Saturday, November 25, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts (1975): "The Robots of Pod" (September 20, 1975)

In “The Robots of Pod, the third episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Far Out Space Nuts (1975), Barney (Chuck McCann), Junior (Bob Denver) and Honk (Patty Mahoney) are ready to escape from the planet where they have been marooned. They take off, but the lunar lander cannot achieve escape velocity.

As it turns out, this is because Junior has brought his rock collection aboard. Barney throws the rock collection overboard, but also ends up tossing out all the ship’s spare fuel.

An alien woman, Princess Lantana (Eve Bruce) appears and suggests a trade. She will have her minions collect the lost fuel, if the Earthling and Honk retrieve her robot minion control belt.  

That item has fallen into the hands of the evil Mercurial (Earle Doud), in the “forbidden territory of Pod.”

The space nuts agree to those terms and infiltrate a giant subterranean city to steal the control belt.  Doing so will depend on robot disguises…and magnetic boots.

Audiences actually get a new plot this week on this Sid and Marty Krofft program from 1975. For once, an alien villain doesn’t want to take control of Junior. Instead, the Space Nuts team up with an ally to restore a rightful ruler, the princess, to her throne.  

The episode also features some new gags, and an increased focus on slapstick humor. In a shocking turn of events, there are even more than the standard three robot minions on screen at a time, for one scene!

The silliest jokes this week arise, strangely, in a robot cafeteria in Mercurial’s underground city. Disguised as robots, Barney and Junior go through a lunch line, and are served a meal (a crankshaft, some springs, and some ball bearings.)  Naturally, Barney finds the meal unpalatable, but Junior likes the crankshaft (which sounds crunchy).

“The Robots of Pod” is also the first episode in which the interior of the lunar lander is featured, though it appears in the opening credits each week.  The set is good, if cramped, but as I noted last week, really doesn’t compare favorably to the primary set of its Sid and Krofft contemporary, The Lost Saucer (1975).

Next week: “Fantastic Journey.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Monolith of Evil" (October 14, 1978)

The Legion of Doom travels to the “molten center” of the Earth to locate a legendary “evil” power source that only Solomon Grundy knows about.  The power source -- a monolith – is guarded by a lava monster that is impassable.

The Legion decides to use the Super Friends to help the evil doers acquire the monolith. The Super Friends travel to the “underworld inferno” and fall into the trap.

But it is the legion that has a surprise in store. The monolith is not evil at all. It operates according to the intent of its user.

The Legion of Doom once more tricks the Super Friends into helping them achieve their plans of evil conquest, only to be hoisted by their own petards, in “Monolith of Evil.”

This episode of “Monolith of Evil” has call-backs both to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Intriguingly, no one – villain or hero – bats an eye at the presence of giant, undiscovered monsters in the subterranean world. There might be some scientists out there would be interested in such never-before see species.

In terms of our regular “That’s what you think!” watch, the Riddler gets to say it in “Monolith of Evil.” He says to Superman, “That’s what you think, Stupid Man!” Meanwhile, Robin’s exclamation of the week is “Holy Cut Communications!”

Next Week: “The Giants of Doom.”

Friday, November 24, 2017

Thanksgiving Blogging: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Although it was produced in 1973, Godzilla vs. Megalon was not released in the United States until 1976, the very year of King Kong’s return to the silver screen under the auspices of Dino De Laurentiis.

Accordingly, this Japanese monster mash was a huge success in an America primed for a new monster movie. 

Godzilla vs. Megalon’s success may have been due in part to the evocative and colorful poster art of the film which dramatically aped King Kong’s and showed Godzilla and Megalon standing astride the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

Needless to say, in the actual film, Godzilla and Megalon never got close to Manhattan, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter.  Still, that poster is gorgeous.

After an incredibly successful run at the American box office, Godzilla vs. Megalon took another victory lap, airing on prime-time NBC in 1977 -- in an hour-long slot -- and it drew impressive ratings. John Belushi hosted the presentation.

In the early 1990s, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988 – 1999) gang riffed on Godzilla vs. Megalon to great comedic effect, and for years the series’ opening credits showed a clip of Godzilla’s impressive -- and bizarrely humorous -- jump kick in the movie.

Despite all the pop culture success and sense of nostalgia that surrounds this election year entry of the Godzilla saga, Godzilla vs. Megalon has never struck me as a particularly good movie, or a particularly strong entry in the Godzilla canon.

The reason why is simple: the movie needs more Godzilla and less Jet Jaguar.

The underwater kingdom of Seatopia sends a giant creature called Megalon, to destroy the surface world, which has been conducting dangerous nuclear tests for years, and therefore is threatening all life on the Earth.

Meanwhile, a Japanese scientist, Goro and his young nephew, Rokuro test an amazing new robot called Jet Jaguar that becomes of great importance to the Seatopians and Megalon. 

Realizing that their robot can help save the world, Goro and Rokuro summon Jaguar to call on the help of Godzilla, who is now living on Monster Island.

But the Seatopians also call for reinforcements, and tag the monstrous Gigan to help Megalon destroy Godzilla.

With the survival of Tokyo and the world hanging in the balance, Jet Jaguar grows to enormous size to team up with Godzilla.

With apologies to my seven year old, Joel -- who loves Megalon with a passion -- as well as my Facebook friends who also adore this movie, Godzilla vs. Megalon is not one of my favorite Godzilla movies.

In terms of the James Bond standard I enunciated in my previous review, we do great villain here, I must admit, in the giant, bug-headed, drill-handed menace known as Megalon.  Joel loves Megalon with a passion, and when we play together and wrestle, he is always Megalon, and I’m always Godzilla.

Yet in part, Godzilla vs. Megalon fails because Godzilla does not even appear until late in the action, and seems to be an after-thought in the narrative. Instead, the film functions largely as origin story for the unknown and new hero: Jet Jaguar, a robot with the baffling ability to grow to Godzilla-esque proportions and then shrink back.

How on Earth (or Seatopia for that matter) is his metal so flexible that it can stretch to giant size and then retract to human size?  

Alas, even putting aside such question of logic, Jet Jaguar -- a kind of poor man’s Ultraman -- just can’t carry the story on his silver shoulders, or make-up for Godzilla’s frequent absence.  Imagine a James Bond film in which 007 didn’t appear until sometime late in the second act, and you get the idea.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is not entirely bereft of good ideas, to be certain.  Though barely enunciated, there’s absolutely a critique here about nuclear arms that fits in with the franchise’s noble tradition of questioning atomic power and man’s usage of it. 

Here, the Seatopians send Megalon to the surface because of the nuclear testing performed by the nations of the world. 

The Seatopians’ final solution to a world risking destruction…is to destroy that world.  Thus, they attempt to wring peace out of war, a metaphor very clear to audiences in the Vietnam Era of “You have to destroy the village to save it.” 

Still, this message does not transmit nearly as powerfully as the anti-pollution message of the superior Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

I would be a curmudgeon if I didn’t note that the movie features some really fun battles. 

That aforementioned Godzilla jump kick, for instance, is just so bizarre, gravity-defying and over-the-top.  I don’t know how it could elicit anything but laughs, but it is a clear indicator that the films of this era have moved definitively into fantasy territory. 

I’m okay with that, because I watch these films with my aforementioned seven year old, and he loves them with unbridled passion.  There is something so imaginative and wondrous about these Godzilla films, I see that strict realism isn’t necessary.  I have seen with my own eyes how even a movie that I don’t consider very good, like Godzilla vs. Megalon, ignites Joel’s creative play.  He loves the variety, powers and natures of Godzilla’s adversaries.

In the final analysis, however, this film looks like a TV pilot for a Jet Jaguar series, with Godzilla coming in for a cameo tag team, and that fact doesn’t do the big green dragon any favors. 

People go to see Godzilla movies for Godzilla, and in some critical sense, Godzilla vs. Megalon breaks (or at least severely stretches…) that contract with the audience with its bait-and-switch strategy.

Thanksgiving Blogging: Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster

Released briefly in the United States as Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster before changing its title to Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster after the rights-holders of the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman franchise complained, this film is more widely known by the title Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla.

Here, there’s a significant air of mystery as the kaiju action commences. Godzilla begins acting in uncharacteristically destructive, violent and evil fashion, even attacking a friend from Monster Island, the spiky Anguirus.

But it is soon revealed that evil aliens who appear human but are really simian in nature (think Planet of the Apes…) are behind the attack, using an impostor Godzilla -- the robotic Mecha-Godzilla -- and hoping to conquer the Earth. 

In this case, Godzilla requires the assistance of King Caesar -- a kind of glowing dog/bat kaiju who has slumbered for generations inside a mountain cave on Okinawa -- to defeat the aliens’ “ultimate weapon!”

Okinawan prophecy, re-counted by the descendants of the royal family of Azumi Castle, foretells of a day when a black mountain will appear, the sun shall rise in the west, and two monsters will rise to defeat a grave threat to humanity. 

The symbols of this prophecy begin to come true in the late 20th century when aliens “from the third planet of the black hole, outer space” land on Earth, and launch their cyborg, Mecha-Godzilla from their underground base. 

Godzilla rises from the sea to stop his merciless and malevolent duplicate, but fails on the first attempt. 

Now, Princess Nami (Lin) must sing a song from ancient Azumi history to wake the great King Caesar from his longer slumber, to join forces with Godzilla and save the world.

Although King Caesar looks a bit like a Muppet gone mad, Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster introduces one of the great villains of the Godzilla canon: the giant robot, Mecha-Godzilla.  This silver titan can shoot missiles from its finger tips, and fire beams of energy that ravage Godzilla.

Given the robot’s impressive arsenal, perhaps it is not surprising that this is an especially gory installment of the long-lived saga. 

For example, in one scene red blood veritably fountains out of Godzilla’s neck as Mecha-Godzilla attacks. 

In another scene, two aliens take bullets to the head, and greed fluid bursts out of their wounds.  In keeping with this more savage tone, the evil alien leader is absolutely merciless in nature, ordering his giant cyborg, at one point, to “beat Godzilla to death!” rather than merely destroy him. 

So the stakes are pretty high in the film, and again, one feels while watching it that -- again, it’s almost like a 1970s James Bond film. It comes replete with an evil-talking villain who loquaciously shares his plans, and reveals his secret subterranean headquarters.  There are also the requisite action sequences. In this case, Godzilla somehow transforms himself into a “magnetic pole” during battle, and attracts Mecha-Godzilla to his scales.  That’s a new one. 

Similarly, there’s an “imposter” Godzilla in the film’s opening, a reflection of certain Bond tropes seen in series entries such as From Russia with Love (1963) and The Man with The Golden Gun (1974).

Although this film is not as strong as Godzilla vs. Hedorah since it lacks the social context of that film and the 1954 original, it certainly features a great villain and a unique guest-star in King Caesar. It’s always nice to see Anguirus, as well.

One logical question does arise, however: how did the Azumi family know this threat from space would come?   What forces gave rise to the ancient prophecy? Just think of the “second sight” necessary, in ancient days, to imagine aliens from space, Godzilla, Anguirus, Mecha-Godzilla and aliens from space. 

Otherwise, Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster is good fun, if occasionally absurd.  The moment when the alien leader spits out his home address (“the third planet of the black hole, outer space,”) is one example of the latter.  And you just have to love the fact that the villain is such a trash-talker, always boasting about his robot and seeking to diminish Godzilla’s chances.

Finally, it is also never explained why the same supreme leader is always smoking a cigar and drinking liquor. 

Aren’t smoking and drinking human vices? 

And simple human vices don’t seem likely from an outer-space ape man who cackles his way through lines of dialogue like “Goodbye, Stupid Earthlings...

Thanksgiving Blogging: The War of the Gargantuas (1966)

It’s no exaggeration to state that The War of the Gargantuas (1966) was a staple of my childhood TV-watching.

The Japanese monster movie -- released in America in 1970 -- aired frequently on our local station WWOR Channel 9 in the 1970s and 1980s; sometimes on The Million Dollar Movie, if memory serves.

Rightly or wrongly, I have come to associate these viewings of The War of the Gargantuas with the Thanksgiving holiday, or more accurately, the Friday after Thanksgiving. 

So today, I decided to take a look back at the film. Until last week, I had not seen The War of the Gargantuas since a holiday in the early 1990s when I introduced the film to my wife, Kathryn. We were at my grandparents’ house in Tom’s River, N.J. for the Thanksgiving weekend, so the film may have been playing on basic cable.

The War of the Gargantuas stars Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Paul Stewart and is a sequel of sorts to Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). In particular, the film’s Gargantuas -- brown and green -- were created from the cells of the Frankenstein Monster, which were cast into the sea in the previous film.  

And in Japanese, I believe, the creatures are referred to not as Gargantuas but as “Frankensteins.”

Directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects from Eiji Tsubaraya, The War of the Gargantuas concerns the attempts of several scientists to save the life of the non-violent brown Gargantua, or Sanda, even while the Japanese Army plots the demise of the violent, carnivorous green Gargantua, Gaira. 

In the end, nature does away with the giant monsters instead. But the film serves as a meditation on the nature vs. nurture debate, comparing the wild, untamed Gaira with the kindly Sanda, who knew human companionship. 

Man’s violent nature is discussed as well, since the Japanese Army refuses to acknowledge the (obvious) differences between the gargantuan monsters, and goes forward with its plan to kill them both with napalm.

“Is it possible a gargantuan might exist?”

A ship at sea is attacked by a giant octopus, and later, a giant green monster or Gargantua. 

The only survivor of the incident reports the attack, and the Japanese press runs with the story, asking Professor Paul Stewart (Tamblyn) and his associate Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) if such creatures could be real. The scientists know from experience that it is possible.  Five years earlier, they cared for a gentle brown Gargantua, before it escaped from custody.

The Green Gargantua, Gaira, soon makes landfall at Tokyo Airport and does catastrophic damage there. Later, the same beast attacks the patrons at a roof-top night-club, and is repelled only by bright light.  

The Japanese Army brings in maser tanks to annihilate Gaira, but at the last minute, the injured creature is rescued by Sanda, the brown Gargantua who has been living in peace in the Japanese Alps.

Stwewart surmises that the Gargantuas are offshoots from the same unknown cells, and therefore their cells may be able to generate additional monsters.Alarmed, the Army plans to destroy Gaira and Sanda, over Stewart and Akemi’s objections...

“We were sunk by a hairy green giant.”

The War of the Gargantuas explicitly references, at one point, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: the story of a man who murders his brother. 

That tale roils underneath The War of the Gargantuas as Sanda and Gaira  first discover one another, and eventually face off. Early in the film, Sanda saves Gaira from the Army and nurses him back to health after maser attack. But soon Sanda -- who was raised by humans -- sees that Gaira has killed and eaten a human boater.  Sanda realizes that he can no longer protect his sibling, and nor should he. They fight it out, even though Sanda is peaceful and docile.

The other set of “brothers” in the film -- mirroring this monster dynamic -- are human scientists and soldiers. The scientists, like Sanda, are peaceful and docile, hoping to investigate the crisis and save the more peaceful of the two Gargantuas.  The soldiers, by contrast (and not entirely unlike Gaira...) are bound and determined to destroy anything they deem a threat, including the innocent Sanda.  

Like the Gargantuas, scientists and soldiers possess “the same blood, the same cell structure,” and yet are incredibly different.The movie points out the hypocrisy of the Army's higher-ups. They are bound and determined to kill both Gargantuas, even without cause, even though they are acting in a murderous fashion, like Gaira. 

But brothers are supposed to be responsible for brothers, right?

In the end, the Gargantuas are put down not by each other, or by the auspices of man, but by an underwater volcanic eruption. Though spurred by a helicopter bombing, this eruption is the “other” key player in the film’s action: Mother Nature, or God, if you will.  

The Gargantuas -- as Frankenstein Monsters and creations of man -- are “unnatural” creations. Therefore, it is only proper that nature remove them. But had monster movie history been a little different, however, Sanda and Gaira would have likely returned in another film, perhaps to battle Godzilla himself.

On my recent screening of the film, I was pleasantly surprised by the effetive and atmospheric opening of the film. Like so many Japanese monster movies, The War of the Gargantuas opens with a ship at sea during a storm, and an attack by a giant monster.  

This time, that monster is a huge, menacing octopus, and the scene is very well-shot. The punctuation of the scene is a surprise too.  Gaira dispatches the octopus so that we think he is a hero, but then Gaira proceeds to attack the ship himself.  Out of the frying pan, into the fire. 

Later, in a scene that is a little shocking to behold, we see Gaira pursuing the swimming survivors from the ship.  He plucks them out of the water and eats them. 

The scene I most remembered from the film is set at a night club, where an American singer croons “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” unaware that Gaira is creeping up in the background, behind her.  

The movie misses a genuine opportunity, in my opinion, because the singer doesn’t get eaten (or stuck in Gaira’s throat...). That would have been a wicked (and nasty) joke but The War of the Gargantuas is a sincere entertainment and doesn’t tread into camp, at least intentionally. Still, it's hard not to giggle at the sea captain's cry that his vessel was attacked by a hairy green giant.

On this viewing of the film, I also admired how the filmmakers set up and exploited the comparison between Gaira and Sanda.  

Gaira is a vicious, inhuman thing that has never known love or companionship. By nature, he may have the potential to love, but he has never been nurtured.  He sees human beings only as food, biting their heads off first, apparently. This is terrifying to watch, and I remember, as a kid, being scared by Gaira.  

There's a moment in the film when a fisherman looks down into the sea, and there -- below the surface -- is Gaira, just waiting to spring. That moment offers some good old fashioned nightmare fodder, and Gaira represents nature gone wild, untamed and undisciplined. 

Sanda was raised by humans, however, and therefore understands love, companionship, and even brotherhood. That latter quality, brotherhood, is the very thing that Sanda seeks with Gaira, perhaps to alleviate a lonely, or even solitary existence.  

But Gaira simply can’t change his ways at this juncture, and is no doubt confused when his brother turns against him. Sanda, clearly, wishes events had turned out differently.

What I didn’t admire so much about The War of the Gargantuas is the fact that the mid-movie battle between Gaira and the Japanese Army seems to go on forever, and therefore lose some visceral impact.  

I fully realize that many nay-sayers disliked 2014’s Godzilla because there wasn’t a lot of monster-on-monster fighting in the film. The fights were used strategically, and mostly during the climax.

The War of the Gargantuas, however, validates that restrained approach.The battles here go on for so long, without relief, that they eventually become monumentally uninteresting. 

It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but the fights could have been pruned back by a full-third, and the movie would have moved with more grace, purpose and drive. The first thirty minutes or so of The War of the Gargantuas in particular, are terrific, and the special effects (especially during the airport attack) hold up rather well.  

Once the fighting takes center stage, however, The War of the Gargantuas feels like it is stuck in neutral. Long stretches of time go by where we just seem to be watching vehicles getting positioned, and masers firing.

The War of the Gargantuas is generally very well-regarded by fans, and I can detect why. Some feel nostalgia for the film, because they grew up with it. Certainly, I'm in this camp.

Others have keyed in on, quite rightly, the human, affecting nature of these particular monsters. You don’t want the Gargantuas to kill each other or die, and yet, at the same time, that outcome feels inevitable. 

All the best monster movies make audiences care about their creatures, one way or another. You either love them, hate them, or feel sorry for them. 

On that front, The War of the Gargantuas absolutely succeeds, and all those emotions bubble to the surface. Sanda, in particular, is heart-breaking. He attempts to build a bridge to the human world (which includes brotherhood and compassion), and carry Gaira with him -- his own flesh and blood -- across it, but doesn't succeed.  

His failure, one might say, is only human.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving Blogging: Mighty Joe Young (1949)

In several significant ways, Mighty Joe Young (1949) might be described as the “most evolved” of the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest Schoedsack giant ape films of the 1930s and 1940s.

In part this is so because the third (and last) film in the cycle understands that audience sympathies rest with the exploited main character, a kindly gorilla named Joe, and not with the humans who exploit him for financial gain.

And in part this is so because this film depicts the female lead character, Jill Young (Terry Moore) as more than a screaming ninny.  The feisty Jill can see beyond Joe’s intimidating physicality -- in part because she raised him -- and recognize that he is an intelligent creature worthy of dignity and respect.  Jill is no mere damsel in distress, but rather a very human woman trying to do the right thing, and honor the important relationships in her life, both with Joe, and with promoter Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong again), the man who brought her “fame and fortune” in Hollywood.

These elements, along with an exciting chase and nail-biting finale, make Mighty Joe Young a solid addition to the King Kong canon, even if the film doesn’t actually concern Kong or his progeny.

Mighty Joe Young begins with little Jill Young (Moore) living on her father’s farm in Africa.  She trades a baby gorilla for several trinkets, including a flashlight, and decides to raise the ape she names “Joe.”  Her father objects to this course of action, worrying that the gorilla will one day grow into a fierce animal and menace. 

But Jill prevails, and a friendship is born.

Twelve years later, Max O’Hara (Armstrong) plots to make his next Hollywood night club, “The Golden Safari,” a runaway success.  He strikes on the idea of going on a dangerous safari in Africa with cowboy, Gregg (Ben Johnson) in tow.  Once there, they collect man-eating lions and other animals, and then unexpectedly encounter a fully-grown gorilla, Joe.  Max urges Jill to sign a contract making the ape and his master the newest (permanent) attractions at the Golden Safari.

Back in Hollywood, Joe grows increasingly depressed by the nightly festivities in the club, and his near-continual entrapment in a too-small cage.  Jill sees the gorilla suffering, and attempts to get out of her contract with Max.  He sweet-talks her back into compliance, and the Mighty Joe Young show continues for a whopping seventeen weeks.

Then, one night, a trio of obnoxious drunks release Joe from his cage, feed him champagne, and watch as the gorilla trashes the club from top to bottom.  Deemed a public safety menace by a judge, Joe is ordered executed.  Realizing what he has done to Jill and Joe, Max O’Hara teams up with Gregg and Jill to free the ape from captivity, and return him to his home in Africa.

On the way to freedom, however, Gregg, Jill, and Joe spy a disaster in the making.  An orphanage is burning down fast, and three children are trapped upstairs with no hope of escape. 

One last time, it’s Joe to the rescue…

Although there are no prehistoric monsters on hand in Mighty Joe Young, the film nonetheless perfects (or evolves) the King Kong formula.  Max O’Hara -- the familiar showman character -- undergoes his transformation from exploiter to defender in one movie, not two (as was the case with Carl Denham), and the movie also makes the point that there is something worse than imprisonment…the loss of dignity. 

Here, Joe undergoes a horrible humiliation when a nightclub routine requires Jill to dress up as an organ grinder, and Joe as her monkey.  Then, the unruly crowd is encouraged to throw giant coins at Joe while he catches them in his cap.   One drunk gets out of hand and tosses a glass champagne bottle at the ape.  This is a miserable moment for Joe, one which reduces the noble beast to the level of carnival freak.

Joe goes wild soon after this humiliation and destroys Max’s night club, but he finds redemption by saving the imperiled children at the burning orphanage.  Again, this kind of redemption was something denied Kong in the original film (though awarded to his son, in The Son of Kong).

Though it is impossible to argue that Mighty Joe Young is more spectacular or exciting than King Kong was, one can certainly detect how a very similar story (with similar characters) is more completely and emotionally told here.   Some may consider that comment a heretical remark in terms of cinema history, but at least three of the four leads in Mighty Joe Young -- Max, Jill, and Joe himself -- are treated with greater humanity than their counterparts were in King Kong. 

While there’s nothing as awe-inspiring as a battle with a T-Rex in this film, Mighty Joe Young nonetheless satisfies on a purely human level.  No one in King Kong really listened to their conscience, at least until it was far too late.  Here, the characters all make difficult personal decisions to repair the breach, and honor their friendship with Joe.

I had not seen Mighty Joe Young in several years before this recent viewing, and was delighted to find the film so engaging, and so action-packed. My wife watched this one with me, and was on the edge of her seat during the finale at the orphanage.  She told me that if Joe died, I should just turn the movie off right then, because she couldn’t handle it.

That in-the-moment exclamation/protest reveals how successfully Mighty Joe Young works on an emotional level. It’s not the Beauty and the Beast epic or prehistoric safari that King Kong is, but it’s a damned exciting and engaging adventure film with some fine special effects (from Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen).

Thanksgiving Blogging: The Son of Kong (1933)

The conventional wisdom regarding this sequel is that The Son of Kong (1933) is a not-very-good, not- very-memorable follow-up to the enormously successful and enormously beloved original King Kong (1933). 

It’s easy to see why critics, scholars, and some fans feel this way about the film.  The sequel is but a brief seventy minutes long, two of the original stars -- Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray -- are missing-in-action, and the film was produced on an extraordinarily low-budget.  

Furthermore, King Kong is a spectacular, a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and spectacle, and The Son of Kong…is not.

And yet despite these deficits The Son of Kong is an intriguing little movie, primarily because it focuses almost obsessively on Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the man who brought Kong back to modernity because he wanted to give that jaded world a sense of “wonder.”

Denham has been repaid for that act, however, as The Son of Kong opens, with law-suits, public condemnation, and grand jury indictment.  His original desire to “escape” modernity, has, in fact, brought the bureaucracy of modernity crashing down upon him.

We also learn early in The Son of Kong that Denham feels guilty regarding Kong’s death, and wishes -- for his own sake and Kong’s -- that he had never visited Skull Island in the first place. 

This is all very interesting, very human material, and there is likely more focus on characterization and character development in The Son of Kong than in all of King Kong.  Robert Armstrong is terrific and charismatic again as Carl Denham, but he shows many more shades of the man here than he was able to reveal in the original Kong.

With its lead character dwelling in self-hatred and guilt, and facing a future of legal entanglements, The Son of Kong depicts a more dissolute, sleazier world than did its predecessor.  In short order, Denham and Captain Englehart (Frank Reichert) slink out of New York Harbor on the Venture not in search of great adventure this time, but in search of a job -- any job -- in the East Indies.

In far-flung Dakang, they settle in at a tiny port and meet another fallen Western entertainer, Peterson, and his lovely daughter, La Belle Helene (Helen Mack).  Both are going nowhere, and have no future save for the next (sparsely populated) show.

Denham and Englehart also meet the troublesome Captain Nils Helstrom (John Marston), the very man who first sold Denham the map to Kong’s island. Helstrom -- a murderer -- is looking for a way to escape Dakang too and soon he, Denham, Englehart, and Helene head to Kong’s island in search of a legendary treasure.

On Skull Island, Denham and Helene encounter a young giant ape, Kong Junior.  He’s more playful than his father, but no less fierce when it comes to fighting dinosaurs.  After Denham and Helene save Kong Jr. from a quicksand trap, he defends them from a giant bear, a four-legged dinosaur carnivore, and other grave threats. 

After the giant ape helps Denham retrieve the legendary treasure from a secret temple, an earthquake sinks the island, and Kong Jr. gives his life to save Denham.

While it’s true that the pleasures of The Son of Kong are relatively mild in comparison to King Kong, some are certainly worth noting.  I love the first act in particular, set in a corner of the world where people go to disappear.  There are some great deep-focus shots in the local bar, which sell beautifully the nature of the people living in that environment.  

I also admire the fact that the sequel attempts to make a human judgment about what happened to Kong in New York City…a subject the original film did not broach. 

Here, Denham admits that he owes Kong’s family “something,” and when he takes care of Kong Jr.’s injuries, he notes that the act is “sort of an apology.”   

These moments reveal Denham’s humanity and decency, and also acknowledge the audience’s (quite correct) feelings that King Kong was badly exploited in the first film.  This movie rehabilitates Carl Denham, one might assert, and that’s a worthy enterprise for a sequel.

The stop-motion effects of The Son of Kong are certainly as impressive as those of its predecessor, and the film suffers mainly in the final act when, out-of-the-blue, an earthquake arrives to, literally end the movie.  The earthquake comes from out-of-the-blue, and stops the movie’s development cold, skipping essentially from the beginning of the third act (arrival on the island and discovery of the treasure…) right to the denouement, Kong Jr’s sad death, and the ape’s heroic sacrifice to rescue Denham. 

Those valedictory images of heroic Kong Jr. holding Denham aloft above the swirling ocean waves as Skull Island sinks below the roiling surface are arguably as powerful as any image in King Kong, but in some sense they have not adequately been prepared for or built-up to.  The moment of Kong Jr’s death is powerful, but could have been infinitely more so if the film actually spent more than twenty or so minutes in the company of the mighty ape.

The Son of Kong’s final “happy ending,” that Denham and Helene will marry and share the proceeds from the island’s treasure, also fails to ring true.  Even a huge payday isn’t going to take away a grand jury indictment for Denham.  Plus, Carl has once again looted Skull Island for a resource or treasure by which he hopes to profit…an act which in some sense hampers his character’s development and maturity.  He's still, even after everything that's happened, a profiteer.

But taken in total The Son of Kong is a charming little monster movie, a good dessert after King Kong’s main course.  The sequel boasts some real humanity, and represents a turning point in the Cooper/Schoedsack saga because it is the first big ape film to suggest sympathy for the central animal, and to recognize that the exploitation of natural resources like Kong results only in destruction for everyone.

Also, I must admit that on a personal note, I get a kick out of one idea in The Son of Kong that is often not even considered in terms of sequels.  In essence, this humble movie acknowledges that King Kong was the main event, and that this is a smaller, perhaps less important story in the same universe.  That kind of modesty is, at the very least, refreshing.  It also seems realistic, to some degree.  Sequels traditionally get bigger and bolder, and more outrageous.

But how do you create a sequel bigger than a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building? 

I submit that The Son of Kong’s human, if small potatoes approach, works just fine.