Deneb does Mighty Joe Young

“Am I dreamin’, or did I see a gorilla – and a beautiful dame?”

The Scoop: 1949, no rating I can find (but probably PG), directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and starring Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong and Denis Green.

Tagline: Ten Terrific Thrills!

Summary Capsule: Young girl and her great big ape get seduced over Stateside to become a nightclub attraction. Havoc ensues.

Deneb’s Rating: 4.5 renditions of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ out of five.

Deneb’s Review: You know, I’m really not all that old-fashioned a guy when it comes to my cinematic tastes. I mean, I’m not some sort of a throwback – I’m a modern fellow who does watch modern movies. I do like and appreciate current and up-to-date filmic culture, is what I’m saying.

And yet, I can’t help myself – I keep getting drawn back to the older stuff. Why?

Well, it might be that the mere fact that it’s older gives one a chance to study the way things used to look and people used to act. It might be that by viewing what came before, one can gain a new appreciation for the things that followed after. It might be that older movies simply suit my sensibilities more in some unexplainable way.

Or it might be that every so often, one runs across something like Mighty Joe Young.

Let’s dive right into things. We begin our tale in Africa – just “Africa”. You know, Africa Africa. That place in Africa that just happens to be called Africa. Like New York, New York. Hollywood loves the place; they used to film all their stuff there.

Anyway. In Africa, a little girl by the name of Jill Young lives on her father’s plantation. It’s a lonely life for Jill, what with there being no other kids around to play with – but wait! Here come a couple of hunters, and what do they have? Why, it’s an absolutely adorable baby gorilla! Think they’d be willing to sell?

If they weren’t, it’d be an awfully short movie. Despite her father’s misgivings, Jill buys the sweet little ape-baby, names him Joe and – we cut to New York City, twelve years later.

Yes, there is a reason for this, so don’t sue; the whiplash is worth it. It seems that a certain Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong), nightclub proprietor extraordinaire, is planning to open a new establishment, in Hollywood, no less. The place has to make a big impression, so he’s giving it a theme – Africa! And just to give it that extra bit of splash and dash, he wants it to come complete with African animals, which he himself is going to acquire. How? By going over to the Dark Continent along with a posse of cowboys to rope him some lions, of course.

Hey, don’t look at me. I just work here.

So over to Africa they go, and since this is Africa Africa (which unlike the rest of it is a fairly small place), guess what they happen to run into? A gorilla! And yow, what a gorilla this is! He’s the biggest freaking gorilla you’ve ever seen who isn’t named “Kong” – this thing is about twice the size of your average ape, and in some shots, bigger!

Naturally, Max can’t let this little specimen get away, but since this particular anthropoid is the Sherman Tank of gorilla-dom, he can more than take on a bunch of puny cowboys. Things are just starting to take a turn for the worst when a beautiful young girl shows up and yells at gorilla el grande to knock that off – and he does!

Yes, this is Jill Young (Terry Moore) all gwowed up, and the gorilla, of course, is Joe, who has grown just as much and then some. She proceeds to rip the cowboys a new one for trespassing on her land and attacking her ape, and proceeds to storm off back home with Joe meekly following her.

Well, if Max was keen on acquiring that monkey beforehand, he’s twice as hot for it now. A giant gorilla under the thumb of a gorgeous blonde? It’s the act of the century! He’s just gotta sign her up, her and Joe, and since he’s nothing if not experienced in such matters, he does. Money, glamour and fame are waved under her nose, and she’s well and truly won over.

Not too long afterwards, Hollywood sees the opening of a new nightclub, the Golden Safari, with the headlining act being “Mr. Joseph Young, of Africa”. Max’s showbiz instincts were spot-on, too – Joe is a smash hit, and draws huge crowds night after night. Boy oh boy, is everything coming up roses!

For him, that is. Jill rapidly discovers that the transition from African farm girl to Hollywood celebrity is not as smooth as she thought it would be. Sure, she’s got everything Max promised – pretty dresses, lots of money, even a new boyfriend in the form of Gregg (Ben Johnson), one of the cowboys – but she just doesn’t feel at home here. And furthermore, there’s Joe to consider – all the rest she might get used to, but she doesn’t like the fact that her oldest and dearest friend has to live in a cage and act like a fool onstage.

Despite her attempts at backing out, Joe is too profitable to lose, and Max keeps them both around with razzle-dazzle and empty promises. This, however, can only go on for so long, as however much of an innocent he may be, Joe is still a giant gorilla – and as the acts get more and more demeaning and the audience commensurately rowdy, he becomes harder and harder to control. Eventually, someone is going to push him too far, and when they do, things are going to get awfully complicated for Mr. Joseph Young and company…

As I believe I’ve said elsewhere, there are films that are “dated” and then there are films that are “of their time”. Mighty Joe Young manages to transcend both labels by embracing them whole-heartedly – it is certainly dated, since it involves an overall outlook on the world that we by and large have abandoned, and it is undoubtedly of its time, since at no time but the 1940’s could such a movie ever have been cooked up. And oh my word, is it glorious.

Just look at the basic plot for this thing, will you? A nightclub entrepreneur goes to Africa with a bunch of cowboys to hunt lions, only to encounter a gigantic gorilla under the sway of a beautiful girl, so he brings them both back to Hollywood to perform. It’s like a Golden Age comic book put on film! If Joe had fought crime in the process, you’d have a hard time convincing me that it hadn’t started out as just that.

It looks like a comic book, too – in a good way, I mean. The gloriously gaudy Golden Safari is a prime example of this. By modern standards of taste, it’s hideous, but as scenery it’s terrific. The fake palm trees, the elaborately over-costumed ‘native’ dancers, the freakin’ lions prowling about in their glass enclosure while the bartender mixes drinks a few feet away – it is so incredibly over-the-top that it never fails to bring an incredulous grin to my face. The same could be said about the African scenes – sure, it’s not very PC, what with the gobbledygook-spouting natives and all, but it so perfectly encapsulates what us clueless Yanks thought Africa was like at the time that I can’t help but enjoy it.

While we’re on the subject of appearances, one cannot talk about Mighty Joe Young without bringing up the special effects used to bring Mr. Young to life. The stop-motion was handled by two masters in the field – Willis O’Brien, who worked on King Kong, and the legendary Ray Harryhausen, doing some of his first work in movies. Between the two of them, they really came up with something special.

It has been said about the immortal Kong that he doesn’t just work as a creature, he works as a character, which is why he remains so popular. The same can be said about Joe – which is hardly coincidental, as he is of course reminiscent of Kong in many ways.

The main difference is that, while Kong has many sympathetic aspects which have been much-remarked upon over the years, he is still basically a monster. I mean, he’s fifty feet tall, what else would you call him? He’s not a gorilla, he’s a freaking kaiju. Joe, on the other hand, is a gorilla, and by the standards of the times, a fairly believable one. Never mind that he’s roughly the size of an SUV; that falls under “suspension of disbelief”. In all the ways that count, he’s perfectly credible. He is, most importantly, recognizably an animal – he’s intelligent, but he doesn’t always understand what’s expected of him, and often gets confused and has to be coaxed in the right direction. Any dog owner will recognize the moments where he briefly jumps to exactly the wrong conclusion before getting it right – the tug-of-war sequence where he offers the rope to Jill is a good example of this.

That being said, he’s not only an animal – as with Kong, he has character. Joe is clearly devoted to his little friend Jill, and gladly does what she says, but not to an unrealistic degree. There are several occasions where he chafes at the rope a bit, and does the gorilla equivalent of ‘aww, but I wanna!’ You can clearly tell when he’s frustrated or angry, not to mention his more playful moments when he’s genuinely enjoying himself. And when he gets really and truly P.O’d, it has far more punch to it, because we not only know what he’s gone through, we have (kind of) seen things through his eyes. To bring up Kong again, he was more or less an imperious lord of the jungle – apart from his tender feelings for the little blonde woman, he pretty much rampaged around because that’s what he did. Not so with Joe – we’ve seen exactly what’s provoked him more or less moment-by-moment, and seen his cumulative reactions along the way, so we intimately understand his rage, and it has a cathartic feeling to it.   

Oh yes, we were talking about the special effects, weren’t we? I kinda forgot. After all, Joe is a special effect, and in talking about his character, I got a bit sidetracked from talking about him – or, more specifically, how well he’s pulled off. On a purely technical level, the answer is “very well”. The stop-motion is a lot smoother than in King Kong, and is integrated into the live action extremely well, even by today’s standards. In fact, while I normally don’t take a stand on such things, I would honestly urge prospective viewers to try and watch a VHS copy, if possible, rather than a DVD, as the sharpness and crispness the latter format provides shows the inevitable shortcomings of the effects in unflattering detail. With just the slightest amount of fuzziness or blurriness, they remain nearly indistinguishable from reality, and are really shown off at their best. It may seem like a bit of a paradox to recommend a lower image quality in order to appreciate the visuals, but… yeah.

At this point I would normally start talking about heroes and villains, but this is the sort of movie that doesn’t really have either of them. (The closest thing it has to real villains are the boorish nightclub patrons, and they’re really just drunken louts, rather than active evildoers.) Jill and Gregg are just a bit too passive to count as actively heroic, although they do kick into gear a bit more in the last act. Neither actor has a hell of a lot to do – Terry Moore’s part calls for her to be naïve and shy and boss around Joe, while Ben Johnson’s part calls for him to be a cowboy, so he’s a cowboy. (For the record, I actually do like Gregg as a character – he’s an unusually soft-spoken and polite sort in an era where leading men were often brash loudmouths – but there’s no denying that he ultimately doesn’t have much of an affect on the plot.) Still, neither of them are bad in the roles.

That pretty much leaves the guy who would normally be the villain – Max. The thing is, though, Max is not really all that bad of a guy. Sure, he’s a fast-talking, profit-minded publicity hound who leaps before he looks and can talk just about anybody into just about anything, but for all that, he’s a reasonably decent sort. He never cheats or double-crosses anyone – he treats Jill fairly, and honors his side of the contract he makes with her – and while he’s directly responsible for just about all the trouble that occurs in the film, he actually mans up and acknowledges this, and does his best to fix the situation afterwards. If nothing else, Robert Armstrong hams him up so broadly that he’s generally fun to watch, and difficult to genuinely dislike.

Flaws? Sure there are flaws. To start with, the little girl who plays Jill in the opening scenes is a terrible actor, even considering her youth (which is no excuse, really; there are plenty of talented child actors), and her line deliveries are semi-competent at best. For that matter, none of the acting is particularly stellar here (although, of course, deep performances are hardly what’s demanded in a movie like this), and as with most Hollywood films of the era, there are several scenes featuring the kind of comic relief that I refuse to believe was ever considered funny. Also, the climax (while exciting and effective) comes completely out of nowhere, and could have stood a little foreshadowing. (Oh, and if you want to be a stickler for strict accuracy, gorillas do not in fact grow that big.)

You know what, though? That is minor stuff, and I doubt it will effect most people’s enjoyment of this film in any way. Mighty Joe Young is vintage B-movie fluff of the best sort, delivering everything required to ensure a satisfying evening’s entertainment. It’s appropriate for just about everybody from toddlers on up, coming from an era when the term “family film” was allowed to include a fair amount of thrilling adventure. I’m not saying it’s for everybody – if you like your films grim n’ gritty or saturated in CGI, for instance, it may turn you off – but I, for one, certainly enjoy it, and do not hesitate to recommend it to all and sundry.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go. I’ve got a flea market to go to soon, and they always sell lots of old movies…

“Aw c’mon, Joe, you know this game! It’s called ‘Flossing the Teeth of the Giant Anaconda’! Now go on, Joe, floss! Back, forth, up, down – OH! Look, you nicked a gum; that loses us ten points! Bad Joe! No banana!”

Intermission!

  • Mighty Joe Young won an Academy Award for “Best Visual Effects.”
  • The piano-shaped music box that a young Jill winds up for Joe is a reference to later in the film, where she’ll play the real thing for him.
  • Although the “Swahili” the Africans speak in the film is just made-up gibberish, screenwriter Ruth Rose still had to write up a translation so that the censorship board could make sure it wasn’t secretly offensive language.
  • While Joe is theoretically about nine feet high, in some shots he’s clearly much larger. This was done intentionally at the insistence of Willis O’Brien, who felt it would add to the drama.
  • For some reason I will never understand, film studios of the period seemed to cast quite a few child actors with thick Southern accents, as they did with Lora Lee Michel, who plays the younger Jill. This was a distracting practice that made little-to-no sense, especially when (as was generally the case) the adults surrounding them did not sound like that. Mind you, Michel’s accent is less pronounced than some, but as an example of a broader trend, it’s kind of annoying.
  • During the tug-of-war sequence in the nightclub, Joe faces off against ten professional strongmen, whom Max introduces by name. All ten were professional wrestlers in real life, and the names and pseudonyms given are their own.
  • When first introduced, Gregg states that he’s a cowboy from Oklahoma. His actor, Ben Johnson, actually was a cowboy from Oklahoma before he got into show business.
  • IMDB states in its summary that the African scenes are set in Tanzania. I’m fairly certain that this is never stated in the film itself, although they may be extrapolating based on the fact that the locals speak Swahili (theoretically, anyway), which is the language of choice in Tanzania, along with several other East African countries.
  • Along with launching Ray Harryhausen’s career, Mighty Joe Young also features the first stop-motion work done by animator Pete Peterson. He was actually employed as a grip at the time, but was so fascinated by watching the process in action that Willis O’Brien let him help out with certain scenes.
  • The movie had a planned sequel, Joe Meets Tarzan, which would have featured exactly that. Unfortunately, the movie’s box-office was not deemed good enough, and the project was scrapped.

Groovy Quotes:

John Young: For a tired man who just found a gorilla in his bed, I think I’m behaving very well.

Windy: Who d’you think is gonna get the worst of this – Maxie, or Africa?

Jill Young: Well, come in – but no guns.
Max O’Hara: (plaintively) No guns?
Jill Young: No guns.

Max O’Hara: Am I dreamin’, or did I see a gorilla – and a beautiful dame?

Max O’Hara: Don’t you understand? I’m going to be in terrible danger in Darkest Africa!

Gregg: Listen Jill, you can’t go around askin’ guys to go to Africa with ya.

Max O’Hara: (to horse) Can’t you cooperate?

Max O’Hara: Aah! I think I’m gonna have a heart attack!
Cop: Fine! Have it in there!

Max O’Hara: This is a great story I wrote today – how I escaped from pygmy cannibals.
Crawford: ‘Pygmy cannibals’? Did you really? Was that today?
Max O’Hara: Yeah! They had me cornered! I’d lost my gun. They dropped a net on me from out of a tree. There I was, fighting, struggling – but there was too many of them. They were all over me, like ants! How d’you think I escaped?
Crawford: I have no idea. Did I ever tell you about the mad elephant that seized me in his trunk and flung me one half-mile? I went back afterwards and measured it.
Max O’Hara: Eh, heh-heh, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You’re catching on!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • King Kong (the original)
  • Son of Kong
  • Dumbo
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