When one thinks of stop-motion animation a single name leaps to mind, and that name would be Ray Harryhausen. From him we saw dinosaurs rampaging through cities, flying saucers terrorizing the world, and Sinbad battling numerous mythological beasts, but it was in 1949 with Mighty Joe Young that it all really started.
With the financial success of the numerous re-issues of the 1933 King Kong RKO studios decided to return to the big ape well and brought along the veteran team that made the original classic and it’s sequel Song of Kong; director Ernest B. Schoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper, and screenwriter Ruth Rose. Joining the gang for his feature film debut was Ray Harryhausen, and though Willis O’Brien, the effects wizard behind King Kong, is credited as the “Technical Creator” it was Ray Harryhausen, billed as “First Technician” who did about 90% of the film’s animation. Now much of the films special effects action sequence were devised by Willis O’Brien, even some of the film’s story elements, but by today’s standards that would have made O’Brien the film’s art director or story editor. The heart and soul of Mister Joseph Young is due to the brilliant character animation of one Ray Harryhausen.
The movie opens in Africa where a couple of local natives passing a farm owned by John Young (Regis Toomey) are stopped by Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel), the farmer’s little girl, who desperately wants to buy the baby gorilla they are carrying. She trades some of her toys and her father’s flashlight to get the cute little ape who she names Joe. All much to the chagrin of her father who later has the hard task of explaining to Jill that she can’t keep Joe because some day he will grow to be a large, and very dangerous, gorilla. Jill finds the idea of Joe becoming dangerous to be extremely silly, and she eventually gets her way.
We then jump ahead twelve years and are introduced to Max O’Hara Productions, a Manhattan agency that puts together theatrical acts and the like. That much of Might Joe Young’s story is similar to King Kong should be no surprise to anyone when you consider, as I mentioned above, that the creative team behind this film all worked on Kong, but the casting of Robert Armstrong as Max O’Hara is close to turning Mighty Joe Young into a remake. Max O’Hara is a complete carbon copy of Carl Denham from the original King Kong, only instead of a film producer he is a theatrical producer, every other element of his character is identical. The reason for this is that even though Robert Armstrong’s characters may be called Carl Denham in one movie and Max O’Hara in the other, but in both cases he is actually playing the real life film producer Merian C. Cooper. Screenwriter Ruth Rose based these characters on her boss and friend because he was such a larger than life character who really deserves a movie of his own as he was; shot down during the Polish-Soviet War and placed in a Russian POW camp, which he then escaped by trekking across Siberia on foot, was a revered bomber pilot in WWII, and later a commander of the “Flying Tigers.”
Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) had come up with the brilliant idea of going to Africa to bring back live animals to headline his new Hollywood nightclub, with the publicity bonus of Max sending back action packed tales of his adventures on the Dark Continent. Along for the ride is Oklahoma cowpoke Gregg (Ben Johnson) who convinced O’Hare that cowboys would make for the best animal wranglers. They do manage to capture a fair amount of lions, but when a certain gorilla decides to pound on a cage holding one of Max’s lion the cowboys rush into action, attempting to catch this beast alive under Max’s orders. Crawford (Denis Green), O’Hare’s local hunting expert, tries to stop them by repeatedly exclaiming, “Are you crazy, you can’t rope a gorilla!”
But before the big bad gorilla can pound O’Hare and his cowboy compatriots into paste a now grown up Jill Young (Terry Moore) arrives to call off Joe. Of course the idea of a beautiful girl who can control a beast like Joe is just catnip to the likes of Max O’Hare, and with some smooth talking he is able to convince Jill to bring Joe to America. What is interesting to me is that so far nobody has commented on Joe’s size, as if a twelve foot tall gorilla is somehow the norm. An average mountain gorilla stands at about six feet yet Joe Young is basically the same size as the Son of Kong.
What follows is your standard story of small town girl being lured to the big city, finding out that showbiz isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and her giant ape going on a rampage. Okay, maybe that’s not the standard story, but if Showgirls had somehow worked an ape rampage into it’s plot somewhere maybe Elizabeth Berkley would have had a better career. In this case Jill is unhappy that as successful as the nightclub act has become Joe himself is not having a grand ole time as he’s forced to live in a cage in the club’s basement.
When Jill goes to Max to inform him she and Joe want to go back to Africa Max tells her, “You can’t. You signed a contract.” Cowboy, and now love interest Gregg, informs O’Hare, “You know that contract’s no good. She’s underage.” Which is a great salient point, and one that Max can’t refute, but it’s also kind of icky when you consider the that later Jill and the much older Gregg hook-up and move back to Africa together. Shows how society has changed over the years when back in 1949 a person not old enough to sign a business contract could still sign a marriage one. Legalities aside Max is able to convince Jill to stay on until he is able to find a replacement act, but after seven weeks one begins to wonder if he’s even looking.
It all comes to a head when after one of the acts, Jill playing an organ grinder while the audience pelts Joe with large coins, a group of drunks make it down to where Joe is caged (great security there, Max), who then proceed to get Joe drunk and then torture him. Joe takes this abuse about as well one could expect from a twelve foot tall inebriated ape.
After wrecking the nightclub, which included beating the crap out of a bunch of the lions O’Hare brought back from Africa, Joe is helped back into his cage by Jill and Gregg before the police can arrive and shoot him. Unfortunately due to the injuries and damage caused by Joe the courts order that Joe must be destroyed. This is proof that Max must have the most incompetent lawyers on retainer, because the fact that no one was killed and all the damages were to Max’s own club, the most that should have happened would have been Jill and Joe being deported. With Joe’s execution in the wings Max formulates a plan to sneak Jill, Gregg and Joe out of the country which leads to a countywide chase that ends when our group of heroes stop running when the encounter a burning orphanage. There probably wasn’t an actually law stating that if a giant ape rescues a baby from a fiery orphanage he gets a stay of execution, but I’m sure there is now.
The scene of Joe climbing the burning tree, as the orphanage collapses in a fiery conflagration around him, is pure poetry in action. You may have pitied poor Kong as he swatted at the biplanes from atop the Empire State Building, but you will be at the edge of your seat, heart in your mouth, as Joe struggles to save this little girl as the world around him bursts into flames. This is what made Ray Harryhausen the unadulterated master of the art of stop-motion animation, because he brought such a depth of character to what in reality was just a table top clay model. This is one of my favorite movies of the genre, and is only nudged down from Kong for its unfortunate lack of dinosaur fights.
Unfortunately the story of a benevolent ape and his best gal pal didn’t catch fire the same way that Kong did with audiences back in the thirties, though it was honored with an Academy Award for Special Effects, but critical acclaim aside the poor box office take nixed any plans for a sequel. Which is a crying shame as the sequel they had planned was tentatively titled “Joe Meets Tarzan” and would have starred Lex Barker who had just appeared in Tarzan and the Slave Girl. I’d like to believe that in some alternate universe that film was made and was a huge success.