"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

1 Post from April 2013


MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) - directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack

The love for our pets is overwhelming. No matter the size of our creature companion, from the smallest gerbil to the tallest horse, the affection for our animals is as big as a full-grown gorilla. Such is the literal case of Mr. Joe Young, a 10-foot ape, who is the adored pet of a young woman in one of the most delightful Hollywood fantasy/adventure movies ever made: Mighty Joe Young (1949).

Ben Johnson and Terry Moore

Jill Young (Terry Moore) raised Joe from a baby gorilla on her family farm in Africa. Jill and Joe encounter an expedition—headed by American theatrical impresario Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) and assisted by Gregg (Ben Johnson), a cowboy and roping expert—hunting for wild game to populate Max’s new African-themed nightclub. They all travel to California, where Jill and Joe are an instant sensation at Max’s nightclub. Jill even falls in love with the affable Gregg, but she becomes disillusioned when Joe is required to perform humiliating acts on stage. It all turns nasty when a group of inebriate club patrons take advantage of Joe, which causes the pissed-off primate to go ape and rampage the club. This destructive incident results in the court-ordered death of Joe. What transpires then is a scheme to save Joe and to get him and Jill on a boat back to Africa.  


(from left to right) Robert Armstrong in exaggerated pith helmet as Max O'Hara, director Ernest B. Schoedsack in commodore's cap and Ben Johnson sporting slick hair as modern-day cowboy, Gregg

The same creative team who gave the world a gargantuan gorilla who climbed the heights of the Empire State Building for the love of one woman—King Kong (1933)—also made Mighty Joe Young. Producer Merian C. Cooper dreamt up this variation on his original Kong story and Ernest B. Schoedsack once again directed with a lean fervor. Ruth Rose’s screenplay had a lighter, comedic touch this time around and Robert Armstrong playfully riffed on his Carl Denham role from Kong.

(below) Stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen poses with his miniature Joe

The stop-motion animation wizard Willis O’Brien also came back, working alongside a future master of animated creatures, Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), to bring Joe to mighty life. Although not as slick as contemporary CGI-effects movies, the stop-motion animation in Joe—combined with handful of other magic trick effects—was superb and, in my opinion, more warm and soulful than any digital animation or motion-capture technology practiced today.


Joe on a nightclub tear

Though its story is simple (and some of its plot points don’t bear close scrutiny), what makes Joe so engaging is Joe himself—he is completely empathetic, even more so than Kong, which is a tribute to O’Brien and Harryhausen’s animation and acting mastery—and the imaginatively directed set-pieces. The wrangling of Joe by cowboys, the nightclub destruction, the escape and the climatic orphanage-fire sequence are riveting. Film students interested in directing action movies could do a lot worse than studying these scenes.  In fact, the direction by Ernest B. Schoedsack is all the more exceptional for a man who was virtually blind (due to a World War II aviation incident) when he made this movie!

Mighty Joe Young may not possess the epic grandeur, exotic mystery and erotic underpinnings of its formidable fore-ape, King Kong, but it does have a huge heart, a spunky spirit and pulsates with a playful vigour. What more could you want from a pet?

Click poster to view trailer