird. To add romantic interest there's Hilda who performs as 'La Belle Helene' in her father's tent-show, singing The Runaway Blues while strumming a guitar. "She's got something," enthuses Denham. "It certainly isn't a voice," retorts a downbeat Englehorn. Helen Mack is good at filling Fay Wray's sensible shoes, and acquits herself well in the impossible task of replicating her elusively luminous screen-presence.

"Did you ever catch a monkey?" she taunts Denham as she tries to lure her escaped monkey-musicians down from a tree. "Lady, you'd be surprised," he quips. Then Denham is duped by devious Nils Helstrom into returning to Skull Island, hunting lost treasure. Hilda, another victim of Helstrom's conniving (he killed her father and burnt down his tent-show) becomes the beautiful stowaway. They fail to appreciate that Helstrom's swarthy appearance and dubious foreign accent mark him out as the obvious villain.

Conspiring with trouble-making proto-commie bo'sun Red, he provokes the crew to mutiny, intent on taking over the ship. Denham, Englehorn, Hilda - plus the loyal Chinese cook with his handy meat-cleaver, are cast adrift in the lifeboat. When the mutineers prove unwilling to trade a good captain for a bad one, they chuck Helstrom overboard too. Rescued by the four, they reach the island by lifeboat. "When the natives see us they'll throw a party," predicts Denham. They throw spears instead, holding a quite reasonable grudge as a result of their earlier encounter. Noble Johnson plays the tribal chief in both movies.

Fleeing the unfriendly reception they try again, penetrating the island's interior through a half-submerged cave-corridor in the fortress-cliff's sheer rock-face. Soon they're rescuing a 12-foot albino baby Kong from the quicksand. 'A human loveable laughable beast!' proclaims the DVD's bonus-feature movie-trailer, 'a friend of man' invested by Willis O'Brien with elements of proto-speech. The captain is less convinced. "A little Kong?" he queries uncertainly, "how little?" There was no child support agency in those days, and baby-Kong has an absentee mother. After all, there must have been a Mrs Kong at some point, and what a mighty copulation that must have been! I guess the earth moved for sure!

So baby-Kong attaches himself to the group instead, as a kind of friendly stalker. "It sounds kinda silly," admits Hilda, "but I'm sorry for him" as she rips her underskirt - just like in the westerns, to fashion a first-aid dressing for baby-Kong's hurt finger. And Denham has learned humility, "this is sort-of an apology," he explains to an attentive Kiko (as in ki[ng] ko[ng]). In return, the great ape becomes their 'guardian angel', saving them from a giant cave bear, pulling a dazed expression in mid-fight before driving it off with a tree-branch, and then battling an aggressive dinosaur. He brushes his hands in a neat 'job-done' gesture after dispatching the long-necked mega-fauna.

Later, getting jiggy with Hilda beside the campfire, Denham says "I'm sorry I got you into this, kid." ... "You didn't, I came," she responds in unintended double-entendre, with baby-Kong peeping gleefully from behind a big rock. Despite Helstrom's promise of treasure being bogus, they find it anyway. There's an ancient temple carved into the face of Skull Mountain. Baby-Kong scratches his head in imitation human confusion, then assists Denham and Helen to uncover its rock-blocked entrance. So it seems Denham's problems are over, the treasure will buy off his New York litigations... but first, the earth moves for real.

'Nature goes mad' blares the trailer; and they're caught up in a special-effects earthquake. Helstrom is killed by a sea-serpent as he treacherously tries to make off with the lifeboat. Baby Kong assists Denham to reach the mountain-peak as Skull Island submerges into the sea taking its menagerie of secrets with it, "ripping, tearing, sucking the earth under seas," and effectively killing off 'Kong 3', except as possibly a sub-aquatic venture.

Finally, baby-Kong brandishes the tiny human figure aloft in his massive protective paw as he vanishes beneath the tide, until only the huge hand is left and Denham is plucked clear into the lifeboat. The four survivors still have the diamonds to divide between them. "One-third to us," smiles Helen, implying future romantic togetherness in blissful domesticity. In fact, Robert Armstrong survived to appear with another giant ape in Mighty Joe Young (1949), while 'Carl Denham' returned in the guise of Jack Black for Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong remake. In the meantime, this charming feature forms an enjoyable addition to the genre.

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