Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Son of Kong is a charming oddball of a movie, but Mighty Joe Young is a much more serious picture for special effects and animation addicts. Made fifteen years after King Kong by most of the same creative crew, it improves on the original Kong in most technical departments. It won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.
Mighty Joe Young is an infantile fantasy, an attempt to make a monster spectacle suitable for all ages. It re-runs the basic plot idea of King Kong and has always been considered a lesser accomplishment. That's too bad, as little kids love Joe Young and probably identified with him more than any other movie 'monster' until Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extraterrestrial.
Show Bix entrepreneur Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong) takes a group of cowboys to Africa to rope lions for his proposed Golden Safari nightclub, including champion roper Gregg (Ben Johnson). They discover Jill Young (Terry Moore) and her 'pet' gorilla Joe, who stands fifteen feet tall and is extremely strong. Max signs Jill and Joe to a contract and takes them to Hollywood, where his Sunset Blvd. opening is a big success: Jill plays "Beautiful Dreamer" on a piano that rises above the stage, supported by Joe below. Max rakes in the boxoffice receipts while Jill is unhappy because Joe is demoralized from living in a cage. She wants to go back to Africa but Max keeps talking her out of leaving, and into acts that provoke Joe's increasing temper.
Mighty Joe Young was well-known to us 1960s readers of Famous Monsters magazine. Forry Ackerman published a great still of Ray Harryhausen next to one of the models of Joe, and we marveled at the talent that could animate the giant ape so well. The film was corny but special. Joe starts out as a petulant monkey on a chain who has to be yelled at repeatedly (by his not-too-bright mistress, Jill) to do simple things like catch a banana or not kill the funny men trying to rope him. This allows Merian C. Cooper, Ruth Rose and Willis O'Brien to indulge in episodes for fun alone. Joe not only yanks cowboys from horses, he engages in a spirited game of dodge ball, using boulders. Robert Armstrong's Max O'Hara appears to be Irish (the influence of co-producer John Ford?) but this time around he's all clown, wearing a giant pith helmet. His safari nightclub is pure silliness of the best kind, with the barely-controllable Joe always threatening to run amuck. It's too easy to see him accidentally squashing Jill ("Beautiful dream --- splat!") and then going ballistic out of rage. That's basically what happens when a trio of funny drunks invite Joe on a binge. Nestor Paiva (Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Douglas Fowley (Singin' in the Rain) get the big monkey plastered and then provoke him when he's under the influence. One massive action-destruction scene later, Joe is on trial for his life.
What we kids didn't realize was that the film was scripted and structured like a silent movie melodrama, something for Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish. The makes a strong sentimental appeals, especially when a burning orphanage scene is pulled in at the last minute - it may have been a last-minute script addition. Funny jeopardy (Joe fleeing the cops) is deflected into heart-tug territory as our human heroes rush into the flames to rescue endangered children. Joe first reacts like a kid staring at a bonfire, and then climbs up the building to rescue Jill, the only person he's so far cared about. Gregg has to use his lariat skill to secure two or three tots but then another little kid appears on the top landing. When Joe goes into action, a bunch of mixed feelings hit us all at once, as they do in movies as basic as Way Down East or The Kid). Joe makes the jump from dumb animal to loyal defender of helpless kids, irrationally leaping over comparison with Lassie right into Gunga Din territory. All that's lacking is a flashback showing that Joe associates the tot in danger with Jill Young as a child, and Mighty Joe Young would be a piece of loopy Americana worthy of D.W. Griffith. 2
Something else we quickly notice is the quantum improvement in Joe's animation. Much of it was done by Willis O'Brien's acolyte Ray Harryhausen while O'Brien was busy oveseeing production problems for this expensive Union production. Harryhausen imparts a fluidity to Joe's motions unseen in King Kong and introduces subtle character touches that make him seem not only alive but personable. Joe is never a clown like Kiko, the Son of Kong, but he definitely has his own personality. Harryhausen gets away with having him sit on the tailgate of a truck and spit contemptously at his police pursuers. Another gag cutaway shows him idly drumming his fingers. Marcel Delgado's animation models are more sophisticated and anatomically convincing than Kong, especially because his fur doesn't flutter about while he's being animated. Although the kinds of process photography employed are the same, Mighty Joe Young uses fewer traveling mattes and adds complex camera moves that have to be animated with the rest of the action on screen.
It's appropriate that the film was given the effects Oscar, even if we realize that in 1948 it was probably John Ford and Merian Cooper's combined publicity clout that did the trick. At that time effects secrets were hardly ever given publicity ink. If Willis O'Brien was mentioned at all in the press, it was in conjuction with his previous classics. Ray Harryhausen would have to go back to his garage-made fairy tales, as Mighty Joe Young's use of a large and expensive special effects unit was not the kind of filmmaking Hollywood encouraged; until Star Wars it was considered poor management to allow any technical credits not demanded by guild contracts. Mighty Joe Young would be O'Brien's last big-time screen credit. Harryhausen was indeed fortunate to find a producer equally as enchanted by the possibilities of stop-motion, or there might never have been any classics like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
Terry Moore is cute enough as Jill Young, although in playing innocent she tends to come off as rather infantile. Cooper and Schoedsack team her with John Ford discovery Ben Johnson, a rodeo champ whose acting depended upon a kind face and good manners for his first two decades of roles. He wins over little boys in the audience with tricks like absently lassoing a desk ornament during a shot. Robert Armstrong is a kinder, gentler Carl Denham that behaves more like a press agent than his press agent, Warner stock company refugee Frank McHugh. Max O'Hara blithely cons Jill for profit, and then plays benevolent good guy for the big escape finale. Armstrong was in dozens of movies without making all that much of an impression and we easily remember him most for his giant ape movies.
Beyond that we get good bits from various wrestlers and musclemen like Primo Carnera and The Swedish Angel; Ford perennial Jack Pennick, Ellen Corby at the orphanage and William Schallert beginning his career-long dalliance with monsters as a gas pump jockey. Irene Ryan, granma in the vintage Beverly Hillbillies TV show, is a glamorous patron at Max O'Hara's Golden Safari bar. Roy Webb's score, by the way, includes a great swing tune heard at the nightclub between performances. It's also heard when Robert Mitchum strong-arms his way into a San Francisco nite spot in 1947's Out of the Past.
Warners' DVD of Mighty Joe Young is a flawless flat transfer with excellent picture detail and audio clarity. The title has always looked good (even on 1960s 8mm excerpt reels) and it makes a perfect co-feature in the King Kong Collection boxed set release.
Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston provide a great commentary, better than the one on King Kong because Ray digs into a lot of memories we haven't heard before. Some of the trivia is just that - Ray's favorite animation model was called Jennifer after the luscious Jennifer Jones, who he says he saw in Duel in the Sun dailies at the same time. 1. But we also find out that director Ernest B. Schoedsack was functionally blind during the shoot, having lost most of his vision while flying in WW2. So we can conclude that the unfussy direction was probably helped out a great deal by John Ford, who was said to be on the set quite a bit and even functioned as an "Assistant director." It's a nice addition to the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby stories about The Thing from Another World.
Harryhausen reappears along with the Chiodo brothers in two new featurettes, about the film and the nature of stop-motion animation. The chats are rather timely this year, with the attention given new retro-tech animation movies like Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Mighty Joe Young's trailer is also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mighty Joe Young rates:
Supplements: commentary by Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, two featurettes with Harryhausen and the Chiodo brothers, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 26 , 2005
1. Either Ray's memory is off or Mighty Joe Young took four years to make, because Duel in the Sun was a 1946 release.
2. This sideways entrance of the burning orphanage can be forgiven in an openly fanciful movie. In Francis Coppola's The Outsiders it is just bad plotting.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson