Saturday, November 19, 2011

Classics Revisited: Mighty Joe Young

(1949) Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by Ruth Rose; Story by Merian C. Cooper; Starring: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson and Robert Armstrong; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

What’s It About?

What’s the first movie that comes to mind when you think about a big ape?  Okay… What’s the second?  Some might recall Peter Jackson’s flawed remake or maybe even Mighty Peking Man, but for me it’s always been King Kong’s lightweight cousin, Mighty Joe Young.  This underrated fantasy film plays like a semi-sequel to the landmark 1933 film (the less said about Son of Kong, the better), with a more whimsical tone and much greater emphasis on fantasy over bloodshed.

Mighty Joe Young begins in Africa (Yes, just generic “Africa.”  I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the Congo, but it’s hard to tell with all the stock footage of species that would probably live hundreds of miles away.).  We meet a precocious young girl, Jill Young, who lives with her father on a ranch.  When the natives trudge by with a baby gorilla, what’s a girl to do but trade her father’s flashlight for the wee simian?   She names him Joe, and the rest is history.

Skip ahead 12 years, and P.T. Barnum-esque huckster Max O’Hara * (Robert Armstrong) ventures to “godless” Africa with his entourage on a quest for attractions to populate his new nightclub, and wouldn’t you know it?  He winds up in the very same spot in Africa where Jill (now played by Terry Moore) and Joe have been peacefully residing.  Joe has grown to enormous proportions, as in freakishly huge.  Not quite King Kong size, but pretty darned big.  No one stops to speculate about the fact that he’s much larger than any real life gorilla species, but then again, the filmmakers probably assumed that the audience didn’t know or care.  It’s never established what part of Africa they were in, so they presumably figured that 1940s filmgoers would buy anything at that point.

*Armstrong played the very similar Carl Denham 16 years earlier, in King Kong.  Both O’Hara and Denham were modeled after producer/showman Merian C. Cooper, often described as a larger-than-life character himself. 

Ernest B. Schoedsack was no stranger to giant simians, having co-directed King Kong with Merian C. Cooper.  Mighty Joe Young was one of his final projects.  He eyes had been seriously injured during World War II, and according to Moore was almost completely blind when he directed Mighty Joe Young.

Ray Harryhausen, working on his first feature film, predominantly created the Academy Award-winning stop motion effects in Mighty Joe Young, with some assistance by Pete Peterson.  Harryhausen’s artistry really makes Joe come alive, with believable facial expressions and distinctive mannerisms (Joe pounds the ground with his fist when he becomes enraged.).  Nominally under the supervision of Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen improved on his mentor’s work in King Kong, creating an ape with a greater range of movement and personality.  Two different sizes of Joe figures were used for long shots and close-up work: 8-inch and 13-inch. Harryhausen conveyed Joe’s feelings of despair when he’s locked in a dismal cage underneath a nightclub, through subtle changes in posture and lip movements.  Live action footage was skillfully blended with stop motion footage to create the illusion that Joe was interacting with his human co-stars.  In one of my favorite scenes, Joe has a tug-o-war with 10 wrestlers (Guess who wins?).

A strong theme of animal exploitation runs throughout Mighty Joe Young.  The animals exist solely for O’Hara’s profit.  The audience’s sympathies are squarely with Joe, as he’s taken out of his habitat and forced to perform in a gaudy jungle-themed nightclub for drunken patrons.  Jill has acquired a modicum of fame and fortune, but Joe has less than nothing.  Realizing that his spirit is broken, Jill and her cowboy pal Gregg (Ben Johnson) conspire to return him to the wild, where he belongs.  It’s perhaps a little out of character that O’Hara becomes their willing accomplice, but it seems fitting penance for his transgressions.  The fun-to-watch (orange-tinted), but heavy-handed burning orphanage sequence is little more than a contrivance, as a means to demonstrate Joe’s true nature to the pursuing policemen. 

Why It’s Still Relevant:

What makes some films classics while others are relegated to historical footnotes?  In Mighty Joe Young, it’s not the acting, story, or direction, but the lasting imagery, thanks to Harryhausen’s groundbreaking effects work.  While the effects might seem quaint by today’s standards, they represent a personal approach that just isn’t done anymore.  Like many classics, it’s a window to a world that has gone by.  The painstaking art of stop motion animation is still alive and well, thanks especially to Aardman Animations, but it’s no longer the visual effects staple it used to be, supplanted by CGI.  Harryhausen’s work in Mighty Joe Young and other films has served as an inspiration for effects masters for many years, and will probably continue to inspire future generations of artists as long as there is film.

It’s easy to spot the impact that Mighty Joe Young had on filmmakers years later.  When Joe trashes the nightclub, he inadvertently releases several lions.  While most of the lions are only interested in fleeing the area, a couple of the big cats jump on his back.  This mirrors a scene in Jurassic Park, involving a tyrannosaurus rex and two hungry velociraptors. 

Mighty Joe Young is unabashedly corny, melodramatic and culturally insensitive.  It might be a product of a simpler, arguably less enlightened time, but taken in the proper context, it still qualifies as great entertainment.  The film doesn’t carry the tragic weight of King Kong, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Like the old TV commercial goes, it’s less filling, and tastes great.  It’s a terrific choice for family film night or just for admiring an old master at the top of his form. 


  1. Barry,
    I'm glad you wrote about MJY! I was just looking over the new catalog for Profiles In History's next auction and it has a few items from the estate of Harry Hausen. Notably King Kong's wax head that was the model for the ape going forward and there were a few props from Mighty Joe Young, like the miniature bottles that were used in the night club scene.

    The film is a bit corny but it's also a classic and a great film for it's early stop animation, paving the way for animators, cinematography going forward, like King Kong before it.

    And there is the fact that the ape was a lot cuter than King Kong! HA

    Thanks for pointing out the impact this film had!
    A great read.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Thanks Page, and Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

    Although I love King Kong, and it's arguably the better film, I feel that Mighty Joe Young has more heart. I really admired the expressiveness that Harryhausen brought to his version of the animated ape.