If one examines the films (1925-1963) of producer Merian C. Cooper, there are obvious ongoing themes, such as nature being forcibly manhandled by civilization, only to see the wild element (rightly) rebel, and a climactic fight between the beast and the selfish efforts of people trying to tame the untamable.
It’s present in the original King Kong and its hastily conceived sequel, The Son of Kong (both 1933), but Mighty Joe Young [MJY] offers up a less tragic storyline where the wrongly exploited beast is given a second chance when it ultimately proves its goodness through several heroic acts.
All three aforementioned Big Monkey films were penned in whole or in part by Ruth Rose who expanded Cooper’s own story ideas, and they share the same premise of Great White Hunters on a journey to a wild land where they encounter a massive ape, and attempt to control the alluring creature.
In Kong, the story involved outright capture, exploitation, and murder of an ape (because really, Kong’s whole fate is due to the greed of one monster – Carl Denham), whereas in Son of Kong, the half-baked script ran out of story once Denham (now on a path to moral reformation) returned to Skull Island and encountered ‘Little Kong.’ What remained was a half-assed treasure hunt, clunky scene edits, and a ludicrous finale involving an earth tremor that suddenly morphs into a volcano blast akin to Krakatoa. The only thing missing was a Martian ship and giant muffins.
Worse is the characterization of Little Kong as a cartoonish figure who makes human gestures and ape noises akin to Scooby-Doo. It’s a terribly disappointing sequel that never should’ve been rushed into a 6-moth schedule, and Cooper seemed to have learned his lesson well, because while the live-action filming of MJY was accomplished in 3 months, the stop-motion animation effects ranged from 12-18 months.
Rose’s story was designed to be kid-friend – conceptually, it’s fully G-rated – but Willis O’Brien’s supervising effects work and Ray Harryhausen’s hands-on animation are much edgier, if not PG-lite.
Actor Robert Armstrong (who played Denham in the two Kong films) plays Max O’Hara, a louder, blustering exploiter of anything that’ll keep his name in the media. To fill his new African-themed nightclub (!), O’Hara travels to Africa in search of wild beasts, and almost loses his men when they try to rope (!) a massive ape.
Just as O’Hara is about to become a human rag dog, teenage Jill Young appears, and O’Hara sees she controls the mighty beast (named Joe) whom she considers her best friend.
O’Hara takes advantage of Jill’s green brain and convinces her to sign a contract where she and Joe will become stars. Once in the U.S., she realizes the deal isn’t that beneficial, and although she seems to enjoy the promised nice clothes, fame, and relative freedom, Joe must return to a cage in the basement.
O’Hara lies about ending their contract when she has second thoughts and wants to return to Africa, and when Joe rebels against an abusive audience on night, he’s hunted down by the police with shoot-to-kill orders.
O’Hara realizes he’s been (quite frankly) an asshole, and like Denham in Son of Kong, he seeks to make a big wrong a better right, and helps Jill and Joe escape to a boat chartered for Africa. En route to the docks, they stop to help a burning orphanage (amazing stroke of karma!), and when the police witness Joe’s valiant rescues, he’s off Death Row and is able to return to the Dark Continent, where he can run free on the plantation Jill was dumb enough to leave in the first place (but presumable still held the deed).
Early in the film, O’Hara’s lead roper Gregg Johnson suggests Jill reconsider signing the contract since she has no reason to leave a massive plantation / farm for a pipe dream. Her decision to put pen to paper actually puts the blame for Joe’s misery and near-death not on O’Hara, but Jill – a naïve, doe-eyed dimwit who sets in motion a lot of trauma for an innocent animal.
As a family film, MGY works (well, in a vintage forties mentality), but it’s got such a weak heroine that the only character for whom one feels sympathy is Joe, whose increasingly tragic predicament is goosed by crazy sequences in O’Hara’s huge nightclub.
Among the film’s most memorable sequences is Joe rising from the stage holding a circular platform upon which Jill plays Joe’s favourite song, “Beautiful Dreamer,” on piano, but there are other aspects of the club that make the jaw drop: the lengthy bar, which overlooks a large display of a pack of lions; a wild African dance number with a long-necked woman; and several bizarre presentations concocted by O’Hara meant to illustrate Joe’s power.
Joe winning a tug-of-war with wrestling champions is a highlight, but the most surreal has Jill playing a hurdy-gurdy while Joe begs for money with his cap. The audience has been given ‘big money’ coins for ‘the big monkey’ and are told to toss it at the two performers to win free booze. The scene – which sets Joe into crazy mode when a bottle conks Joe on the head – is meant to be the highpoint of O’Hara’s increasingly cruel concepts and a bored, sadistic audience, but the real target deserving full hate is Jill, who stands there like a tree, watching her best friend humiliated in another elaborate fashion.
That’s the toughest aspect of MJY: an exotic scenario hampered by a central human character that’s utterly unsympathetic. Terry Moore was cast for her ingénue qualities, but in terms of a performance, it’s as though Moore decided to replicate the performance of actress Lora Lee Michel who plays Jill as a child, and play the young adult Jill with a ten years old’s emotional range, as well a sticking to three facial expressions: Happy! Sad! and Oh No!
Rose’s dialogue – fun when O’Hara belts loud, crass sentences – is interminable whenever Jill opens her mouth, often uttering Joe’s name in grating multiples.
Love interest Gregg (Ben Johnson) is an all-around nice guy, but he’s also too subservient to O’Hara, and his own acceptance of Jill and Joe’s lousy contractual obligations makes him complicit in the pair’s unhappiness. Actor Johnson, a genuine champion roper, made his leading man debut in MJY partly through the machinations of co-producer John Ford, and while he has some screen charisma, it’s a neutral role that only gets interesting when Johnson attempts to rope Joe at the film’s beginning, or near the end when he helps rescue Jill from the disintegrating orphanage before Joe climbs to the top to help.
The real star of MJY is the character of Joe (billed by O’Hara as “Mr. Joseph Young”), if not the superior filmmaking techniques that inspired kids to become stop-motion animators. This was Harryhausen’s feature film debut, and with O’Brien’s supervision, Ted Cheeseman’s sharp editing, and J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography, Joe’s scenes are still amazing.
As crazy as it sounds, the roping of Joe is a highlight (and the concept of cowboys catching a massive beast was later transposed from roping an ape to a T-Rex in Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi in 1969). The multiple angles, point-of-views, fast action, and Joe’s beautifully animated movements are textbook examples of how to craft a kinetic action sequence, and the sequence feels stylistically modern.
The same applies to Joe’s rampage in O’Hara’s nightclub, where Joe smashes the lion displays, fights the lions, and escapes. Harryhausen again blended footage of live actors with stop-motion miniatures, as well as the club’s own African-styled sets that Joe destroys either from tossing lions against makeshift huts, or people. (The only aspect animal lovers might take issue with are a few cutaways that show lions doing stunts few would attempt today.)
The fiery finale is equally impressive the way the orphanage gradually crumbles, and Joe at one point rescues a child and climbs a tree while fire licks upward at an incredible speed.
MJY is a remarkable achievement in stop-motion animation, and it deserved the Oscar for Best Special Effects, but there’s also a tongue-in-cheek quality that makes the weaker characters less damaging. O’Hara, patterned after Cooper, is a bit of a cook and a media whore, and during Joe’s stage debut O’Hara is amusing when he walks out with a cartoon-sized hunting helmet – a nice touch that shows a little man with a big ego trying to look grand in front of much taller, meaner audience members.
There’s also a great punchline to a visual gag where O’Hara scurries off the stage once Joe appears for the tug-of-war, because Joe recognizes O’Hara as the ass he almost dropped back in Africa had Jill not come to his rescue.
Roy Webb’s score appropriately veers from thematic renditions of “Beautiful Dreamer” and his own MJY theme to orchestral chaos that almost comes close to cartoon music, but maintains a dark edge, turning the film’s action sequences where Joe must defend himself into moments of genuine desperation where a wild creature is being abused by humans.
It’s tough to say whether the makers of the 1998 remake could have effectively wrestled and solved the original script’s problems, but Ron Underwood’s film lacks the charm and sympathy that’s central to Joe’s likeability, and O’Brien and Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation is much more consistent in style and tone than the CGI effects of the remake. Moreover, whereas the original film’s action sequences are filled with rich kinetics, in the ’98 version they’re often bombastic.
Getting past the ’49 version’s flaws is somewhat managed by the generous extras in Warner Home Video’s DVD which features a gorgeous print transfer, as well as the tinting of the orphanage fire sequence (which, according to Harryhausen, was reportedly sepia-toned, but tinted red for the laserdisc and DVD transfers).
Harryhausen, Moore, and effects veteran Ken Ralston (also on the King Kong DVD and Blu-ray commentary tracks) speak the length of the film, and their dialogue covers the film’s production, the careers of the film’s main creative participants, and dissections of many effects.
Ralston is clearly in awe of Harryhausen (rightly so), and Moore offers some amusing memories of Cooper, director Ernest B. Schoedsack (who was nearly blind at the time, and directed the film using surrounding sounds and the help of an aid), and the real-life wrestlers who appeared in the tug-of-war sequence.
It’s also a relief to hear Harryhausen point out the severe flaws in Son of Kong, and his own determination to return to O’Brien’s more pure ape characterization by giving Joe a blend of gorilla and chimpanzee behaviour. (The only exception is Joe’s weird razzing and finger gestures as he’s being whisked away in a van by Gregg and Jill – perhaps material demanded by the filmmakers to sustain a few humorous elements before the dire orphanage sequence.)
Further admiration of Harryhausen’s artistry is extended by the Chiodo Brothers (Team America: World Police) in a Q&A featurette that provides the kind of career overview that should’ve been done in WHV’s Clash of the Titans (1981) DVD & BR; perhaps the label’s thinking was to use MJY for the main featurette, since Harryhausen’s primary work was for Columbia.
The Chiodo Brothers also join Harryhausen at their studio where the veteran animator discusses the various Mighty Joe models created for the film while handling one of the rare surviving Joe armatures designed for the film. The tone sometimes gets a bit too reverent, but the respect the Chiodos and Ralston have for one of the premiere stop-motion pioneers is understandable – this is one of the men who directly inspired them.
MJY was previously released on laserdisc (a 1985 Image edition includes a different commentary track), but this 2006 DVD offer up a solid combination of extras. The film transfer is very clean, but a future BR release would eliminate some compression issues, as the disc includes lengthy making-of and interview featurettes.
This title is available separately or as part of a boxed set that includes King Kong and The Son of Kong.
Interestingly, actress Terry Moore also appeared in The Great Rupert (1950), another stop-motion animation film produced by Harryhausen’s former mention, George Pal (Destination Moon). Her more notable roles as a mature adult include Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952 for Paramount (for which she earned an Oscar Nomination), followed by several Fox films: Man on a Tightrope, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef and King of the Khyber Rifles (all in 1953), and the deliciously sleazy Peyton Place (1957).
Both screenwriter Rose and director Schoedsack retired from feature films (although the latter directed bits of This is Cinerama in 1952), whereas Cooper continued to produce several of John Ford’s films, ending with The Searchers (1956).
O’Brien’s final film credit is The Black Scorpion (1957), whereas Harryhausen moved on as an effects supervisor, starting with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) for producer Charles H. Schneer (1958-1981) before the two shored up a rewarding production partnership, and crafted the fantasy classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan