CINEMA CLASSICS: Mighty Joe Young (1949)

King Kong gets a cuddlier rehash in his childhood favourite from the same creative team. 

Who made it?: Ernest B. Schoedsack (Director), Ruth Rose (Writer), Merian C. Cooper (Producer), RKO Radio Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong, Frank McHugh, Douglas Fowley.

Tagline: “You See It All Happen!”

IMDb rating: 7.0/10.

Sixteen years after King Kong made motion picture history, the same production company, director, writer, special effects artists, as well as a major star reunited on yet another film about giant apes. Mighty Joe Young is often very closely associated with King Kong; some say the film is paying homage to the jungle adventure films from the 30s, others say it is a loose, softer remake of the original. The main difference being that, in this film, the huge gorilla is sort of an adopted sibling to our leading lady, who both live in harmony in their native Africa and Joe is voluntarily taken to America. This time, it wasn’t an attempt to top its famous predecessor, but to simply kick back and have fun with a familiar concept.

In Tanganyika, Africa, eight-year-old Jill Young is living with her father on his ranch. While in her yard, two Africans come by with an orphaned baby gorilla. Jill so wants a pet that she trades her toys and money for him, vowing to always care for the gorilla. Her father warns her that one day the baby gorilla will not be so friendly.

Twelve years later in 1949, Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) and sidekick Gregg (Ben Johnson) are on a trip to Africa looking for animals to headline in O’Hara’s new Hollywood nightclub. They capture several lions to feature alongside the gorilla Joe Young, who now appears twelve feet tall. When a caged lion bites Joe’s fingers, he goes on a rampage. Max and Gregg try to rope him in as an attraction for their nightclub, but he throws both men from their horses and breaks free of their ropes. A grown Jill Young (Terry Moore) arrives, calming Joe down and chastising O’Hara and Gregg. After becoming acquainted with Gregg, Jill hears out O’Hara nightclub proposal, who tells her that she and Joe will be a huge Hollywood hit and will be rich within weeks. Needing the income, she decides she must take Joe to Hollywood, where he is the star of O’Hara’s club. At first, the show is a roaring success and both enjoy fame and fortune, but Joe longs to be free. Eventually, the unruly club patrons make Joe suffer for his stage performances, resulting in a catastrophe that threatens Joe’s life.

Apart from two of our leads, the acting is nothing special. Moore is charming enough as Jill, despite this being a fairly standard likeable lead performance, retaining the innocence and optimism of a girl who has never been to America. Armstrong is once again a delight to watch, and instead of being the maverick adventurer like Carl Denham, he is more of an eccentric showman who learns his lesson before it’s too late. Johnson is as bland, boring and wooden as a rainforest, and devoid of personality to speak of. The little girl playing young Jill in these opening scenes is also wooden. The rest of the bit parts are also fairly forgettable. Fortunately, they aren’t the real stars of the film.

What is easily the best part of this movie is the visual effects by Willis O’Brien and then-newcomer Ray Harryhausen. O’Brien assumes the mentor role to Harryhausen, who handled the majority of the stop-motion on Joe. Joe’s proportions are truer to real life gorillas than Kong, making him less of a monster and closer to being a confused animal. Joe’s expressions speak volumes, conveying joy, sadness or anger without seeming too cartoonish compared to the more feral Kong. The interaction between Joe, the characters and the settings of the film is also commendable. One of my favourite effects is the way footage of lions in cages is spliced together with shots of Joe interacting with the cage and setting the lion free, with the illusion being pretty seamless. Even the stop-motion lions are well animated and integrated competently with their live-action counterparts. The stunt work with the horses interacting with Joe ranges from surprisingly seamless to less than impressive, but is still a commendable achievement. The stop-motion blends in with the sets and the real environments very nicely. On the whole, the illusion is still maintained, making this debut for the great Harryhausen a very impressive one.

As with King Kong, matte paintings and rear/front-projection blend together to merge the plasticine Joe and his miniature sets to the real life footage. They would shoot multiple passes on the same magazine of film in order to expose specific areas of the frame on each pass; Harryhausen used a stopwatch to synchronise movement frame by frame. The results can clearly be identified as effects shots, and they have a weight and solidity that has helped stop-motion remain a recognised artform. What’s perhaps most astonishing about these sequences from a 1949 film is how successfully they integrate the live-action performances with entirely animated elements.

The music by Roy Webb is suitably tailoured to the grand jungle adventure genre of the 30s, in some ways sounding like a continuation of Max Steiner’s work from King Kong, but not quite as memorable. It’s a decent score, bolstered by the classic song “Beautiful Dreamer” as the main theme.

Through no fault of the film, Mighty Joe doesn’t have the same punch as King Kong, mainly due to the fact that the giant ape in this film is not as dangerous as Kong and doesn’t suffer a dramatic fate. The film is certainly very light and free-spirited in tone, and has a more leisurely pace. I understand that the film is more family-friendly than King Kong, but at the beginning, it is rather dull. Some scenes do come off as padding, like O’Hara’s hapless attempts to mount a horse that are meant for comic relief. The use of Joe in the nightclub show, such as holding up a platform whilst Jill plays a piano, or later a tug-of-war between Joe and the ten strongmen, are engaging enough as stop-motion showpieces, but do become less enthralling as the plot is temporarily put aside for the effects to shine.

As soon as Joe gets to America, the pacing improves substantially, culminating in a tremendous, quick-paced chase in the last fifteen minutes. When the second act kicks in, the tone of the movie shifts somewhat. The action becomes bombastic and energetic, with the initial burst of action coming from a cowboy chase through the African bush, which was a pretty fresh sight in the late 40s and even to this day. The scene where a drunken Joe terrorises the club patrons and gets into a fight with the lions in the Golden Safari is pure pandemonium, with the energetic score building upon the destruction and chaos. Its surprisingly tense and thrilling for a family film. Joe gets pretty rough with some lions, and while stop-motion is used for both Joe and the lion he’s fighting in the action shots, in the very next shot a lion gets dropped from a considerable height onto a table, and it didn’t look too comfortable for the lion. Just a fair warning.

The actual climax involving the orphanage is, if I’m honest, really contrived and just comes out of nowhere without any context or build-up. Jill and Ben just see the burning building and spontaneously decide to help. One thing that stands out about it is that it’s filmed entirely in a smoky orange hue which adds to the forbidding and almost hellish atmosphere; as though this was Joe’s trial by fire before winning his freedom.

As far as the film having a thematic angle is concerned, there is a pretty scathing observation on the treatment of animals within the entertainment business. At first, the acts are good-natured and sportsmanlike, but they gradually become more and more degrading, and the customers become increasingly unsavoury as they bathe in the opulent setting, a hollow imitation of the real Africa seen from Jill’s ranch. The performers of the night club are an exaggerated portrayal of tribal Africa (something we see again in Peter Jackson’s King Kong), and the business becomes more and more debased until it implodes in on itself.

Even by the context of the 40s, this was a very old-fashioned kind of film, with the actors and screenplay infusing the storyline with a lot of cheese. The imagery of capturing wild animals is an example of the visuals you could only get away with in these less politically-correct days. The romance between Jill and Gregg is perfunctory and boring, and just comes off as time filler because of how underdeveloped it is.

At the end of the day, the original Mighty Joe Young would have probably remained a footnote in RKO Pictures’ movie catalogue and faded into obscurity if not for an aspiring special effects artist and his career from that point onwards. For what it is, it’s a feel-good adventure film that manages to carve out its own identity whilst still retaining many of the same components as King Kong. But it deserves full credit for starting the career of stop-motion artist and master of the craft, Ray Harryhausen.

Best Scene

Joe knows how to put on a show.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • When Joe smashes through the facade during the nightclub riot, the first scream you hear is that of Fay Wray, stock audio from the original King Kong (1933), which was also produced by RKO.
  • The special effects sequences alone took fourteen months to complete.
  • When Mighty Joe Young gets frustrated, he pounds the ground with his fist. Harryhausen was inspired to do this by the scene from King Kong where Kong pushes open the gates, then forcefully brings his hand down.
  • A sequel called “Joe Meets Tarzan” was planned in 1950 and would have had Mighty Joe Young team up with Tarzan, played by Lex Barker, who had just filmed Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950). The film was cancelled due to the disappointing box office of Mighty Joe Young.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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