Friday, January 18, 2013

All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 3 - Mighty Joe Young (1949)

"Mighty Joe Young" is an impressive technical marvel made all the more gorgeous when compared against the giant monster movies that came before it.  Its odd that I'd be here saying that "Mighty Joe Young" has amazing special effects when its a movie more than sixty years old with effects that today look very silly and quaint.  But the difference between "Mighty Joe Young" and "King Kong" is like night and day.  When before giant monster movies were little more than glorified jungle adventure films, "Mighty Joe Young" creates a more complex plotline, placing the giant ape as the hero and human beings as the villains.

In 1949, sixteen years had passed since the Kong creative team had made their two giant monster films.  "Mighty Joe Young" was in many ways a reunion of that team, making a movie that was an homage to their original "King Kong".  Ernest B. Schoedsack, the co-director of "King Kong" and the director of "The Son of Kong" returns as director, while his original creative partner, Merian C. Cooper is merely in a producer role.  Screenwriter Ruth Rose is back again in her old job, along with special effects master, Willis O'Brien. Under O'Brien's wing is none other than Ray Harryhausen, the wizard behind decades of stop-motion animation classics, learning from the original master himself, and eventually becoming the lead animator.  They even brought back Robert Armstrong, the actor who played Carl Denham, in almost the exact same role* as the ambitious nightclub owner, Max O'Hara.  It should be no surprise then that "Mighty Joe Young" feels like an evolution from the King Kong movies, featuring more complex effects, a more sympathetic giant ape then ever, and some of the best use of stop-motion in all of film history.

Curiously though, despite a large budget and the help of legendary Western director John Ford, "Mighty Joe Young" was a flop at the box office.  It came almost immediately at the tail end of RKO Radio Pictures' reign as one of the great studios of Hollywood.  I suppose at the time, "Mighty Joe Young" was considered to be too similar to "King Kong", which was a movie from another generation and already quaint.  But you can really see a shocking jump in quality from "The Son of Kong" to "Mighty Joe Young", and the movie's technical and emotional successes were enough to give it a long loving following.  My own mother and my uncle used to watch this movie every Thanksgiving back in the Seventies during network television marathons of classic giant monster movies.  It might have been underrated at the time, but today "Mighty Joe Young" ranks among the legends of early giant monster movies.  "King Kong" might remain the classic standard, but I'd say "Mighty Joe Young" is a movie worth looking at.

The plot of "Mighty Joy Young" contains nearly all of the plot elements of the original "King Kong" but given a slight twist.  Mr. Joseph Young is not a mythic creature from an uncharted island, he's merely a gigantic gorilla from some undisclosed location in Africa.  He doesn't kidnap a beautiful blond, he was in fact raised by one his entire life.  More specifically, its the humans that kidnap Joe Young, carrying him to Los Angeles to be a nightclub attraction.  When in "King Kong" the sympathy people have for the monster is merely a subtheme, "Mighty Joe Young" makes it explicit, and the heroes actively work to save Joe from being executed.  Yeah, there's still a giant monster rampage, but the circumstances behind it come from months of mild abuse and direct provocations from a group of hilariously suicidal drunks.  The finale of "Mighty Joe Young" is even a reversal of the ending of "King Kong", where Joe climbs down from a tall structure to rescue a little girl, rather than carrying Fay Wray up to the top of a skyscraper to capture her.

We begin with a little White girl living in Africa who buys a baby gorilla from two passing by natives.  Already you can see in this scene that "Mighty Joe Young" is going for the light-hearted tone of "The Son of Kong", having a cute little girl buy a surprisingly adorable baby gorilla - played by a real baby gorilla.  However, Jill Young, the little girl, seems completely oblivious to the idea that the baby gorilla might grow up and become dangerous, for now he's just a badly needed playmate because... I guess she's too good for the Black little kids.

The movie now switches over to Max O'Hara, a major businessman now planning to open the hottest nightclub in Los Angeles featuring live African safari animals.  To capture these animals, he goes to Africa with a team of rodeo cowboys to lasso up some lions.  (Remember, John Ford was the executive producer of "Mighty Joe Young", cowboys were going to get involved one way or another.)  When they stumble upon a giant ape roaming the veld, their immediate instinct is to lasso it down and capture it.  So one of the first scenes of the movie is a giant monster fighting cowboys.  This... this is awesome beyond words.  I mean, of course it doesn't work because Joe is about two thousand pounds and has the strength of twenty men, so he can snap the ropes like they're string.  The fight is finally broken up the now adult Jill, played by Terry Moore, who is able to command the massive animal like a well-trained dog.  After some fast-talking from O'Hara, Jill and Joe are going to Hollywood.

Now I guess is a good time to talk about how simply wonderful the special effects are in "Mighty Joe Young".  Today, of course, this looks out-dated and silly, but you can clearly see a huge progression of technology from 1933 to 1949.  Joe has far more complex movements than Kong, and moves with greater fluidity and more natural motion.  Its still jerky like all stop-motion animation, but at least it doesn't look like clay anymore.  O'Brien and Harryhausen are able to give Joe a very expressive face thanks to the use of huge doll eyes, making him appear cartoony but still emotive.  In "King Kong", in order to get expression shots, they had to cut over to a very goofy close-up of some puppet face, but "Mighty Joe Young" is able to create those expressions directly from the puppet.  Joe gets drunk, he gets mad, he's frightened, he's confused, he's even bored, and you can see it all in the stop-motion.  Rather than a monster, honestly, you could just call Joe a big old pet.

Speaking of complex effects, you can also see a great advancement in the technology of rear projection in "Mighty Joe Young".  In one scene a cowboy rides behind Joe, and then another one rides in front of him, in a complex three-layer effect.  Joe knocks over wagons with lions inside, so its a stop-motion scene but live-action footage of lions in a cage are being projected onto very tiny moving surfaces.  They're able to achieve some very interest shots, such as Joe swinging over a crowded nightclub floor, which you see from above.  Previously the Kong movies all were set like stage plays, with the layers often being painfully obvious sets.  The thought process for rear projection was nothing more than background-foreground, "Mighty Joe Young" is able to blend these things with far more precision, giving many more angles and options for filmmaking.

Now I'm not a biologist nor do I know anything about apes, but I'm guessing that you probably wouldn't want them living in a cage for weeks on end with the only movement they get being appearing on stage for hundreds of drunken rowdy fans.  The nightclub at first is a huge success, as Joe lifts up Jill into the air on a small stage complete with a piano as she plays his favorite song, "Beautiful Dreamer".  However, Joe quickly starts becoming depressed, as a cage is no place for a wild gorilla, especially not one that's twelve-feet-tall**.  Jill is at least able to have a bland cowboy for a love interest, played by legendary Western actor, Ben Johnson in his first major role.  Its also a very lovely nightclub, with a massive auditorium complete with complex towers, lion cages behind the bar, a full band on a rope bridge, and a huge stage big enough for Joe.  Max O'Hara unlike Carl Denham manages to get a full successful performances as well, as he stages the ten strongest men of the Forties to try to beat Joe Young in a game of tug of war... they lose.  But you know things aren't going to end well, not least of all because Jill, despite her concerns for Joe, is too weak of a character to actually do anything about it.

It all goes wrong one night when the audience is told to throw little frisbees at Joe so that he might pick one up and they win a prize.  Joe, being a giant ape, is immediately annoyed, and gets really pissed when a drunken idiot in the front row throws a beer bottle at his head.  But Joe is a good boy, he doesn't freak out until those same drunks come down to his cage, and feed him a few bottles of hard alcohol.  Now you'd call these drunks already some of the dumbest idiots in the history of movies, but then they get mad that Kong drank all these booze, so one of them burns Joe's hand with a lighter.  I'm only disappointed that Joe didn't tear them to pieces right there.  This leads Joe to escape from his bars, run into the nightclub floor, and go on a proper giant monster rampage.  Joe rips down the jungle towers, breaks the bridges, throws people across the floor, and then smashes into the lion pens to wrestle them.  Once the night is finished, Max O'Hara's nightclub plans are ruins, and Joe is sentenced to be executed by the police.

The last act of the movie involves the heroes desperately trying to lead Joe across LA while fooling the police in order to get him on a cargo ship to bring him back to Africa where he belongs.  I have to say, for a movie decades old this chase scene is wonderfully tense, especially if you haven't seen this movie before, like me.  Oddly though, its not the cat and mouse game with the police that saves the day, its actually a sudden fire at an orphanage that allows Joe to show heroism.  The orphanage sequence remains one of the all-time classics of stop-motion, remarkable in its scope and depth.  They built an entire miniature building for Joe to climb up, then using masterful rear-projection, set the building ablaze.  Its also the most colorful sequence in "Mighty Joe Young" because the entire scene is filtered red - a sudden transition from the movie's black and white.  I think I fell over in my chair when the TV suddenly showed a color without warning.  I guess my powers of description will fail me here, because the climax of "Mighty Joe Young" is just something you need to experience.

In conclusion, "Mighty Joe Young" is yet another classic giant monkey movie.  So far we've seen the great apes of these films go from an ignorant villain, to an adorable friend, to being more or less the star of the film.  "Mighty Joe Young" was a technically perfect movie, as O'Brien's stop motion characters finally reached the zenith of their existence thanks to the help of Harryhausen.  Unfortunately, I think the main human characters are pretty flat.  "King Kong" is still the standard by which friendly giant monsters can be judge, but "Mighty Joe Young" has its place in history.  Unfortunately, for decades "Mighty Joe Young" would indeed be the highest quality film of this family-friendly version of giant monster films.  For the next decade, giant monsters would take a far darker turn, as the power of the atom turned them into true monsters, as the age of the Fifties B-movie came to pass.

On the next episode of All-Out Giant Monster Attack!:  the first giant monster horror film, "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms".

* I like to imagine that "Mighty Joe Young" and the Kong movies are actually in continuity with each other, and that Carl Denham used the Skull Island treasure he found to start a new life as Max O'Hara, thus dodging his numerous legal woes and lawsuits.  It also helps explain why O'Hara is so desperate to save Joe at the end of this movie - he's already been more or less responsible for the death of two giant ape creatures, he sure wouldn't want to be the destroyer of a third.

** And sometimes larger because none of the Schoedsack giant ape movies payed very much attention to scale. 

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