RKO Radio Pictures

Primrose Path (1940, Gregory La Cava)

Primrose Path gets fun fast. Given the film opens with nine year-old Joan Carroll stealing a neighbor’s tamales (instead of buying them) for her and her grandmother, Queenie Vassar, it sort of needs to be fun. Vassar’s the maternal grandmother, not related to despondently alcoholic dad Miles Mander. Ginger Rogers is the older daughter, who we soon find out has forced herself into a kind of functional naïveté about her family’s situation. See, Mander’s a drunk because wife Marjorie Rambeau is out as a professional mistress. But he can’t work because he’s a complete drunk. Vassar trying to break the two up doesn’t do any good for their relationship either. Meanwhile Rambeau lives in a somewhat forced naïveté of her own, at least as far as Mander’s concerned.

Path opens about this family barely surviving—with Carroll apparently already lost, Vassar poisoning all the fresh water—and then there’s Rogers, who’s figured out a way to navigate herself through it. Until she takes a ride from kindly and silly old man Henry Travers when she’s on her way down to the beach. Path takes place in a small city (or large town) on the California coast. Closer to San Francisco than L.A. The contrast between Travers’s beachfront hamburger diner and Rogers’s regular life is striking inside and out. But definitely out. Path’s first half is full of fantastic location shooting, with director La Cava and cinematographer Joseph H. August delivering some fantastic scenes.

So once Travers and Rogers start bantering and she realizes he’s not an old pervert, she agrees to let him forward her a lunch. Once in the diner, she meets banter-master Joel McCrea, who works the counter. Except Rogers doesn’t like McCrea’s banter so he tries to get a rise out of her, which continues for a sequence of scenes, culminating in McCrea kissing Rogers. Well, once he’s kissed her, she’s smitten, leading to her telling a few small lies to get out of her life and into his.

For a while Rogers is able to avoid her past, but it’s not too far away, just on the “other side of town.” There’s never a “wrong side of the tracks” remark, but there are a couple audible train whistles. La Cava can be subtle and La Cava can be obvious. He can also be subtly obvious. He saves the straight obvious for the romance between McCrea and Rogers. It doesn’t take long for him to get just as smitten.

Unfortunately, neither character is being entirely honest. While Rogers’s lies don’t have any further repercussions after she and McCrea are joined at the hip, McCrea’s kind of been on holiday. Path gets away with a lot during the Production Code—there’s adultery, there’s sex work, there’s drunken Mander, there’s the thieving kid, whatever—but it’s most impressive moves are with Rogers and McCrea. They never get their big blowout scene, which is simultaneously disappointing and understandable–Path has got to keep light on its feet before the realness can grab it. Vassar’s downright evil at times and McCrea’s got a hideous mean streak. The film plays the former almost for laughs (as well as keeping Vassar’s understandable despondence and her unforgivable cruelty separate) while the latter just sets up La Cava’s third act commentary on people. The film’s very focused on the family. Rogers shares time with McCrea more than he gets the time to himself. Same goes for Travers. It’s a long time before he gets anything to do separate from Rogers (and then it’s just to talk about her with McCrea). It’s Rogers’s movie. Then Rambeau’s. Then Vassar’s. Then McCrea’s. McCrea still gets a full character arc, he just doesn’t get it on screen. So when La Cava opens things up—pretty much for the first time (the diner scenes are all about Rogers and McCrea’s salad days)—it’s for the finale. And the finale is really subtle and amusing, but it also informs some earlier plot points. Allan Scott and La Cava’s script is incredibly patient. The film’s a stage adaptation but never feels stagy; quite the opposite. It’s hard to imagine the story told any other way.

The music from Werner R. Heymann’s excellent. Sound is important in Primrose Path and La Cava and editor William Hamilton are careful how they reinforce the narrative with it. The film’s full of echoed moments, with only one of them being at all obvious. La Cava keeps the rest of them submerged and they more reverberate than sound off. So Heymann’s music has to fit perfectly and it always does, not just the scenes content but in place among the echoes. Path runs just over ninety minutes but it never skimps, never rushes. La Cava, in direction and script, is casually deliberate. He does excellent work here.

Great performances from Rogers and McCrea. He doesn’t get the lead role but he does have some breakout moments. For a while it seems like he’s going to be most successful for his toxic male behavior stuff but it turns out there’s going to be more to his character arc and McCrea keeps excelling. Meanwhile Rogers has to keep a lot mildly submerged too and she gets to go full bloom at finish to great success as well. The parts are good. Better than than the showier ones like Mander or Vassar. Vassar’s character is just a little too hurtful for the performance, but she’s still good. Mander is great. Rambeau is great. Rambeau’s part is far less showy as the film progresses.

Primrose Path is an outstandingly nimble romantic drama. La Cava, Rogers, and McCrea can keep it loose enough for sincere and affable romance, while still getting into the hard family drama stuff. It can’t go either way fully because, well, it wouldn’t be a vehicle for Rogers and McCrea then, but La Cava finds an ideal balance.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory La Cava; screenplay by Allan Scott and La Cava, based on the play by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by William Hamilton; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Ellie May Adams), Joel McCrea (Ed Wallace), Marjorie Rambeau (Mamie), Miles Mander (Homer), Queenie Vassar (Grandma), Joan Carroll (Honeybell), and Henry Travers (Gramp).



The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.

The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.

The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.

Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.

He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.

Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.

The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.

Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.

Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.

So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.

Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.

Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.

Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.

Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.

The Toland photography is perfect.

It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).



Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)

Out of the Past always has at least two things going on at once. Not just the double crossings, which is so prevalent lead Robert Mitchum even taunts the bad guys with it, but how the film itself works.

Daniel Mainwaring’s script–which gives Mitchum this lengthy narration over a flashback sequence–gives the impression of telling the viewer everything while it really leaves the most important elements out. The whole plot has the bad guys coming out of Mitchum’s past (hence the title), but the way he deals with them has all these elements from between that past and the present. It means Mainwaring and Past can surprise the viewer, but it also gives Mitchum this rich character. As much exposition (not to mention the flashback) as he gets about his past, the complications all come from the unexplained things.

And Tourneur’s direction matches this narrative style. He, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and editor Samuel E. Beetley have foreground and background action. A scene will focus intensely one character, but in contrast to the scripted character emphasis. The visual disconnect pulls the viewer, causing a palpable, beautifully lighted edginess.

And Mitchum and his nemesis slash alter ego Kirk Douglas also have that edginess; they’re uncomfortable with one another but reluctantly. It’s wonderful.

All the acting is great–especially Paul Valentine and Rhonda Fleming–and, of course, femme fatale Jane Greer and good girl Virginia Huston.

The narrative tricks–while always beautifully executed–aren’t necessary. Past would be better without them.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his novel; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Samuel E. Beetley; music by Roy Webb; produced by Warren Duff; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey), Jane Greer (Kathie Moffatt), Kirk Douglas (Whit Stefanos), Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson), Steve Brodie (Steve Fisher), Virginia Huston (Ann Miller), Paul Valentine (Joe Stefanos), Wallace Scott (Petey), Richard Webb (Jim), John Kellogg (Lou Baylord), Ken Niles (Leonard Eels) and Dickie Moore (The Kid).


This post is part of the 1947 Blogathon hosted by Karen of Shadows & Satin and Kristina Of Speakeasy.

Without Orders (1936, Lew Landers)

Without Orders has enough story for a couple movies or at least one twice as long–it runs just over an hour. Instead, everything gets abbreviated. There's flight attendant Sally Eilers who has a sturdy fellow in pilot Robert Armstrong, but he's too concerned about helping her with her career and not enough with sweeping her off her feet. Her sister, Frances Sage, is a nightclub singer who gets wrapped up with Vinton Hayworth's sleaze ball stunt pilot, whose father (Charley Grapewin) owns Armstrong and Eilers' airline.

Needless to say, things get complicated.

For almost the first half of the film, there are these quick little scenes–Orders makes time for the melodrama, but not for anything around it. Ward Bond has a couple moments with personality and they're almost it for the film. It still works out nicely, thanks to the actors.

Hayworth is great as the vain flier; he's simultaneously charming and odious and the script keeps any judgements at bay for a while. Similarly, the script does make Armstrong's sturdiness seem a little boring. Eilers does a lot better with the professional scenes than the romantic ones–Orders is a little bit too chaste, which probably cuts back on the possibilities for her role.

Grapewin and Sage both provide good support.

Where Orders really takes off (pardon the pun), is with the airplane in trouble sequences. Landers does a great job with the actors, sure, but Desmond Marquette's editing keeps everything taut.

It's a little thin overall, but surprisingly successful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Lew Landers; screenplay by J. Robert Bren and Edmund L. Hartmann, based on a story by Peter B. Kyne; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Desmond Marquette; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Sally Eilers (Kay Armstrong), Robert Armstrong (Wad. Madison), Vinton Hayworth (Len Kendrick), Ward Bond (Tim Casey), Frances Sage (Penny Armstrong) and Charley Grapewin (J.P. Kendrick).


The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

Running about an hour, The Most Dangerous Game shouldn’t be boring. But it somehow manages. Worse, the boring stuff comes at the end; directors Schoedsack and Pichel drag out the conclusion with a false ending or two.

The film doesn’t have much to recommend it. That laborious ending wipes short runtime off the board, leaving nothing but good sets, Henry W. Gerrard’s photography and Leslie Banks’s glorious scene-chewing performance as the bad guy. James Ashmore Creelman’s script occasionally has good dialogue, most of it goes to Banks. Unfortunately, Creelman’s script doesn’t have a good story.

Still, the script isn’t Game‘s problem. Simply, Directors Schoedsack and Pichel do a rather bad job. They rely heavily on second person close-ups–the actors are performing for the viewer, showing exaggerated emotion; it’s a terrible choice. Joel McCrea seems silly in the lead and Fay Wray is often just plain bad. She has a couple good moments, early on, but they’re amid some atrocious ones.

The hunt–if you don’t know what kind of animal is “the most dangerous game,” I won’t spoil it (though you should)–starts up over halfway into the film. Here Schoedsack and Pichel present a really boring chase sequence through the magnificent jungle sets. Their action is two dimensional. They also never establish their setting, which would have made the action play better… and give Game more weight.

Robert Armstrong is hilarious, but he isn’t not enough to save the picture.

And Max Steiner’s score is dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, based on the story by Richard Connell; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (Robert Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar) and William B. Davidson (Captain).


Penguin Pool Murder (1932, George Archainbaud)

Penguin Pool Murder, besides the peculiar title (and lack of a definite article), opens like almost any other early thirties mystery. A possible unfaithful wife, Mae Clarke, has a swindling louse of a husband, Guy Usher. When he ends up dead, there are multiple suspects.

Only the murder occurs at the aquarium (hence the title) and, it just so happens, a schoolteacher is giving her class a tour. The schoolteacher in question, played by Edna May Oliver, is half what sets Penguin apart. The other half is James Gleason as the police detective. He soon–first reluctantly, then enthusiastically–enlists Oliver as his partner.

The banter between Oliver and Gleason suggests the pair is an established comedy team but Penguin‘s their first pairing. From the moment the two get together, the film is a delight.

Even before they do, the film’s production values go far to recommend it. There are no exterior shots in the entire picture, but every set is exquisite–particularly the aquarium. Archainbaud has some great set-up shots and his direction is generally strong… though his inserts are bad. Editor Jack Kitchin’s weak cutting undoubtedly contributes, but Archainbaud’s direction is responsible for the jump cuts.

The mystery itself isn’t much of one–the film, which is very short, runs out of interesting suspects fairly quickly. Fourth billed Clarke disappears after the first act, leaving Robert Armstrong (as her attorney) to fill her slot.

He, and Clarence Wilson, are strong supporting assets.

Penguin‘s a lot of fun.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Lowell Brentano and a novel by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Jack Kitchin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers), James Gleason (Police Inspector Oscar Piper), Robert Armstrong (Lawyer Barry Costello), Clarence Wilson (Bertrand B. Hemingway), Mae Clarke (Gwen Parker), Donald Cook (Philip Seymour), Edgar Kennedy (Policeman Donovan), James Donlan (Security Guard Fink), Guy Usher (Gerald ‘Gerry’ Parker) and Joe Hermano (Chicago Lew).


The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936, Stephen Roberts)

With a better director, a competent editor and a slightly stronger screenplay, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford might be more than an amusing diversion. While William Powell and Jean Arthur are great together, the film underuses them in general and her in particular. There’s this great dinner scene where she’s seeing if they’re going to get poisoned by jello (something she neglects to tell him). It’s a long and wonderful scene and apparently director Roberts didn’t realize he needed to use it as the standard, not the exception.

Roberts’s weak composition and lack of coverage combined with Arthur Roberts’s hideous editing (it’s unclear if they’re related) do a lot of damage to the film. Anthony Veiller’s script has some great dialogue but the plotting is rushed, especially for a murder mystery. Also unfortunate is Veiller’s inept finish. He modifies the Thin Man dinner party revelation to include unlikely technology gimmicks.

While the film actually doesn’t share a lot in details or tone with Powell’s Thin Man series; he’s not just sober, he’s also a responsible adult. Arthur is tenacious, but she’s an aspiring murder mystery novelist, so there’s some context. They’re both wealthy, which means Powell’s got a sidekick in butler Eric Blore.

A tired James Gleason shows up as the requisite cop (he gets the film’s worst dialogue). Robert Armstrong is the best in the supporting cast as a bookie. Erin O’Brien-Moore is shockingly bad as a suspect.

The film’s amiable enough, but it should’ve been a lot better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Anthony Veiller, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Arthur Roberts; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Dr. Lawrence Bradford), Jean Arthur (Paula Bradford), James Gleason (Inspector Corrigan), Eric Blore (Stokes), Robert Armstrong (Nick Martel), Lila Lee (Miss Prentiss), Grant Mitchell (John Summers), Erin O’Brien-Moore (Mrs. Summers), Ralph Morgan (Leroy Hutchins) and Lucile Gleason (Mrs. Hutchins).


Blind Adventure (1933, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

Blind Adventure is a genial, nearly successful comedy thriller. Robert Armstrong, playing an unexpectedly wealthy working class American who’s vacationing in London, heads out into the fog and finds himself on a wild night. He encounters espionage, British society, a damsel in distress (Helen Mack) and trifle.

Armstrong and Mack are wonderful together (they soon reunited in Son of Kong, along with director Schoedsack and writer Ruth Rose) and the film’s failures are mostly disappointing because it should have launched a franchise for the pair. They’re Nick and Nora, but a year early and less blue blooded. They also have a fabulous third wheel in Roland Young, a burglar they meet.

Rose’s script has some good lines and a brisk pace. It’s not a comedy revolution—though its Marx Brothers influences are interesting in the context of a straight comedy thriller—but it should have been made into a better film.

It’s Schoedsack who primarily fails here. While the film’s modest budget is obvious (any London sights would be obscured by the dense fog), Schoedsack is still essentially inept. His comedy direction is atrocious—he holds the reaction shots to jokes maybe three times longer than he should, so long one wonders if there’s going to be a second joke.

Ralph Bellamy and John Miljan are both good in small roles. Beryl Mercer has a scene and a half with Armstrong and they’re quite funny.

But Armstrong and Mack are just magical; they deserved better treatment than Adventure gives them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; written by Ruth Rose and Robert Benchley; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; produced by David Lewis; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Richard Bruce), Helen Mack (Rose Thorne), Roland Young (Holmes), Ralph Bellamy (Jim Steele), John Miljan (Regan), Beryl Mercer (Elsie), Tyrell Davis (Gerald Fairfax), Henry Stephenson (Maj. Archer Thorne), Laura Hope Crews (Lady Rockingham), Frederick Sullivan (The General), Desmond Roberts (Harvey), Charles Irwin (Bill), Forrester Harvey (Coffee Wagon Proprietor), Marjorie Gateson (Mrs. Grace Thorne), John Warburton (Reggie) and Phyllis Barry (Gwen).


Criminal Court (1946, Robert Wise)

If you took a film noir and removed the noir, you might have something like Criminal Court. The plot is noir. An upstanding attorney (Tom Conway) accidentally kills mobster (Robert Armstrong) and runs off, unknowingly leaving his girlfriend (Martha O’Driscoll) to take the wrap.

What does Conway do? Does he try to falsify evidence to save his girlfriend? Does he sacrifice? Nope. He confesses and when no one believes him, he sort of just sits passively through the rest of the movie and hopes something will make it all better.

There’s no angst, no guilt. Conway even tells the district attorney he didn’t report the incident because Armstrong brought it on himself. It is, apparently, an attempt to mix noir with righteousness. And, wow, does it fail.

What makes Court so awkward is what it does with the space left empty by the lack of internal conflict. It does nothing. The movie only runs an hour. It doesn’t try comedy, it doesn’t try introducing a subplot (there aren’t any in the film), it doesn’t try anything at all.

Until Armstrong dies, Criminal Court has a lot of potential. Armstrong’s just great here. Conway’s fine, but unable to overcome the script. O’Driscoll’s writing is worse, but her performance is still weak.

The supporting cast is excellent, Steve Brodie and Joe Devlin in particular.

Wise’s direction has occasional flourishes–a dolly shot here and there–but it’s fairly static and unimaginative overall, as though he couldn’t feign interest either.

Cute finale though.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Lawrence Kimble, based on a story by Earl Felton; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Robert Swink; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Martin Mooney; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Tom Conway (Steve Barnes), Martha O’Driscoll (Georgia Gale), June Clayworth (Joan Mason), Robert Armstrong (Vic Wright), Addison Richards (District Attorney Gordon), Pat Gleason (Joe West), Steve Brodie (Frankie Wright), Robert Warwick (Mr. Marquette), Phil Warren (Bill Brannegan) and Joe Devlin (Brownie).


The Son of Kong (1933, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong opened in April 1933, The Son of Kong opened for Christmas 1933. The rush shows. The special effects really suffer–for whatever reason, when Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack are added to the little Kong’s shots, it’s fine, but when little Kong is added to Armstrong and Mack’s… it’s not. It’s like the focus is off on the rear projector.

But the story suffers more. Son of Kong runs a lean seventy minutes, with almost forty-five gone by before the little Kong shows up. That pacing is actually fine. It gives the movie time to catch up with Armstrong and skipper Frank Reicher, get them out to sea in a new story and then introduce the girl. There’s got to be a pretty face. And when Helen Mack shows up, Son of Kong takes a decidedly darker turn. It’s a downer–Mack’s stuck on a tiny port village with no prospects thanks to an alcohol father (a disturbing Clarence Wilson). Armstrong runs into an old acquaintance, who ties into the first movie, played by John Marston. Marston’s also playing a down and out drunk and the whole film sort of wallows in despair.

It opened with a fine comic sequence with Armstrong avoiding process servers, which mixed the character’s despair with being an amusing film experience… but later on, writer Ruth Rose apparently didn’t want to curb it. The scenes at the port are so depressing, it’s fully believable when Armstrong and Mack soon connect onboard the ship–even though their fortunes aren’t much better. At least they aren’t in that port anymore.

The relationship between Armstrong and Mack is Son of Kong‘s best feature. The sequel’s entirely superfluous and, at its best, is a simply another seventy minutes the viewer gets to spend with Armstrong. Here he gets to develop the character free of narrative constraint and his performance is excellent. Reicher also gets a lot more emphasis and he’s great too. But with Mack, Armstrong’s performance comes alive. There’s nuance and subtlety to their interactions, something more sublime than the film could ever hope for. It doesn’t hurt she’s a perfect counterpart to him, down to her voice.

When the film gets to the island and little Kong and the assorted monsters, it does all right for quite a while. It’s all rapidly paced, but it gets into the kinship between Armstrong and the little Kong, which is affecting thanks to Armstrong’s performance.

Then the movie ends. Had it gone on for longer–and I’m not even talking about a decent Armstrong and Mack kiss–I’m just talking about some more content, it would have been much better. Because the entry to the island, the set-up there, is all fantastic–and then it stops. Instead of the bigger sequel of today, it’s the smaller sequel–the pre-Empire Strikes Back sequel. When Skull Island sinks at the end, it almost seems like the filmmakers are ruling out any further, even cheaper returns… and it’s damn unfortunate this one wasn’t given more of a budget. As an inessential sequel goes, The Son of Kong has a lot going for it and it’s a shame it wasn’t able to fully realize it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; written by Ruth Rose; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor and Vernon L. Walker; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Helen Mack (Hilda), Frank Reicher (Englehorn), John Marston (Helstrom), Victor Wong (Charlie, the Chinese Cook) and Ed Brady (Red).


Scroll to Top