Between 7 March, 1933, and 22 December, 1933, there elapsed a total of 290 days. That is how long it took after the world premiere of the magnificent King Kong to commission, write, produce, edit, market, and release that film's extraordinarily deflating sequel, Son of Kong. And really, that kind of says it all, doesn't it? Nine and a half months is a hell of a quick turnaround for a sequel to an effects-driven movie, even by the standards of 1930s industrial filmmaking. You would expect Son of Kong to look harried and rushed, and to suffer from a screenplay cobbled together out of whatever notions were lying close to hand, and that's exactly what you get. Generations later, King Kong remains utterly thrilling and vital, while Son of Kong seemed slightly mortifying already to the critics at the time.

Credit where it's due: I can't think of more than a small handful of movies to so pragmatically consider the real-world implications of the stuff and nonsense of popcorn adventure movies. It's a month or two after the events of the first movie, which found filmmaker/adventurer/huckster Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) bringing a 25-foot-tall gorilla to New York and then skimping on the chains to prevent the animal from breaking out and tearing apart buildings and elevated trains over the course of a very awful night. The chickens have come home to roost, and Denham is now being chased by seemingly every process server in the city, with eleven lawsuits so far and the promise of many more to come. The only solution, of course, is to get the hell out of the United States, and with aid of a wryly sympathetic process server named Mickey (Lee Kohlmar, who didn't manage to snag a screen credit, but nonetheless gives the film's best performance), who is grateful for all the business Denham has drummed up, the disgraced impresario manages to sneak his way back onto the Venture and into the company of Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), who's starting to have concerns about his own culpability in transporting an undocumented monster into the country. Together, the two men make their way out to the Dutch East Indies, leading the beastly life of tramp cargo carriers for at least a few months. (Also returning for the ride is Charlie the ship's cook, played by Victor Wong, who is gifted with the mortifying credit "Chinese Cook", sans name).

Then comes the fateful day when everything happens all at once: first, Denham and Englehorn pull into Dakang, where they attend a deeply corny show involving sorry-looking monkeys playing instruments and dancing, and a crummy blues number sung by the reedy-voiced Madame Hélène, alias Hilda Peterson (Helen Mack). The whole affair makes Englehorn look like he wants to die, but Denham is charmed enough to chat up Hilda later on. The same night, he bumps into Nils Helstrom (John Marston), a dissolute Norwegian captain who destroyed his own boat for the money, and who was the initial source of Denham's map to Kong's island back when. Helstrom knows Hilda's father (Clarence Wilson), and in no overly friendly way: the two men get into a fight that results in Peterson's death and the fiery destruction of his tacky show (the monkeys all survive, no fear), which in turn sends Hilda to threaten the Norwegian to his face that she'll turn him into the Dutch authorities the instant they arrive. In the morning, he signs up with Englehorn's crew as the best chance he'll have to get away; by pure coincidence, Hilda ends upon the Venture as well, stowing away to leave behind all the painful memories that are all she has left in Dakang.

We have a lot of stuff going on, and you'll notice that none of it involves giant apes, or really any spectacle at all, and that's actually kind of great. Ruth Rose's screenplay lacks the simple A to B to C elegance of the original King Kong (for which she provided the final draft) but there's something rather interesting, if not exactly "entertaining", in what  she came up with instead. Son of Kong, in its initial stage, presents a rather more hardscrabble, pathetic, wiped-out vision of humanity than anything we tend to get in genre movies of this era; the depiction of Denham and Englehorn's life as dissolute travelers, and the rather dubious, singularly un-exotic world of Dakang, vaguely suggests something like Eugene O'Neill in his Anna Christie or Glencairn Cycle mode. Hardly the stuff of a picaresque monster movie, and the weary, money-grubbing tone of the opening act is even less so. What we have, more or less, is the rare '30s movie that has made so quickly that it runs out of time to pretend that the '30s aren't happening. It's not great art by any reasonable measure, but it's got a fascinatingly down-beat, low-rent vibe that has nothing to do with the giddy swashbuckling air of King Kong, and is at least novel enough to be worth bothering with.

It is, however, right about when I left off that things go straight to hell and never look back. Anxious for passage, Helstrom makes up a terribly unpersuasive cock-and-bull story about treasure back on that island, and Denham is desperate enough to believe him, so back they go. One Communist uprising on the boat later - I am 100% not making that up or even exaggerating - the named characters find themselves at the island, receiving a justifiably hostile recepetion from the natives who haven't finished rebuilding from the destruction that happened the last time Denham showed up (Son of Kong is remarkably less Other-ing than King Kong in its brief depiction of the islanders). So they have to go around to the far side of the island to find something that at least vaguely resembles a satisfactory harbor.

In this uncharted part of the island, 48 minutes into the 70-minute feature, Son of Kong finally gets around to demonstrating any special effect more elaborate than a matte painting, and they're really quite miserably crappy. Willis O'Brien started the effects, but chafing under producer Merian C. Cooper and director Ernest B. Schoedsack, he left partway through, with one Buzz Gibson wrapping things up. The difference is striking and severe. As you can of course guess from the title, Son of Kong portrays a second, much smaller giant gorilla, just 12 feet tall, who is basically nothing but an adorably bumbling comic figure (foremost among its sins, Son of Kong keeps thinking about turning into a comedy, despite a director and screenwriter with no experience in that area). I can't say he looks terrible, though some of the other monsters do (a sea serpent, in particular, that looks like somebody's jiggling some rubber tubing with a face glued on). Little Kong moves smoothly and fluidly. But he's an empty vessel: there are no fine gestures of thoughtfulness, no little grace notes like the tyrannosaur scratching its nose in King Kong. There is no character work here, just chilly, lifeless proficiency.

As a result, the most spectacular, adventurous parts of the movie are also the most disposable and, frankly, boring. At no point does Son of Kong snatch one's attention as even the stodgiest parts of its predecessor do; but it becomes virtually unwatchable from the first time Helstrom says the word "treasure". The film descends into a swamp of endless scenes of Little Kong dicking around, the humans watching him, and nothing actually happening, and with the gorilla himself not nearly compelling enough to justify it. And that's before the violent finale that is one of the most purely arbitrary dei ex machinis I have ever witnessed in a movie, completely impossible to believe from all the onscreen evidence, and as abrupt and suspiciously convenient as you could please. Meanwhile, Denham and Hilda strike up a romance that is preposterously unconvincing, without an ounce of chemistry between Armstrong and Mack.

Even at its best, Son of Kong is limited in plenty of ways: the acting never rises above adequate, with Mack in particular a shabby replacement for Fay Wray; the production looks utterly cheap and setbound, with Dakang never ever convincing as anything other than the "Exotic Orient" corner of the RKO backlot; Max Steiner's score is shrill and anonymous, despite a few nods to his motifs from the last movie. But that last 25 minutes is just a fucking desert. If it is good for anything, Son of Kong is valuable for dramatically illustrating the fine distinctions between great effects work and merely technically adept effects work: it is perfectly handsome as spectacle, but so denuded of personality that it's almost instantly grating to watch Little Kong stomp around. And since watching  him stomp around is the only thing we do for literally a quarter of Son of Kong, the result is a movie that squanders its initially fascinating choices on a craven attempt to give us more of the same thing on a shoestring budget and with half the talent.