The first thing to know about Son of Kong is that to say RKO Pictures fast-tracked a sequel to King Kong would be an understatement; RKO Pictures rolled a sequel into a perfectly smooth ball and launched it out of a Grecian war catapult. Son of Kong hit theaters just nine months after its predecessor, RKO fully assuming the part of King Kong audiences were responding to was when Kong gets shot one thousand times and plummets off the Empire State Building to his death. The studio rushed out a sequel that trimmed the fat and got straight to the part where an above-average-sized primate perishes because a dumbass human showed up.
In this case, the dumbass human is still Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), disgraced filmmaker and Kong captor. One month after the events of King Kong, Carl is feeling guilt over singlehandedly causing the only military event in U.S. history in which the Air Force had to blast a monstrous gorilla off the side of a national landmark. “I wish I’d left him on his island. Ol’ Kong, I’m sure paying for what I did to you,” he says.
I implore you to keep that line in mind as we continue through the tangled jungle vines of this anthropoidal nightmare.
Hounded by the press, Denham flees New York City, heading first to the Dutch seaport of Dakang, where he meets Hilda Petersen (Helen Mack), whose father’s subsequent death in a tent fire isn’t actually Denham’s fault but you have to admit the guy brings a death-y vibe everywhere he goes. Soon after, Denham reconnects with King Kong‘s Skull Island mapmaker Nils Helstrom (John Marston), who, in a similar role to the talking dream velociraptor of Jurassic Park 3, points Denham back to the secluded dinosaur island to which he swore never to return. There is treasure on that there island, Helstrom says, and Denham, who I must repeat is a raging asshole, cannot resist.
But it’s not treasure Denham immediately finds, but an eight-foot-tall albino gorilla who he quickly deduces is the titular son of Kong. There is no discussion about a possible Mother of Son of Kong, but the logistics of his conception have kept me awake for a fortnight. Denham rescues Little Kong from quicksand, building a silly little rapport with the creature whose father he brought to America in chains and put on a stage for rich people to throw lettuce at. As designed by original King Kong visual effects wizard Willis O’Brien, Little Kong is a straight slapstick comedy character. He does bits and tumbles. He does gags. I can only assume a montage where Little Kong tries on a variety of top hats was cut for time. He is, in a word, cute as shit; if Son of Kong premiered in a different era of filmmaking, he’d be the type of character we accuse Disney of creating just to sell toys.
Unfortunately, Son of Kong was produced at the tail-end of the Great Depression so this is what happens instead: Denham and Hilda do find a treasure, a massive diamond hidden in a cave, but a sudden storm strikes Skull Island, causing a destructive dinosaur stampede and sweeping Denham out to sea. He flounders amongst the pounding waves, death a certainty until a mighty paw breaks the surface, ferrying Denham to safety. It’s Little Kong! That adorable little ragamuffin is doing it, he’s saving Denham’s life, depositing the man into a nearby lifeboat and then…slowly sinking into the ocean’s depths. The camera straight lingers on Little Kong’s heroically outstretched paw as it painfully, laboriously slides into a salty grave of crushing darkness. He just dies. He just DIES. Like six minutes after tumbling on to screen like a street mime, Little Kong and his pinchable Little Face slip beneath the cruel, unforgiving waves, dragged to the depths like a bronze anchor, lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the Dread Emperor himself, forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, oh God now I’m just quoting Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse. I’m sorry. Son of Kong ruined me. You just sort of sit there waiting for the shot of Little Kong pulling himself onto a piece of driftwood, and like any form of cosmic justice for Carl Denham, that shot never arrives.
Son of Kong ends with Denham and Hilda contemplating how disgustingly rich they’re about to be thanks to the Skull Island diamond. I simply cannot stress how much this movie begins with Carl Denham feeling remorse over getting Kong killed and ends with Carl Denham going back to Skull Island and getting Kong’s infinitely more lovable son killed. This would’ve been an A+ bit if RKO had turned this into a recurring series. There should’ve been a second sequel where Denham accidentally pushes Kong’s wife in front of a steam train. But, no. The next film to feature King Kong arrived 29 years later and did not include Little Kong, because Little Kong is a hill of bones next to the Titanic.
Movies were kind’ve different in 1933, is the big takeaway here, which is genuinely interesting in a film history sense if you can move past the trauma of watching King Kong’s offspring descend to his Atlantean tomb. Arcs didn’t always arc like they do now. The studio machine was, in its way, more relentless; sometimes blockbuster hits got 65-minute sequels way, way too soon. And it also speaks to the endurance of Kong as a character. The big hairy brand survived Son of Kong‘s modest success and continuing on for another nine decades, all the way up to Godzilla vs. Kong, a film that will not feature, in any way, King Kong’s son, because as previously mentioned King Kong’s son drowns trying to save his father’s murderer. I’m sorry.
Godzilla vs. Kong premieres on HBO Max on Wednesday, March 31.
KEEP READING: Godzilla and Kong Still Refuse to Kiss in New ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Trailer
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