Posts Tagged ‘Ben Johnson’

My Classic Movie Pick: Mighty Joe Young

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.

Mighty Joe screen shot

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.

Ray Harryhausen working with the Mighty Joe model

Ray Harryhausen working with the Mighty Joe model

Pete Peterson with Mighty Joe and truck for the car chase scenes

Pete Peterson with Mighty Joe and truck for the car chase scenes

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.

Jill telling Joe to put O'Hara down!

Jill and Joe performing one of their nightclub acts-a tug of war with strong men

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.

Jill and Joe in a humiliating nightclub act

Jill and Joe in a humiliating nightclub act

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.

Mighty Joe poster 2

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My Classic Movie Pick: Wagon Master

I like Westerns.  I like the horses and the cowboys and the sheriffs who have to deal with the baddies and get them out of town.  I love seeing the landscapes in the outdoor scenes: those wide-open spaces and the outcroppings of distant mountains.  Whether the western was  filmed in black and white or in technicolor, it doesn’t matter much to me, I pretty much like most of this genre.   I am pretty well aware that the late  director John Ford was often tagged with the title of best westerns director and a couple weeks ago, TCM aired a western directed by him that I had never heard of.  Ford made a tight little film in 1950 with no big name stars assigned to it.    Wagon Master was the title bestowed on this film  and even more curious is that the main plot was about a group of Mormons trying to get to a certain river valley in which to establish their new community.

Made by Argosy Pictures( a studio created by John Ford and producer Merian C. Cooper, the man responsible for 1933’s King Kong) and released by RKO, Wagon Master employed  a lot of the actors and actresses that were known as “John Ford’s Stock Company”, meaning that these people were in a lot of Ford’s movies.  Usually John Wayne or Henry Fonda were the lead male actors in Ford’s films but not in Wagon Master.  The two main male leads were Ben Johnson playing Travis  and Harry Carey Jr. playing Sandy.  220px-WM_Poster Wagon Master

The movie opens with a wanted ad for the Clegg’s : a murdering Uncle  and his 4 murdering nephews.  This want ad is superimposed over a scene that dissolves into the Clegg brutes(James Arness, Charles Kemper, Hank Worden,Fred Libby, and Mickey Simpson) holding up a store and its employees.  As the gang leaves with the money, one of the clerks rushes behind the counter, grabs a gun, and shoots at the gang, wounding Uncle Shiloh Clegg(Kemper) in the shoulder.  The gang re-enters the store and Uncle Shiloh cracks his whip, telling the store clerk that he shouldn’t have done that.  He aims his gun and as the store clerk pleads for his life, the camera turns away as gun shots ring out.  The next scene we see  is the film’s opening credits rolling, with  conestaga wagons traveling west, through a  river, with a song by The Sons of the Pioneers ringing out.  There is a lot of music in this movie, even for a western, and The Sons of the Pioneers recorded the songs; Richard Hageman created the score and Stan Jones was the composer who wrote the lyrics and music for 4 of the songs in the movie.  A Mormon hymn is even sung at the end of the movie.

Next, the movie introduces the two male leads, Travis and Sandy.  They are young, ambitious, and are in the horse selling and trading business.  They’ve just arrived in a town to ply their trade and sell the sheriff a horse that will try and throw the rider if certain kind of whistling sound is whistled.  Of course, they don’t tell the sheriff this until after the sale is completed and Sandy whistles!  Soon, the two young men are approached by two Mormon men, Elders Wiggs and Perkins(Ward Bond and Russell Simpson.)  The Elders ask if the two young men know the area of the country their group will be traveling to the next day.  Travis replies to Elder Wiggs that they do know the area and a good way to get there.  Elder Wiggs asks them to consider being the Wagon Master for their group’s trip.  Travis thinks about it and turns the offer down.  Sandy thinks they ought to reconsider as he is immediately smitten with Elder Perkin’s daughter, Prudence(Kathleen O’Malley) who had accompanied her father and Elder Wiggs on their trip into town.   After a day in the town, and watching the Mormon travelers leave town and start heading in the wrong direction, Travis has a change of heart and he and Sandy ride to catch up with Elder Wiggs to let  him know that they’ll gladly lead the group to their destination, the San Juan River Valley in Utah.

Director Ford loved location shooting and much of the film was shot near Moab, Utah.  The scenery is gorgeous in the film, and a lot of credit should be given to Bert Glennon, the Director of Photography.  One scene that impressed me was when Travis accidentally rides near a group of Navajoes who give chase, and he and his horse have the ride of their lives in trying to get back to the wagon train ahead of the angry Navajoes.  Ben Johnson had been a ranch hand and a rodeo rider before getting into acting and knew how to handle a horse so  it’s really him  in that incredible chase sequence.

As Sandy plants his horse near Prudence’s wagon, Travis actually leads the group and soon they hear music playing in the distance with no town or house nearby.  The travelers soon find the wagon of a traveling medicine show and the troupe of  4 thirsty entertainers.  They ran out of water on their attempt to get to California.  With only the elixir to drink that they sell, they aren’t too sober.  One of the entertainers, a Miss Denver(Joanne Dru) is quite pretty and Travis is smitten with her immediately.  She faints off of the back of the wagon’s backboard and lucky for her and him, he manages to catch her.  Seeing the troupe’s dire plight, and having to convince Elder Perkins, Elder Wiggs announces that this troupe can travel with them until the trail for California emerges and they’ll share water and food with them.  This gives Travis a chance to size up Miss Denver, to “court” her and there is a sweet scene as the troupe breaks away to go out on the California trail and he follows them, catches up with Miss Denver, and explains that he has his eye on some land in Texas for a cattle ranch and he’s going to need someone to help him on the ranch with the cooking and cleaning and to help him fight against loneliness.  It’s a bittersweet scene because we can tell he is sincere, and Miss Denver knows that going on to California and staying with the medicine show isn’t any form of a good life to live.  She is touched and honored by Travis’s proposal of sorts, but then turns him down!

Of course, the baddies show up, The Clegg Gang, and they try to hide who they really are but Travis and Sandy recognize them from wanted posters.  They keep their guns close just in case as Elder Wiggs agrees to let these travelers join up with their group.  Uncle Shiloh Clegg and his nephews know there is a posse out looking for them and what better place to hide than with a bunch of Mormons?  Dr.  Hall(Alan Mowbray) from the medicine show is forced to help Shiloh’s shoulder wound and three of the nephews begin eyeing the ladies of the wagon train.  This of course puts Sandy and Travis on the alert.

There is the aforementioned run in with the Navajoes, of which legendary athlete Jim Thorpe plays a role, a Clegg gets punished for trying to get too close to a Navajo woman, and then there is a dangerous crossing for the wagons and the ultimate showdown with the Clegg’s.

A brisk western that ties things up nicely, I found Wagon Master an enjoyable gem from director John Ford.  Wagon Master, should also be noted, as the inspiration for the television show Wagon Train.  You can buy Wagon Master via Amazon.com for a very low price, at TCM’s shop in a special dvd with 3 other John Ford directed westerns, and it is available on a long list of Ford films on Netflix.   A kind soul put the entire movie on Youtube and you can watch it via that form.  I’ll close out my blog with some scenes from Wagon Master.

The Clegg Gang

The Clegg Gang

Opening shot, the wanted poster

Opening shot, the wanted poster

Sandy and Travis come to town.

Sandy and Travis come to town.

The sheriff saying he'll be glad when the Mormons leave town and the Clegg's are caught.

The sheriff saying he’ll be glad when the Mormons leave town and the Clegg’s are caught.

Elder Wiggs asking Travis to consider being their Wagon Master.

Elder Wiggs asking Travis to consider being their Wagon Master.

Jane Darnell as Sister Ledyard,sounding her horn to get the trip underway.

Jane Darnell as Sister Ledyard,sounding her horn to get the trip underway.

Travis proposing to Miss Denver

Travis proposing to Miss Denver

Travis being chased by the Navajoes.

Travis being chased by the Navajoes.

Encounter with the Navajoes

Encounter with the Navajoes