I stumbled upon Mighty Joe Young last week when it aired on cable’s Turner Classic Movies. For the month of February and into the first week of March until the Oscars are aired on March 2nd, TCM has been showing films that won Academy Awards. If a film won for best actor, best actress, best film, best director, best supporting players, best music, best screenplay, they have been shown on the channel. Why did Mighty Joe Young make this list? It won the Academy Award in 1950 for Best Special Effects, and wow-does it have them, in large part to the special effects talent of the late Ray Harryhausen.
Merian C. Cooper, while at RKO Studios, had written a screenplay about a giant ape, in love with a beautiful woman, who ends up terrorizing NYC-1933’s smash hit, King Kong. Fast forward to 1949 and Cooper brought forth an idea for a story that he had shelved years ago, about another giant ape loose, this time, in Hollywood. Getting the greenlight from RKO Studios, Cooper brought on the director who had helmed King Kong, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Cooper also hired Willis O’Brien, who had done the special effects for King Kong to do the same work for Mighty Joe Young. Working for “Obie”, as O’Brien was nicknamed, were 2 new animators, Ray Harryhausen and Pete Peterson.
Mighty Joe Young opens in Africa where Jill Young, age 8,(Lora Lee Michel) lives on a farm with her widower father, Mr. Young(Regis Toomey.) Mr. Young is away for the moment and Jill sees two natives approaching with a basket suspended by ropes attached to two poles. She can tell that something alive is in the covered basket and asks to buy it. The two natives are tired and agree to sit and wait for Jill to gather up treasures for the expected bartering session. Jill finds some coins, toys, a music box, and her father’s large flashlight. The flashlight seals the deal and Jill now owns the covered basket. When she opens it she finds a baby gorilla, and quickly names him Joe. Mr. Young isn’t too pleased that Jill bought this creature and gave away his new flashlight but as he finally gives his assent, he reminds Jill that when the gorilla is bigger she’ll have to release him to the wild.
The movie jumps forward 12 years to NYC where we meet entertainment creator Max O’Hara(Robert Armstrong-who also starred in Cooper’s King Kong.) O’Hara is telling his business partner Windy(Frank McHugh) about his plans to head to Africa and capture animals for the opening of his new nightclub in Hollywood, a nightclub that will have an exotic feel and theme. Loping into O’Hara’s office is cowboy Gregg Johnson(Ben Johnson) who explains to O’Hara that the rodeo has closed for the season and that he and some of his cowboy pals have heard about the trip to Africa to capture animals and would O’Hara want to hire them for their skills at roping and catching cattle and horses? O’Hara jumps at this offer and they’re off to Africa.
One day in the camp everyone hears some of the caught lions roaring and the natives begin running away in fear. A louder roar is heard and as the cowboys and O’Hara investigate, they meet Joe, now a huge gorilla. The cowboys try to rope him and Joe manages to grab O’Hara. As he is about to hurl O’Hara off of a rocky ledge, Jill appears, scolding Joe and urges him to gently put the man down. Joe obeys and Jill leads him home. O’Hara is excited-he must get that gorilla for his new nightclub! With the help of cowboy Gregg they find Jill’s farm and apologize to her for scaring her and Joe. Jill admits that with her father’s recent death, she is all alone, she’s never been away from Africa, and with that information, O’Hara convinces Jill that by bringing Joe to Hollywood to star at the new nightclub, that she will be a new star and earn a lot of money. Gregg, who is obviously taken with the cute Jill, smiles a lot and reassures her that it would be a great opportunity for a new adventure. Jill agrees and it is off to Hollywood.
The rest of the movie is pretty predictable. Joe and Jill do become famous, but are miserable. Some boorish drunks unwittingly make Joe angry and he’s able to break out of his holding cell in the basement of the nightclub. This happens while Jill is having dinner with Gregg. Joe wreaks havoc with the nightclub and is declared a menace that needs to be put down. O’Hara realizes he was wrong to bring Joe to Hollywood and should have left him in Africa and comes up with a plan to rescue Joe before his scheduled death will be carried out by the local police, per a judge’s order. O’Hara, Gregg, and Jill launch a daring escape for Joe and a way to get he and Jill back to Africa.
While the plot is forumlaic and the acting lurching from hammy(Armstrong, at times) to bland(Ben Johnson-his first movie role after coming away from rodeos and he did get better, eventually winning a best supporting actor Oscar in 1971 for The Last Picture Show), and the usually funny Frank McHugh is wasted in a tiny role in my opinion, I do believe Mighty Joe Young should be seen for the special effects. These effects were done before home computers were ever thought of, or CGI(computer generated imagery). The special effects fill this movie and elevate it to a higher plane. These are the scenes: the cowboys trying to rope and capture Joe, Joe dangling O’Hara over a rock ledge, the nightclub acts that Joe and Jill have to perform, the three drunks hassling Joe and giving him bottles of whiskey to drink, Joe breaking loose from his cell and destroying the nightclub, Joe on the run with Jill, Gregg, and O’Hara, Joe’s rescue of an orphan from a burning orphanage. That scene is on Youtube and can be viewed here.
I also found an interesting website on the life and career of the late Ray Harryhausen that is worth a visit and one can do so by clicking here. Lastly, also on Youtube, there is an interview with Harryhausen and the making of Mighty Joe Young! View that interview here.
You may have already seen the Disney version of Mighty Joe Young, made in 1998 and starring Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton, but you really owe it to yourself and any kids in your life to see the 1949 original and its fantastic, award-winning special effects.