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Monday, July 14, 2014

Love Finds Carl Denham

RKO's Rush Order That Was Son Of Kong (1933)

In keep with habit of doing everything backwards, I saw this a year ahead of King Kong, a Sunday afternoon filler from Charlotte's Channel 3 when they had no football to broadcast. Little Kong continues, of course, to live in Dad's shadow, the pillow-furred stepchild as it were, and that's how I took him all these years until weekend HD view on Warner Instant, when SoK became for me a cherished film-family member. Was it best-ever clarity or succumb to charm of the Venture's crew sailing again to magical place that was Skull Island? Here among myriad pleasures was where we came to better know Carl Denham in persuasive person of Robert Armstrong, who called this his preferred Kong experience, since for once he got favored over tabletop monsters. Son Of Kong has for eighty years been called a cheat, which I say it's anything but. Excitement having died down after senior K's plunge off the Empire State meant pace could slow and let characters, especially Denham, reflect on gravity of NYC leveled, and him being responsible.

Frisky Artist Concept For RKO's 1933-34 Product Annual

Armstrong could and did overact at times (The Most Dangerous Game), but never here. It's like he became Carl Denham for willing take of burden for chained KK and awful price of those chains being broke. Denham/Armstrong's declare after assist of Junior Kong that he "owes something to the family" sounds out of context like a gag line, but plays almost straight in the movie. Armstrong knew by third quarter 1933 that King Kong was past mere popularity to something like folklore and that he'd travel with it to whatever posterity yielded. Many a theatre had incorporated Kong into prologue/stage revues, and references to the big monkey were all over newspaper cartoons (and movie ones) within months of KK's release.  From such awareness came the most thoughtful performance of Robert Armstrong's career. Same too for Frank Reicher, whose Captain Englehorn has shadings that had to come of Reicher's also-appreciation for impact King Kong had and this being the role for which he'd be remembered. However business-as-usual a cast may have been shooting King Kong (and how could they know during filming just how amazing it would be at a finish?), such wouldn't be the case during weeks of urgency to wrap a sequel RKO was determined to get into theatres by holiday season of 1933.

Lead lady Helen Mack is more effective, more proactive, than Fay Wray from the original. She understands, is protective of, little Kong right off, and never once screams, which Wray did to excess in King Kong. Mack offers useful guidance to an at times skittish Armstrong: "Animals always know when you're trying to help them," as little Kong does when the two bandage his wounded finger. Some have said Son Of Kong has a fairy tale quality as opposed to the brute entertainment King Kong was, and yes, I'd agree. Add to that the partnershio of Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack, their developing relationship a Son Of Kong asset, enhanced by Max Steiner use of "Runaway Blues" as recurring theme. The composer was like the rest of crew for being harried to completion, so there is reprise of cues from King Kong, all welcome for linking sound with sights we revisit. The title character need not be threatening; in fact, it would have been a mistake designing a Son to out-roar Kong. The half-Dad's size snowball ape does a few too cute reactions, but fights to respective deaths a phalanx of threatening monsters ("bad eggs," said Variety, " ... of the stone age jungle"), so there's no dearth in terms of special-fx once they kick in with a second half of the 69 minute show.

RKO's Hillstreet Theatre in L.A. Is First In Line For Son Of Kong

Variety called Son Of Kong "a wash-up of the King Kong theme," which frankly it was, RKO pretty well fencing itself off from further sequels by making KK's offspring "a bit of a pansy." Los Angeles got Son Of Kong for a Christmas Day opening at the RKO Hillstreet Theatre, with New York's Roxy in receipt the following week, where "kids laughed plenty yesterday afternoon" (12-29), according to Film Daily, this causing the trade to brand Son Of Kong "strictly juvenile entertainment" that was "hardly for grown-ups." Christmas may have been a wrong time to unwrap this gorilla, the Hillstreet doing a west coast swan dive with $4,900 in a first week, the house average being $8,000. Bad weather spelled bad luck in Frisco, "torrential downpour" which "cut biz to the bone" on opening day that was culmination of weeks thumping the pic. The bay city's Fox Theatre had gone to effort of having a live ape brought in "by an attractive fem" from local zoo captivity, this plus Kong tire covers put on every cab in town. A weekend of rain was ruin for all of that, but such was nature's caprice that every showman had to live with.

In the end, Son Of Kong was treated like a programmer and paid off like one. Approving notices might have damned it with praise for being not so "terrifying" as King Kong and therefore safe for kiddies ... but who among kiddies wanted that? There were even favorable comparisons to Paramount's Alice In Wonderland, also released for 1933's holiday season. "Not a patch on his old man," as characterized by Carl Denham, would sum up as well a boxoffice fate for Son Of Kong --- a little over one-third the original's take. Domestic rentals for Son stopped at $331K (to KK's $745K), while foreign, which had been very good for the elder Kong ($1.1 million), managed but $285K for his son. Balm for RKO was fact they'd spent so little on Son Of Kong's negative, a mere $289K, enabling a final profit of $133K.

The Primitive Pair Heats Up Chicago For July 1945

Minneapolis Gets Kong Fever
The sin of Son Of Kong having been a quickie wasn't visited upon the father. King Kong was remembered well and welcomed back for 1938 revival, the first of many. Son Of Kong saw '38 service as well, interestingly as third wheel on conveyance to wicket wealth that was the Wilshire-located Regina Theatre's August sock-cess of Frankenstein and Dracula, combined for a first time and making history for showman Emil Umann. Less noted then or since was fact that Son Of Kong tagged along, at least for a first few weeks of the sensation, which also boasted nightly in-persons from Bela Lugosi. Whereas Frankenstein and Dracula ("The Pair That Curled Your Hair") went on to nationwide money-spinning, Son Of Kong made do with isolated bookings, RKO disinclined to widen its revival. Sightings to follow were spotty, most notable as mid-40's backseat to King Kong in key situations that included Chicago (a "wow" $13K, said Variety, for a first of two weeks), Minneapolis, and others. Beyond that, Son Of Kong was television's product to play, beginning in 1956. Exposure since has included DVD, part of a set with King Kong, and now streaming at Warner Instant, where Son Of Kong looks better than ever before.


Blogger b piper said...

Probably the most unfairly maligned movie ever. And I'll take spunky Helen Mack over insipid Fay Wray any day.

12:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson wonders ... was "Mighty Joe Young" conceived as a sequel to "King Kong"?:

Aside from stills of the fluffy little guy, I didn't enocounter "Son of Kong" until the DVD box. The setup was intriguing, with Denham still bearing the mental/financial burden; and once they got into the jungle it was pretty cool. But that sad sequence of the live monkey band made it feel like an Educational short, and the arrival on the island was equally lame: just a handful of natives on a beach. Another look at those giants gates, even in stock footage, would have gone a long way toward convincing me this was the real deal.

It it possible that "Mighty Joe Young" was at least conceived as an official Kong sequel? Young and Kong even sound alike. It needed only a few tweaks to connect the infant gorilla with Skull Island; Armstrong was already there (maybe hint his new name was connected with dodging creditors from NY). And the public was certainly used to assorted big name monsters and villains popping back to life, as well as ignoring previous films.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Always liked this one from my first viewing on NYC Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie when they did, indeed, splice in the last 15 minutes of the original after the SON OF KONG credits and before the story proper (as a kid, I just assumed that was how SOK was released back in the day!) Not about to climb in the dinghy with you guys dissing the gorgeously hysterical and eternally sexy Fay Wray, but I've always been fond of the more pragmatic Ms. Mack (love that crazy split second when she flashes a Crazy Guggenheim face in THE MILKY WAY) Kinda think many of the better 1950's SciFi flicks looked to SOK rather than KK as a model since those movies also had to bide their time, conserving their best stuff for the last few reels. Easier said than done, but many of the genre managed. And for the most part, the fx in SOK are terrific. Certainly a lot stuff was scaled down from the far more ambitious original, but the handful of critters we do see are arguably more polished in their movements. Only major drawback, all too evident in HD, the soggy finale; Willis O'Brien & company had a hell of a time getting the process projections to look right with real rain falling on real actors. The quality of the process shots suffers a bit in the film's last few minutes.

Oh, yeah. I like MIGHTY JOE YOUNG a lot too!

8:29 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Don't forget that while Armstrong, Reicher, et al. knew what happened on the set of King Kong, their only knowledge of Kong himself were the head and hand built for practical effects. They had no idea what Willis O'Brien and crew would create after they were finished. The success of the film had to be a surprise to them as they couldn't possibly know how Kong himself would come across to audiences.

I saw Son of Kong as a boy and I found the ending very powerful. The image of Baby Kong's hand holding Armstrong above the waves and then sinking out of sight to his death was strong stuff. I wonder if the happy ending of Mighty Joe Young was in response to the disappointment that the sympathetic son of Kong had to perish.

While Son of Kong might have been a quickie, it could have spawned an entire Tarzan-like series if they had left the island intact and allowed the ape to live.

10:08 PM  
Blogger DokG said...

I first became aware of SON OF KONG in the pages of Famous Monsters, and first experienced the animated footage in one of the 8mm digests - the first title I bought, along with FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER and GHIDRAH, when I bought my first projector.

I used to haunt the TV Guide ever week, planning my (mostly monster) viewing for the week. SON OF KONG appeared on KPIX 5's schedule in San Francisco at 3:30 or 4:00am one week, and I was determined to see it. I had a small wind-up alarm clock that I set and placed under my pillow. I snuck the portable TV from the front room to my bedroom and sat close with the sound turned ay down.

I remember at the time being struck by how much less showy Robert Armstrong's performance was (it remains my favorite, along with his doomed reporter in THE MAD GHOUL. The animation was impressive (and new), and little Kong's death was affecting. It was strange as a young fan to process the difference in tone between this and the parent film.

Years later, seeing it a second time, I was touched by the exotic shabbiness of the tent show with Helen Mack and the monkey band. I had seen FREAKS in the intervening years, and more an appreciation for unromantic midway atmosphere. Her father's death, and the burning of the tents, had an equally shabby tragedy about them.

I've always loved the breeziness of this pocket KONG, and responded more to the human-scaled emotions of the sequel than the pulp-strutting of the classic original.

And I go along completely with b piper's comment that this is probably the most unfairly maligned movie ever - certainly one of the most unfairly dismissed movie sequels. There's meaning here, and humanity. And as also noted, the effects work is often smoother than that in the parent film.

3:48 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

GREAT to know that "Son Of Kong" is streaming in HD. I would LOVE for Warners to release their remaining Ray Harryhausen/Willis O'Brien films to Blu-ray: "Son Of Kong", "Mighty Joe Young", "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms", "The Black Scorpion", "Giant Behemoth" and "The Valley Of Gwangi".....will it ever happen? Only time will tell....


4:31 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Beautiful photographs from SON OF KONG. If you have or get any others, would you please post those as well? I have always enjoyed this film, have seen it many times and find it quite entertaining. Great Steiner music and technically on a par with KING KONG. More fabulous miniature work. For decades it seems that ANY still from S of K was a rarity, but in the last year I have seen more of them than in the last 40 !!! Keep 'em 'coming !!!

4:01 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Yes, it SHOULD HAVE been a little bit longer, but as -is, I believe it to be 69 of the most entertaining minutes you could ever want to watch on the screen--but of course I'm referring to CLASSIC CINEMA-- plus a LIKING FOR THIS SORT OF THING! This little gem of a sequel has sure been neglected in general; and nice to know it has finally received the proper notice that it deserves. I, too, saw the end of this film when it started to play on TV in 1956. Not haven seen "KING KONG" yet, and had never known of the tyke's father except for the fact of an eye-catching movie ad in the newspaper advertising it's last theatrical release. I had already resolved while catching that last- half of the film on TV that day- that THIS was an instant favorite for me for sure. I loved Helen Mack and Robert Armstrong in this; a neat love story surrounded by a bunch of DELICIOUS CHARACTERS-IN-STUDY. Unlike the original, we got to know THESE FOLKS A LOT better, (especially with the several repeating leads). The music by Max Steiner a continuation of the outstanding original masterwork. AND HOW ABOUT THAT ENDING!? IT STILL MOVES ME as one of the most powerful and imaginative endings in the history of the Cinema. My only post dated and impossible wish, again,-- is that the production COULD have been just a TAD BIT LONGER for the UNREELING of this unforgettable film.

5:51 PM  

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