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November 2010

Mighty Joe Young

cast: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, and Robert Armstrong

producer and director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

94 minutes (U) 1949
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Mighty Joe Young poster

Mighty Joe Young

King Kong was iconically blasted off the top of the Empire State Building. Son of Kong drowned when Skull Island submerged into the ocean. Where next for the production crew..? Never fear, there were still big apes out there waiting to be found. Working from a Merian C. Cooper plot, Ruth Rose typed out a screenplay for her husband Ernest B. Schoedsack to direct - the same triple-handed nucleus that masterminded King Kong, and The Son Of Kong (both 1933).

In darkest colonial Africa there's white mischief afoot. Lonely friendless little girl Jill Young (cute prot�g� Lorna Lee Michel), her hair in Shirley Temple bunches, haggles in Swahili over the price of a baby gorilla with two impassive passing locals, using her meagre pocket-money, her jack-in-the-box, and her widower daddy's flashlight. Daddy (Regis Toomey) is less than pleased, but with baby 'Joe' lulled to sleep in a crib to his favourite music-box tune Beautiful Dreamer, he's reluctantly persuaded.

Twelve years later, in far-off New York Max O'Hara Productions is seeking a blockbuster act to open 'film-land's swankiest' jungle-themed night-club "on the fabulous Sunset Strip." Robert Armstrong - who had been adventurer 'Carl Denham' in both the Kong movies - dons a pith-helmet to become the slightly more full-on slick fast-talking Max, with his eye on the main chance. He recruits Oklahoma rodeo roper Gregg (Ben Johnson), and heads out for Africa on a publicity jaunt, intent on gathering scenic wildlife for the club-show.

He starts by spinning press reports to the 'Hello'-magazines of the day about his hair-raising escapes from cannibal pigmies, until their camp is invaded by a giant gorilla, which means he doesn't need to pretend exploits any more. Mighty Joe has grown up, and up, and up. While he's not in the Kong league, more of an impressive 12-foot tall, he's more than capable of spreading mayhem. The native bearers scatter. The cowboys set out to lasso the rampaging beast, as Max comically chases his horse round-and-round a tree, then gets snatched and dangled in mid-air by Joe, until Jill appears to scold the safari off as big bullies.

Max is impressed, "a gorilla and a beautiful dame!" he leers, flashing dollar-signs in his eyes. Soon he's signed the odd duo and whisked them back to L.A. In the African sequences there's clumsy 'Tarzan'-footage of elephants spliced in, then mismatched stock of a razor-sharp Joe superimposed over soft-focus cowboys. But historians hunting for the exact moment that Willis O'Brien - who set the benchmark for stop-frame animation - passed on the torch to his disciple Ray Harryhausen, who would develop and perfect the technique into the 1960s, need look no further. It happens here.

O'Brien gets his name in the credits and 'Mighty Joe' carries the obvious visual DNA of his seismic innovations for 'Kong' and its sequel, but while he was overcoming the film's various technical problems, his apprentice Harryhausen is acknowledged to have performed much of the meticulous day-to-day animation work. And those who went into ecstasies over the realistic way the CGI-fur moves in Pixar's Monsters, Inc (2001), should take a look at the way Mighty Joe's fur bristles here, and see just how impressively pre-computerised effects could perform exactly the same function.

Meanwhile, the 'Golden Safari' nightclub opens with tribesmen in full regalia, jungle d�cor and exotic world-music drums. Jill plays Beautiful Dreamer as she and her piano slowly levitate upwards, until the spots reveal Mighty Joe is holding them both aloft, to standing ovation. The show's a smash. Next, ten of California's strongest men compete with Joe in a tug-of-war, with Joe easily pulling them into the splash-pool. The leopard-skin line-up includes Primo Carnera - real-life 'world heavyweight boxing champion 1933-1934', pro-wrestlers Karl 'Killer' Davis, Man-Mountain Dean, Henry Kulky and the unfortunately-named 'Wee Willie' Davis, plus Tor Johnson - later of Ed Wood's inept kitsch classic Plan Nine From Outer Space (1958).

But all is not well. Joe understandably resents being caged overnight. Gregg is sympathetic. Jill's disillusioned, but a newly "dignified, restrained, artistic" Max talks her around, "we've struck gold in California," he brags. Until, during their 17th sensational week, after a supposedly comic scene - with Joe as the dancing-monkey to Jill's hurdy-gurdy, a bunch of mischievous drunks stumble their way back-stage: the 'Hollywood pranksters' first ply Joe with booze - "c'mon, it'll put hair on your chest!" then burn his mighty paw with a cigarette lighter. As Gregg and Jill are elsewhere, getting romantically entwined, Joe busts out and trashes the nightclub, hurling piano and double-bass about like toys, and literally brings the house down.

Things accelerate. An execution-squad of cops arrive; with a court order to shoot Joe. Realising his error, Max promises to get ape-and-girl safely back to Africa, and diverts the cop's attention with a faked heart-attack as Jill and Gregg shunt Joe into a 'Great Western' removal truck and speed off into the night. The radio-cop manages to keep a straight face as he broadcasts an all-points alert for an "escaping gorilla in a large white van heading north!"

Eventually, after an eventful off-trails chase, during which they switch trucks, and a startled bum tries to sneak a ride in the back and gets the shock of his life when he confronts Joe, there's an effective flame-tinted sequence of a burning orphanage. Gregg's lariat skills come in useful, and Jill attempts a rescue, but it's Mighty Joe who climbs a convenient tree to pluck Jill to safety, then returns to save a little girl trapped on the highest ledge, even as the tree burns and the cops arrive. The tree collapses, and the building collapses onto his giant body, but he protects the girl. He's a hero. No-one will dare shoot Mighty Joe now.

The original cinema trailer, included here as a bonus feature, claims this is "the picture that's alive with the most sensational action thrills ever filmed," but it's essentially a gentle softcore take on the creature-feature. No-one dies, although some lions get tossed about a bit. There's the 'beauty and the beast' angle of "a mere girl mastering a primitive giant," but none of the dramatic trauma of Kong's final death-plummet. As Max returns to New York to set up his next spectacular - with "no monkeys!" - he gets a spool of film from Jill and Gregg.

The reel shows Mighty Joe waving goodbye to-camera, from their safe African home, as the credits play Beautiful Dreamer - to live happily ever after? "I sure hope so," says Max, leaving the door ajar for more. And sure, much later there was a 1998 Ron Underwood remake through Disney, with Bill Paxton, and Charlize Theron as Jill Young, but that passed beneath the radar leaving barely a ripple. For all its flaws, this is the version to see. It still makes pretty cool family entertainment.

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