Well, What'dya Know! A Little Kong! [The Ballad of Kong Pt. 8]

[Kong crazy? Read Pt. 1Pt. 2Pt. 3Pt. 4Pt. 5Pt. 6 and Pt. 7 too!]

My copy on VHS.
The general consensus regarding sequels is that they are invariably disappointing. The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part 2 are generally considered by most critics of note as being those rare exceptions, actually not just equaling their progenitors, but also slyly improving on their respective formulae in many ways.

Such is not the case with The Son of Kong, the quickie buck-grabber that RKO squatted out late in 1933 after Baby Kong's Big Daddy took the world for the biggest cinematic thrill ride yet seen at that point in history. It rides the usual course of sequels, especially those that attempt to follow the successful first film too quickly to grab those too appealing consumer dollars. The original King Kong took a couple years to plan and produce, so it is not surprising that a followup jammed into theatres only a few months later was not going to fulfill the promise of the first one.

The only real problem with this go-around is that The Son of Kong is just not King Kong. That's it. There is nothing overtly terrible about the film. It has the same producers, the same special effects team, and much of the same crew. The pedigree is the same, but The Son of Kong simply fails to fill the insanely huge footprints that were left in its predecessor's wake. The film itself is exactly a half hour shorter than King Kong, and because of this brevity, along with the slow build getting back to Skull Island, the main characters, and the viewers, are practically off the island as quickly as they arrived on it. And not by choice, as the film also leads to a sad and memorable ending, but one which shows off the cheapness with which the project was approached from the beginning. Producer and Kong co-creator Merian C. Cooper had little input in the production whatsoever, leaving the work almost solely to original co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack and stop-motion wizard Willis O'Brien, and with a much smaller budget to boot.

What is right with the film? The expected elements are there: Robert Armstrong is back as a now remorseful Carl Denham, finally taking the blame on himself for the elder Kong's death, as he should. (C'mon, Carl! I thought "'twas Beauty killed the Beast!" You really must have been in denial at the end of King Kong.) O'Brien's effects work is still impressive, if a bit short-cutted in a few scenes due to budget and time restrictions; Frank Reicher makes a welcome return as the loyal Captain Englehorn; and Victor Wong also shows up again as Charlie the Chinese cook, in an expanded role this time, with a good amount of fractured dialogue that should create expectedly nervous results for the modern viewer.

Due to a lack of Fay Wray, the Betty Boop-ish Helen Mack fills in as the cutie pie ingenue, who this time only has to befriend a much smaller (just twelve ft.) albino "baby" gorilla who is the supposed progeny of Kong. Where's is Kong's original intended mate in this film? Was Ann Darrow simply a fling, or are there nine months of post-NYC "outtakes" hidden somewhere? Mack also has to play love interest to Denham, something that wasn't even a consideration with Wray in the original film. The romance between Mack and Armstrong, though, is kept low-key and sweet, and adds to the film's aura of being a mere child's entertainment. Such a mood is in the same tone as the violence on the island, where the fights between the young Kong Jr. and Skull Island's monstrous denizens is quite as savage as the battles his father engaged in for the original.

The Son of Kong does have considerable, early '30s atmosphere, and for a good while in my youth, this was enough to convince me of its worthiness as a film. The low-rent vaudeville scenes at the beginning of the film almost seem like they were cut out of Freaks (which is a plus), and the murderous drunkard bastard of a villain is perfectly hissable and deserves his fate. While there is much less screen time, the battle scenes between little Kong and his fellow stop-motion opponents come one right after the other, which means the film moves pretty quickly and well through its final two-thirds. All of this appealed to me greatly in the summer of '77 when I first saw The Son of Kong as part of that afternoon monster matinee slot that I tuned into every weekday. Thanks to Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, I knew of the existence of The Son of Kong, but never thought I would get a chance to see it. Overall, the film is not a bad entertainment at all, and I quite like it.

It is just not Kong. No matter how many times it is attempted by various parties to equal that original film, or how they try to modernize the effects, costumes, acting, and everything, they all fail to match it. While I greatly enjoyed the new Peter Jackson version, and it has much that is of a high excellence, it is still a remake. While I was watching it, and even while loving most of what I was seeing, I was always aware that my feelings in watching it would be the same as when I watch The Son of Kong. That is, there would always be a sense that, as soon as I finished watching this other version, that I would probably have to return to the original to capture that full feeling when I saw it as a kid.

The Ballad of Kong is over... for now.


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