The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.
In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only person that can control the beast, so hustler O’Hara signs them both up to headline his newest venture, Hollywood nightclub The Golden Safari.
The act features Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on piano while Mighty Joe hoists her far above his head. Then, in one of my favorite segments, ten of the world’s strongest men (professional wrestlers Sammy Stein, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin, Henry “Bomber” Kulky, Slammin’ Sammy Menacker , Max the Iron Man, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera) attempt a futile tug o’war against Joe! The act’s a smash hit, yet neither Jill nor Joe are happy with their decision to leave home for the bright lights of Tinseltown.
A trio of trouble-causing drunks sneak backstage and get Joe wasted on booze, and the enormous ape escapes and wreaks havoc on the club. Joe is captured and ordered to be killed by those pesky authorities, but the ever-hustling O’Hara comes up with a scheme to free the beast and return him and Jill to Africa. The cops are in hot pursuit when the gang spots a burning orphanage (which was tinted red in the version I recently viewed), and Mighty Joe rescues a bunch of children from certain doom. Joe and Jill are allowed to return home, accompanied by Jill’s now boyfriend Gregg, and guess what – that’s right, they live happily ever after!
Sixteen year old Terry Moore had been playing mostly bits before shooting to stardom in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Miss Moore. who’s still with us at age 90, went on to a lengthy screen career in films like COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), DADDY LONG LEGS, SHACK OUT ON 101, PEYTON PLACE, and numerous TV appearances (and also did a memorable 1984 nude PLAYBOY pictorial at age 55!). Ex-rodeo champ, stuntman, and John Ford favorite Ben Johnson put his roping and riding skills to good use here as Gregg (and Ford himself was an uncredited co-producer). KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong plays the hyperbolic producer O’Hara, older but still as fast-talking as ever. And perennial Warner Brothers movie sidekick Frank McHugh steals a few scenes as O’Hara’s sidekick Windy.
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a Familiar Face spotter’s dream (especially that panning shot down the nightclub bar!). Old Hollywood Buffs will have a ball locating (among many others) such stalwarts as Iris Adrian , Kay Christopher, Chester Clute, Joyce Compton, Ellen Corby , James Flavin, Bess Flowers, Byron Foulger , John Gallaudet, Ed Gargan, Dorothy Granger, Paul Guilfoyle, Carol Hughes, Tom Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Charles Lane, Richard Lane , Kermit Maynard, Anne Nagel , Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Irene Ryan , William Schallert , Regis Toomey – a veritable classic movie lover’s paradise! Happy Hunting!
Willis O’Brien supervised the special effects, but most of the animation was done by his protege, Ray Harryhausen. Young Ray had done some film work, notably on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was his first of many fantasy features to follow – classics such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH , 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, ONE MILLION YEARS BC , GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and CLASH OF THE TITANS. His debut here earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which was given to O’Brien as special effects supervisor. O’Brien, in turn, handed the Oscar over to Harryhausen, and deservedly so. Honestly, you don’t see that kind of humility in Hollywood very often!
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade by Disney in 1998. Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t see how it could possibly compare to the original. This is (in my humble opinion) one of the all-time great fantasy films, and despite it’s age still holds up well today. It’s the kind of movie that, if you showed it to the younger generation, would surely spark their interest in films of the past, and I can’t give it a greater compliment than that!