A sequel produced at breakneck pace to release the very same year as the original, Son of Kong runs just under 70 minutes, which was more common in the days of early talkies (see the earlier runtime of The Most Dangerous Game). However, I couldn’t blame audiences, jazzed for a sequel to the genre-defining original, for looking at their watches around the 45 minute mark and asking “So…uh…. Are there going to be any special effects in this movie?”
The early part of the film (written as a comedy since Ruth Rose didn’t think she could top the first dramatically) is somewhat unexpected but completely plausible: Carl Denham is getting sued by pretty much every possible party in New York. He hops aboard Englehorn’s vessel to live out his days sailing on the other side of the planet, and it’s clear that the pair of them both feel tsundere nostalgic for their time on the island of pure murder. They pick up a singer as romantic interest for Denham on one of their stops (the character is so well-developed that she’s not actually named in the dialog of the movie) in a sequence illustrating that, despite attempting to transition to sailing life, Carl is still a showman at heart, and with her comes Helstrom, the movie’s villain. A purely malevolent force in the film is a sure sign of a friendlier Kong (notice how the cartoons all have clear-cut villains while the original film doesn’t?), and sure enough, this movie may be what started that trend.
Helstrom, it turns out, was the one who first gave Denham the Skull Island map, and, eager to get a free ride, convinces him that the island is full of treasure. He then organizes a mutiny among the crew of the Venture, who, aside from Charlie, are not stupid and have no lingering desire to be eaten by dinosaurs. Helstrom underestimates just how not stupid the crew are, so they toss him over the side as well. Shenanigans ensue once the group of five reach the island, befriend a smaller, whiter version of Kong (nicknamed “Kiko” outside the text of the film), actually find treasure, and eventually there’s an earthquake that destroys the entire island… good thing they didn’t wait another week to return there!
Willis O’Brien did manage to get a fair amount of footage with the movie’s title star (who was, admittedly, a bit recycled, but underwent enough modifications to be easily distinct from the original puppet), though. Standouts include a battle with a bear-like creature (sloth?), Kiko’s introduction sinking in quicksand, his toying with a rifle, and ultimate demise (again sinking), not to mention a triceratops rampage; considering what a time-consuming process stop-motion is, O’Brien clearly worked incessantly, and it’s understandable that these sequences are all bundled together at the end…once you get to Skull Island, you don’t want to break up the action. OB was going through some seriously horrific personal stuff during the time of production, which likely dwarfed the impact of things like dealing with half the budget or studio interference, but at the end of production he was a wreck and tried to swear the film off… but RKO didn’t let him remove his name from the credits, which is certainly unfortunate. The result is that it’s one of the least-documented of his films, because he (understandably) didn’t want to talk about it.
Under such circumstances, I’d say the picture turned out pretty well. While Son of Kong doesn’t live up to the original, it does succeed in doing just what it sets out to, as a comedic look at the aftermath of the original. While it could be disappointing for those expecting the level of monster action that the first film delivered, Armstrong’s comic timing is impeccable, and I’d love to have seen this in the theater with a crowd of first-time viewers. It’s a shame that, despite the best efforts of the crew, we didn’t really get more Carl Denham adventures, because I could see him spanning a whole franchise, Kong or no.