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Mighty Joe Young (1949).

June 16, 2009

The Scoop:
Sixteen years after the fact, the team behind the landmark “King Kong” — producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest B. Schoedsack, special effects guru Willis O’Brien and actor Robert Armstrong — return to their old stomping grounds to give the story a fresh, more kid-friendly twist with “Mighty Joe Young.”

Blowhard producer Max O’Hara (Armstrong, essentially reprising his “King Kong” role) travels to Africa looking for wild animals to include in his latest vaudeville production. (Never mind the fact that vaudeville was all but dead by the late 1940s. Don’t question Hollywood storytelling!) He and his guide Gregg (Ben Johnson) luck out by finding a 12-foot gorilla who was raised by a young woman named Jill (Terry Moore). Jill and her ape, now dubbed Mr. Joseph Young, are persuaded to travel back to America and go into show business. The show is a success for a while, until unruly audience members taunt Joe and push him too far. He goes on a rampage, then goes on the lam as Jill, Gregg and O’Hara try to keep him one step ahead of the cops and get him back to Africa.

Besides the same basic plot, “Mighty Joe Young” also shares the same thematic concerns as “King Kong” — namely, the exploitation of Third World cultures and the tragedy of humankind’s encroachment on nature. But the script by Ruth Rose gives these themes a lighter, more fun twist, complete with the happy ending that Kong deserved but never got. The biggest drawback is a final act that drags on a bit too long.

But the real treat here is the charming stop motion animation that brings Joe to life. While the character was designed by O’Brien, who got top billing, the majority of the actual animation work was done by his apprentice, the legendary Ray Harryhausen, who got his big break here. While the style isn’t as smooth and expressive as most of Harryhausen’s later work, it is still terrific, bringing a tender and almost humanistic side to Joe. And because Joe is smaller in stature in Kong, that means a lot more interaction with the human characters, which is pulled off skillfully thanks to the special effects team.

The end result is a wonderful companion piece to “King Kong” that is engaging and enjoyable. Forget the 1998 remake and stick with this one.

Best Bit:
The first nightclub sequence, which is highlighted by a bravura tracking shot through a set that is quite literally larger than life. The set was too big to be built as it was envisioned, so the tracking shot is actually an optical composite of several smaller sets.

Side Note:
Terry Moore had a long and varied career after this film. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1953 for “Come Back, Little Sheba,” then made the jump to television with guest roles in everything from “Rawhide” and “My Three Sons” to “Knight Rider” and “Murder, She Wrote.” She even played a villain in the original “Batman” series, and was one of the executive producers of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” In the 1970s claimed that she had had a long–term secret marriage to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

Companion Viewing:
“King Kong” (1933) and “Son of Kong” (1933).

This Distracted Globe.
The Seventh Voyage.
A closer look at Joe’s getaway van from I Love Trucks.

Take a Look:
A horribly colorized version of the strongman scene. (All these guys are playing themselves, by the way):

Some clips of Terry Moore’s scenes:

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