Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

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!

 

Creature Double Feature: THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)

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Back in the glory days of local television, Boston’s WLVI-TV (Channel 56) ran a Saturday afternoon movie series titled “Creature Double Feature”. It was a huge ratings hit during the 1970’s, introducing young viewers to the BEM (bug-eyed monsters) movies of the past. Let’s return now to those halcyon days of yesterday with a look at two sci-fi flicks from the fabulous 50’s.

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First up is THE BLACK SCORPION, a 1957 giant monster movie from Warner Brothers. This low-budget saga starts off with stock footage of volcanos erupting and earthquakes a-quaking, and a hyperbolic narrator expounding on natural disasters threatening Mexico. Two brawny geologists, Hank and Artur, investigate the devastation. While out scouting they run into beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez, whose vaqueros have fled the hacienda in fear. After getting them back on the ranch, our scientists attend an autopsy of a dead Mexican cop (the doctor performing the autopsy looks like he should be starring in his own series of Mexican horror flicks!). The result is “organic poisoning”, and a giant footprint has been found at the scene of the crime.

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While scientist Hank and Teresa get cozy, scientist Artur has found a fossil with a live scorpion embedded inside (this particular scorpion squeaks like a mouse for no apparent reason). Teresa gets a call from the telephone lineman repairing the lines, and at this point they’re coincidentally attacked by a giant black scorpion! The scorpion attacks the village, causing the villagers to flee in panic (one of them exclaims “It’s a giant scorpion!”, just to make things clear). Experts led by Dr. Velasco believe the Giant Scorp was released by the recent upheavals (again, in case you weren’t sure). Hank and Artur , the Mexican Army (well, one truckload), and the vaqueros seek the Giant Scorps’ lair, and the two geologists are lowered by crane into a crevice, only to discover a whole host of Giant Scorps! A Giant Scorp grabs their cage, and they have to escape by being pulled up on the cable (including little Juanito, who stowed away with the scientists… and the less said about this obnoxious little brat the better!).

Explosives are used to seal off the Giant Scorps, and the threat to humanity is over. Not quite- it seems another Giant Scorp found a way out, and is threatening Mexico City! This is the point where I lost interest in THE BLACK SCORPION, and will spare you the details. There’s far too much talking and standing around, and it’s 88 minute running time seems to go on forever.  Despite having sci-fi stalwarts Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and Mara Corday (TARANTULA) as stars, and fine special effects from Willis O’Brien (except when the filmmakers choose to use the Bert I. Gordon superimposition method in some scenes), the movie drags on and on, and is one of the lesser giant monster movies of the 50’s. One viewing of this turkey was more than enough for me, with only O’Brien’s special effects of interest.

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Next is THE KILLER SHREWS, and despite having an even lower budget, this film is far more enjoyable. Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) and his first mate Rook arrive at an island to drop off supplies. They’re greeted by Dr. Cragis (Baruch Lumet, father of director Sidney), his daughter Ann (Miss Sweden 1956 Ingrid Goude), assistant Dr. Baines (pirate radio king Gordon McLendon), Ann’s ex-fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis, GUNSMOKE’s Festus), and servant Mario. A hurricane is brewing and Thorne and Rook are planning on spending the night, despite protests from the Cragis bunch. It seems they’ve been monkeying around with some sort of formula on shrews, little rat-like creatures who are basically eating machines. The experiments were designed to study the effects of overpopulation, or so they say. Drunken, irresponsible Jerry did something stupid, and now the island is overrun with vicious, insatiable Killer Shrews the size of dogs. And not those ratty little teacup pooches either, but dogs the size of German Shepherds!

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The Killer Shrews are actually dogs made up to look like monstrous shrews, with matted fur and long, sharp teeth! They’re pretty laughable, especially in close-up, when puppet headed Killer Shrews stand in for the dogs. The dark lighting and nighttime exterior shots almost but not quite help suspend belief, but the dog/shrews are just too ludicrous. Anyway, Rook gets attacked and killed, then Thorne and the gang are trapped in the house while 200-300 Killer Shrews try to dig their way inside. At least theoretically; there’s really only about six dogs/shrews made up for the movie, but 200-300 sounds far more ominous.  Oh, and the Killer Shrews are rabid, to boot- one bite from their venomous fangs and its adios amigo!

Yes it sounds incredibly cheezy, and it is, but THE KILLER SHREWS has a certain lunatic energy to it that makes it exciting to watch, unlike the dull BLACK SCORPION. Actors Curtis and McLendon produced this made-in-Dallas film simultaneously with another giant monster flick, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. Both films were directed by Ray Kellogg, former special effects wizard at 20th Century-Fox. Kellogg also worked as second-unit director on many films, and co-directed the 1968 war drama THE GREEN BERETS with its star John Wayne.

Let’s end this look back at sci-fi of yesteryear with the credits for Channel 56’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature”, with music by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. (and if you’d like to see more of these sci-fi double-feature posts, let me know in the comments section!):

On Willis O’Brien and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (Allied Artists 1959)

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Willis O’Brien was the pioneer stop-motion animation wizard who fathered the immortal KING KONG . For that alone, he will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s giants. O’Brien started at the dawn of film, working for the Thomas Edison Company. He created an early dinosaur movie THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN, which was cut down to eleven minutes by one Herbert Dowley, who took credit for O’Brien’s work. His crowning silent achievement was 1925’s THE LOST WORLD, an adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure story that astounded filmgoers of the era.

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That same year, O’Brien married Hazel Collette, who bore him two sons. The O’Brien’s marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced in 1930. Hazel was mentally unstable, and diagnosed with tuberculosis the following year. Willis, whose drinking and philandering contributed to the marriage’s deterioration, remained devoted to his boys, especially young Willis Jr., who was born tubercular, and eventually lost his eyesight. After the success of KONG, O’Brien embarked on the sequel, SON OF KONG, and his sons visited the set to watch dad work. A short time after that visit, Hazel Collette O’Brien took a gun, murdered her own children, and attempted a botched suicide. She died in a Los Angeles prison hospital a year later.

This tragedy seemed to take the heart out of Willis O’Brien. He went back to work with his friend, producer Merian C. Cooper, on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, and did some work on Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE. But despite a loving and successful remarriage, the rest of his life was filled with unfinished dreams of film projects that never came to fruition. A small comeback was mounted in 1949, when O’Brien and his latest protégé Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a Cooper production that garnered an Oscar for the film pioneer. But by the late 50’s, Willis O’Brien was reduced to creating effects for low-budget monster movies like THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.

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THE GIANT BEHEMOTH was O’Brien’s last “giant monster’ movie. It starts off with a bang: an A-bomb explosion! A group of scientific minds has gathered in Britain to watch footage and hear a lecture from American Marine Biologist Steve Kearns (Gene Evans) on atomic waste. Meanwhile, trouble’s brewing off the coast of Cornwall, as dead fish are washed ashore, and a pulsating mass is causing those near it to burn. Kearns and Professor Bickford (Andre Morell) investigate, and the fish test positive for radiation. Rumors of a “sea monster” run rampant, and when the steamship Valkyrie is found beached with no survivors, Kerns and Bickford are convinced a Behemoth is on the loose!

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Alerting the local navies of England, France, and Germany, the search for the monster begins. Kearns and Bickford visit eccentric Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowan ), who helps them identify Behemoth as a prehistoric creature. Behemoth hits land and attacks London, the military is called in (of course), but they’re no match for the berserk Behemoth. It returns to the sea, and Kearns and the forces of good track it down in a sub, blasting it with a torpedo hit and ending Behemoth’s reign of terror (though there’s a neat little twist at the film’s end!).

Sound familiar? Hell, yeah. Director Eugene Lourie was brought in to make the original script (from blacklisted writer Daniel James) more like his 1953 hit THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. He certainly succeeded in that respect. Star Gene Evans is about as credible a scientist as I am, but does make a sturdy hero. The acting honors go to MacGowan (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, THE EXORCIST) as the slightly daft Dr. Sampson. But THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is fun on a Saturday matinée popcorn movie level, and though it’s derivative of Lourie’s other monster movie (and GODZILLA, to a certain extent), it does feature O’Brien’s visual effects. In fact, the scenes of Behemoth terrorizing London stomping on cars and spreading his deadly radioactivity, are the film’s highlights.

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Willis O’Brien contributed to one more movie, some scenes at the end of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD , before his death in 1962. His life story is tragic, but his artistry lives on through legendary movies like KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. And as much of a rehash as THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is, it’s still a last chance to see the screen’s mightiest maker of monsters work his magic one last time.