Monday, April 4, 2016

#2,058. Mighty Joe Young (1949)

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

When I was a kid, I loved Mighty Joe Young! Every Sunday, when we'd get the upcoming week’s TV Guide, I would thumb through it specifically to see if this movie was playing. I never missed a chance to watch it. Yet no matter how many times I saw this 1949 gem, the sadder moments always got to me, and while I didn’t know it then, the reason for this 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 purchasing a baby gorilla from two natives. The girl is Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel), who lives on a farm owned by her widowed father (Regis Toomey). Though reluctant at first, he eventually agrees to let Jill keep the baby gorilla, which she names “Joe”.

Twelve years pass. 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”. Out of the blue, Joe the gorilla (now standing well over 12 feet tall) 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 this humongous primate a star. 

After their 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, it seems, 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". 

Joe becomes an overnight sensation, but neither he nor Jill are happy in the big city; Jill because she is constantly hounded by fans, 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 comes a day too late. An angry Joe breaks out of his cage and runs off, at which point the law gets involved, promising to use whatever force is necessary to ensure Max’s “star” doesn't cause any property damage.

Willis O’Brien, who handled the animation for 1933’s King Kong, is credited as the “Technical Creator” on Mighty Joe Young, but it was Ray Harryhausen, working on his very first picture, who brought the film’s title character to life. As he would do throughout his career, including movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen masterfully blends stop-motion with live action. 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, even 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 those around him.

Yet the true magic of Harryhausen’s work is how he infuses each of his stop-motion creatures with genuine 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 movements, Harryhausen perfectly conveys the melancholy of this scene, and in so doing makes Joe seem as alive - at times even more alive - than his human counterparts.

The fact that all of this excitement, all of this drama, was created with nothing more than a small puppet and a camera is beyond impressive

And "beyond impressive" also sums up Ray Harryhausen.

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