Directed By: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong
Tag line: "Striking! Startling! Staggering!"
Trivia: Though Willis H. O'Brien gets top special-effects billing, Ray Harryhausen actually did 85%-90% of the stop-motion animation for this film
I loved Mighty Joe Young when I was a kid; each Sunday, when we would get the upcoming week’s TV Guide, I’d peruse it specifically to see if this movie was on the schedule. I never missed a chance to watch it, yet no matter how many times I saw this 1949 gem, the sad parts still got to me, and even if I didn’t know it then, the reason why can be summed up in two words: Ray Harryhausen.
Produced by Merian C. Cooper and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack (the creative minds that brought King Kong to the screen 16 years earlier), Mighty Joe Young opens in Africa, with a young girl (Lora Lee Michel) purchasing a baby gorilla from a pair of natives. The girl is Jill Young, and she lives on a farm owned by her widowed father (Regis Toomey), who, though hesitant at first, eventually agrees to let his daughter keep the baby gorilla, which she names “Joe”.
Twelve years later, master showman Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong, playing a character similar to the one he portrayed in King Kong) is in Africa rounding up lions and tigers to display in his new Hollywood nightclub, “The Golden Safari”, when Joe the gorilla (now standing well over 12 feet tall) unexpectedly turns up. Aided by his assistant, an Oklahoma cowboy named Gregg (a very young Ben Johnson), Max tries to capture Joe with the intent of making the humongous primate a star. When the first attempt to subdue Joe fails, Max tries a more diplomatic approach, promising Jill (played as an adult by Terry Moore) riches beyond her wildest dreams if she and Joe will accompany him to America (Jill is the only person alive who can control Joe).
Anxious to see the world, Jill (whose father passed away 6 months earlier) signs a contract with Max, and before long, she and Joe are headlining at "The Golden Safari". As expected, Joe becomes an overnight sensation, but neither he nor Jill are happy in the big city (Jill because she’s constantly hounded by fans on the street, and Joe because he spends most of his day in a small cage). Backed up by Gregg (who has fallen in love with her), Jill tells Max that she intends to quit and take Joe back to Africa. Unfortunately, her decision to leave came one day too late; when an angry Joe breaks out of his cage, the law gets involved, promising to use whatever means necessary to ensure that Max’s “star” doesn't cause any further problems.
Though Willis O’Brien, who handled the animation for 1933’s King Kong, is credited as the “Technical Creator” on Mighty Joe Young, it was Ray Harryhausen, working on his very first motion picture, who brought the film’s title character to life. As he would do later in his career on movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen masterfully blends stop-motion with live action, and the results are spectacular. One early sequence, in which Gregg and a few others try to subdue Joe with ropes, is fairly exciting (Joe even manages to tackle both a rider and his horse). But my favorite scene comes later in the movie, when Joe, while on-stage at "The Golden Safari", is challenged to a tug-of-war by the 10 strongest men in the world (the last guy on the rope, a former heavyweight champion, throws some punches at Joe, and is promptly tossed into the audience). In each of these scenes (as well as a later one involving a burning building), the animation is so fluid, and the blending of real and artificial so convincing, that we fully believe Joe is interacting with the people around him.
Yet the true magic of Harryhausen’s work is how he infuses each of his stop-motion characters with realistic emotions. The action sequences mentioned above are, indeed, impressive, but so are the quieter moments, like when Joe is sitting alone in his small cage, refusing to eat because he’s unhappy. By way of facial gestures and subtle motions, Harryhausen perfectly conveys the melancholy of this scene, and in so doing makes Joe seem as alive (and, at times, even more alive) than his human counterparts.
The fact that all of this excitement, all of this emotion was created using nothing more than a small puppet and a camera is beyond impressive.
And so, for that matter, was Ray Harryhausen.