RKO released two King Kong movies in 1933. The one everyone knows about is the world-stomping monster masterpiece that's up there with the most famous movies of all time. That one had been years in the making, with a budget of 675,000 in 1930s dollars.
This is the sequel, made in a hurry when RKO realised they had a blockbuster on their hands. They got it out so quickly that it was in cinemas before Christmas and these days hardly anyone knows that it even exists. I'd been expecting it to be rubbish, but it's rather good.
Its main problem is that you're comparing it with King Kong, really. Does it stand up to the first film? No. However to its credit, it's not even trying to. The scriptwriter, Ruth Rose, deliberately wrote a more lightweight film on the grounds that she'd never be able to live up to the original and she'd be heading for a fall if she even tried. Her words were, "If you can't make it bigger, make it funnier." Thus we have comedy with Lee Kohlmar's summons-delivering character and even Little Kong himself, who believe it or not is adorable. I loved him. He's both cute and funny, although I could have lived without the bit where he scratches his head and then shrugs to camera.
If you're expecting a movie like the original, you'll hate this. More than half the film is spent pottering about on the ocean with Carl Denham (again played by Robert Armstrong) and various supporting characters who have their own assorted motives for tagging along with him. It's charming, but inconsequential. We're into the last half-hour by the time we finally reach Skull Island, although Willis O'Brien's stop-motion special effects make it worth the wait. Little Kong is lovable and the dinosaurs are cool. It's great to look at... but then the script goes into "what the hell" overdrive in the last five minutes and sinks the island for no reason whatsoever in an earthquake that in some shots is a tropical tornado, depending on what bit of stock footage they've just pulled out of their backsides. This happens a couple of minutes after Armstrong found a lost temple full of treasure and a bad guy unconvincingly toppled into the water (again for no reason) to be eaten.
Apparently the screenplay had a dinosaur stampede during the earthquake and scenes of tribal warfare, but these got cut because they didn't have enough time or money. Thus Skull Island sinks for no reason in about thirty seconds, without even a thought given to the people who lived there.
That was dodgy, but otherwise this is a good film. Like I said, as a monster movie it's lopsided and misshapen, so in an odd way the "you have got to be kidding me" ending almost fits. What interests me is that the film was a modest success on original release... not a blockbuster like the original, but not the train wreck you'd expect of a film so apparently uninterested in living up to its title.
Firstly, it shares a lot of the first film's cast. As well as Armstrong in the lead role, we also have Frank Reicher back as Captain Englehorn and even non-actor Victor Wong as Charlie the Chinese cook. That's the kind of thing you get when the same studio rushes its sequel into production back-to-back with the original. I like that. What's more, the tone isn't so light that it doesn't feel like an honest continuation of the first film's story. We begin with Armstrong living in New York, besieged by reporters, lawsuits and a threatened indictment before a grand jury. The "boy who was going to make a million dollars" is discovering what happens to people who transport King Kong to a major population centre and then let him escape. Whoops.
When offered a chance to skip the country and get back on the seas with Reicher, naturally he jumps at the chance. We then get a fair amount of plot in the South Seas, including a lengthy digression involving new characters Helen Mack (hot girl) and John Marston (scumbag). This is fun, but of course we're waiting for the title character to show up.
The good news though is that it all works. Armstrong actually preferred the sequel to the original, since it gave him more character development. Here he's the squarest guy you've ever seen, willing to split his Lost Temple fortune four ways (including a share for the Chinese cook who's had about six lines of dialogue) and the very picture of gentlemanly behaviour to Helen Mack even when she's practically throwing herself at him. He also feels guilty for what he did to Kong senior. However on top of that, he's also still a showman, dragging Reicher along to some unspeakable two-bit show in the back end of nowhere because he loves shows. He's then one of the two audience members who manages to enjoy the endurance test that ensues, praising Mack's vivacious stage presence despite the fact that she's singing a song and can't sing.
Did I mention that there's a song? Well, there is. You know, like Laurel and Hardy films.
Meanwhile Mack has good chemistry with Armstrong, although there are a couple of her scenes where the acting goes a bit awry and I'm not entirely surprised that she turned to writing, directing and producing later in her career. The sailors on the ship are fun and John Marston is suitably dodgy, with some amusingly blatant lying in the "didn't I mention the treasure?" scene. Armstrong and Reicher swallowing this hook, line and sinker just makes it more entertaining.
None of this is what you'd necessarily expect from a King Kong film, but it's all perfectly good in its own right. There's also a nice resonance in the two-bit show's main attraction being four performing monkeys. That's a nice touch in a King Kong film, I think. They're also quite funny.
So that's the first half. Skull Island is completely different, but also good. We get a brief scene with the natives, once again led by Noble Johnson and Steve Clemente. They're good. Willis O'Brien does his stuff and that's always a laugh, like Ray Harryhausen but better because it's in black-and-white and has more of a sense of humour. Little Kong is of course the star of the show. He's smaller than dad, only twelve feet high, and he's almost like a big puppy. He's fond of Armstrong and Mack and eager to be helpful, although of course even that can be dangerous when you're a twelve-foot-tall gorilla with no common sense. The sole upside of the ending is that it gives Little Kong a good bit, even though you'll have to have turned off your brain to get there.
I liked this film. It jumps into the toilet at the eleventh hour, but I'd built up enough goodwill by that point that I managed to keep going through that to the character stuff that came afterwards. If nothing else, it startles because it's so merrily sequel-killing. They could have gone on making Skull Island movies for ever! Willis O'Brien dinosaurs! A species of Kongs! Nope, all sent under the waves in the space of thirty seconds. Overall this is an entertaining 1933 movie with charming characters, humour that's funny and a Son of Kong who's far more memorable than you'd expect from his comparatively limited screen time. Don't let the fact that it's been largely forgotten put you off.
"Did you ever catch a monkey?"