Orphan In The Storm: The Son of Kong
As Franklin Roosevelt moved into the White House in Spring 1933, Americans got KING KONG in its original release. The film was such an immediate artistic and financial success that, prodded into activity by an anxious RKO, the KONG crew - producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Schoedsack, special effects expert Willis O'Brien, composer Max Steiner, screenwriter Ruth Rose - rushed back to work. Before another studio could capitalize on "big ape" movies, RKO would do so itself, though aware that bringing the actual Kong back would be too much of a gamble: his death falling off the Empire State Building possessed such finality.
Instead, RKO invented an orphaned foundling (and motherless) child for the late simian monster: THE SON OF KONG. Six months after KING KONG's release, the sequel arrived at neighborhood theatres.
THE SON OF KONG begins imposingly enough, with ominous, dramatic jungle music and a closeup of Kong himself at his ferocious best-all muscles, hair, and teeth. Then the camera dollies back: disappointingly, Kong is only a picture on a poster, an inanimate artifact hung on a wall. In place of the cosmically energized stomping grounds of KING KONG, the new locale is the drab, confined living quarters of a cheap New York rooming house.
Who lives here? It's KONG's maestro, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong again), hardly recognizable. Denham has fallen on terrible times since Kong took blocks of New York to his final destiny, and left his business manager responsibility for the deaths and property damage. "Tell the public that Carl Denham, the smart guy who was going to make a million dollars off of King Kong is flat broke," the deflated promoter lectures a reporter. "Everyone in New York is suing me."
Denham is not only newly impoverished, eluding a host of creditors, but, out of character, penitent about the havoc caused by Kong. "Don't you think I'm sorry for the harm?" he asks, and not without feeling. "I wish I'd left him on the island. I'm paying for what he did." The bold entrepeneur saw his fortune crash with Kong's fall. Now reduced in status to a Depression Everyman, Denham uses his last gasps of energy to flee to safety on the back of a junk wagon. He's off to sea again...
KING KONG was a pacesetter: bold of conception, stirring in content, a movie which felt to viewers like no other before it. THE SON OF KONG is conservative and cautious (and low budget) in comparison, a movie of quiet excitements and leisurely pace, and derivative of the filmic past. Many of the scenes are recognizable variations of sequences in the parent film. Not obvious to modern audiences is that huge chunks of the plot are lifted from a lost silent movie of the Tiffany Corporation called THE ENCHANTED ISLAND (1927), which probably had been inspired in turn by Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST.
The earlier film concerned a father (Henry B. Walthall) and his adolescent daughter (Charlotte Stevens) stranded for fifteen years on a tropical island with only their trained animals as companions. Three men land on the island: the hero, Bob Hamilton (Pierre Gendron), the villain, "Red" Blake, and Ulysses Abraham Washington, a "Negro" cook. Hamilton falls in love with the girl and teaches her about the outside world. Blake kills the father after a quarrel, but he is done in by the cook during a volcanic eruption.
The lovers escape from the molten lava and are rescued by the inevitable passing cruiser.
Ruth Rose's script for THE SON OF KONG utilizes the plot above, with some adjustments. A young girl, Hilda (Helen Mack), and her alcoholic father have lived for years as expatriates in the port of Dakang, supporting themselves through a sideshow act featuring trained monkeys. Sailing into Dakang are the hero, Denham, the villain, Helstrom (John Marston), the ship's captain (KONG's Frank Reicher), and a Chinese cook, Charley (KONG's Victor Wong). Helstrom quarrels with Hilda's father and murders him. Eventually, Helstrom is killed by a sea-monster and buried beneath a volcanic explosion. Denham and Hilda escape the molten lava as the island sinks into the sea. They are rescued by a cruiser.
The Dakang of THE SON OF KONG is hardly an idyllic "enchanted island" setting; rather it is a dank hangout for lost sailers and drifters. Nor is Denham's meeting with Hilda the stuff dreams are made of. He and the captain follow a sign pointing the way to an enchanting evening of music with the "Belle Helene." Their trip ends on a flat bench in a tent crowded with the lowest native element. They sit in stony silence watching a monkey orchesta perform its dubious act. The tiny animals, dressed as miniature bellhops, pound on intruments in arrhythmic counterpoint, an unnerving prelude to the show's star attraction. "Helene" turns out to be a misplaced American, Hilda, who strums a Hawaiian guitar in a clumsy attempt to appear exotic and sings badly in a high-pitched voice, "Oh, I've to the runaway blues today."
This finely detailed, idiosyncratic scene is inspired surely by the global travels in the 1920s of both then-documentarians, the filmmakers, Cooper and Schoedsack. In fact, the producer, Cooper (whose resemblance to actor Armstrong is uncanny), speaks at length of an analogous experience in his autobiographical journal, THE SEA GYPSY,a 1924 account of an around-the-world voyage with the famed explorer, Captain Edward Salisbury.
Cooper had landed in Jibuti, an Abbysinian port, and wandered with a friend into the native quarters, where they were invited by locals to "See Arab dance, see Somali dance." Cooper's companion remarked excitedly, "Well, here's a chance to see the famous and beautiful and sensuous dances of the East." They followed their hosts through crooked streets and into a tiny tent where, in lieu of a promised stage show, three Arab women swayed their bodies in the squat floor space between beds. Cooper, disenchanted, wrote in his diary: "These dancers and the fly-ridden café are Jibuti's only amusements. Absolutely nothing else."
In THE SON OF KONG, Denham is forgiving of Helen's artistic shortcomings and shoddy stage act. The avowed misogynist and producer of machismo adventure films, the person who told sexy Ann Darrow in KING KONG that their relationship would be strictly business, and meant it, this same person falls in love. And when Hilda's father is murdered, Denham takes her willingly aboard for a return voyage to Skull Island. This bashfully grinning middle-aged courier even finds time to flirt with Hilda under the moonlight when the ship is at sea.
At last, with the Dakang exposition completed and romance brewing, THE SON OF KONG shifts its plot to the concerns for which film patrons presumably paid their money, a return voyage to strange, fantastic Skull Island. The sailing party approaches the beach to be greeted by Willis O'Brien's eerie black apparitions floating through the air like furies. It's KING KONG refrained, including Max Steiner's flamboyant, chilling jungle music.
The excitement quickly subsides. Skull Island seems cleaned up a bit since the last visit, with many of the rougher prehistoric beasts, from tyrannosaur to pterodactyl, missing this time. (Only the amphibian dinosaur from KING KONG makes a return appearance, gobbling up the evil Helstrom at an opportune moment.) All in all, the rejuvenated Skull Island is a fairly safe place to bring up a youngster, unless the youth happens to be the rowdy son of Kong.
Denham and and Hilda come across a most distressing sight, the titular star of the movie up to his neck in quicksand and yelping like a puppy for assistance. At last, the long-awaited scion of Kong reveals himself. As with the new Denham, he is a much-diminished presence. This twelve-foot Kong will not trample on native villages nor rampage through the streets of New York. He's prepubescent and shows no Kong-like desire for ravaging the heroine, Hilda.
With little worry for their safety, Denham and Hilda pull Kong out of the mire. Denham: "I felt I owed his family something." Kong Jr. lumbers after his saviors in gratitude, and soon protects them against the more insistently carnivorous of the native animals. In parodic imitation of the Darwinian battle to the death between King Kong and the ferocious tyrannosaur, little Kong takes on a nasty-tempered bear in schoolyard-brawl fashion. They box, wrestle, and tumble about the terrain, but with far more noise than physical damage. Denham and Hilda root their new friend to victory in the tussle. An admiring Denham vapidly remarks, "Gee, can he scrape. Just like his old man."
For the time being, Skull Island seems at peace. At the end of a day's wandering through the forest maze, THE SON OF KONG's heroes are separated from the other party of explorers. The new lovers bed down near each other for the night, with Kong Jr. keeping watch over them, like the lion in Rousseau's painting of THE SLEEPING GYPSY. The movie acquires a tranquil beauty reminscent of Shakespearean romance. And, as often in Shakespeare, the movie splits into a counterpoint double plot.
PLOT A: The enchanted greenery sanctifies a trinity of man, woman, and beast. Denham, Hilda, and Kong, Jr., have a restful night of sleep and sanctuary, and the following day Denham discovers the hidden treasures of the island.
PLOT B: The captain, the cook, and the villain, Helstrom - an unholy threesome - have holed up for the night against their wills in a bare stone cavern. Outside, a raging prehistoric behemoth pounds against the rocks trying to get at them. These three get no sleep at all, not even a chance to sit down, and no treasures await them.
THE SON OF KONG at this point has found itself, evolving from a somewhat tenuous work into a narrative structured and purposeful. But everything gained is quickly lost. Literally from nowhere, a mighty storm breaks on the horizon. Skull Island, its volcanoes exploding, stumbles into the ocean, taking with it the last vestiges on earth of prehistoric culture and the dead body of the evil Helstrum.
The virtuous protagonists - Hilda, the captain, the Chinese cook - row away in the nick of time. (What happens to the black native populace on the other side of the island? Their plight is ignored.) Carl Denham is plucked from Davey Jones's locker by way of the most valiant (and also contrived and sentimental) heroic sacrifice. Little Kong, noble savage, holds Denham above the waves in his gentle fist until a rescue is possible. Then, with Max Steiner's mournful elegy of strings soaring in the background (the same music which lay King Kong to rest), the young gorilla giant is swallowed by the ocean.
Did RKO cut short the shooting schedule in rushing THE SON OF KONG into the market? Why else the abrupt halt to the narrative at under 70 minutes? The development of the story for more than an hour deserves a better conclusion that an abrupt five minutes of manufactured apocalypse and Kong, Jr.'s sentimentalized drowning. Hardly more satisfactory is the concluding tag of Denham and Hilda cooing together aboard a rescue vessel, cutely bantering about their impending marriage.
"Poor little Kong. Do you think he knows he was saving my life?" Denham asks with dimwitted seriousness. At the fadeout, the romantic couple turn to portioning out the treasure money. Kong, Jr., already is forgotten by them.
And for movie audiences? Decades later, hardly any KING KONG fan remembers a son at all.
(Slightly revised from FILM HERITAGE, No.9 )