Mighty Joe Young (1949)
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG
Notes: RKO Pictures, 84 minutes.
Jill Young: Terry Moore
Gregg: Ben Johnson
Max O’Hara: Robert Armstrong
Windy: Frank McHugh
Jones: Douglas Fowley
Crawford: Denis Green
Smith: Paul Guilfoyle
Brown: Nestor Paiva
John Young: Regis Toomey
Jill as a girl: Lora Lee Michel
“Mr. Joseph Young as Himself”
Directed: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Story: Merian C. Cooper
Screenplay: Ruth Rose
Produced: John Ford & Merian C. Cooper
Music: Roy Webb
Technical Creator: Willis O’Brien
First Technician: Ray Harryhausen
Summary: In Africa, a small girl named Jill Young wants to buy what’s in a basket carried by two native men. She raids her father’s house, and when the flashlight is included in the deal, the men trade with her. She’s purchased a baby ape: “Isn’t he sweet? He’s better than a dog.” She names him Joe and surprises her father by covering the ape in bedsheets. When the father comes home and is disturbed at not finding his daughter, you’d think he wouldn’t be so quick to draw a gun on something wriggling under bedsheets. “That’s a baby gorilla!” he says, exasperated at Jill and insisting they cannot keep the animal. Dad’s got “worries enough trying to run this farm.” But Joe ends up staying and liking milk and naps and music, particularly “Beautiful Dreamer.” Dad still worries about Joe growing into a giant ape. The time will come when he’s “dangerous” and “ten times stronger than any man in the world.”
Twelve years later in New York City, producer Max O’Hara insists on going to Africa to gather animals for his nightclub show, especially lions. Cowboy Gregg wants to go too. Soon we see a lion caged after having been roped by Gregg. O’Hara admits to having been sending publicity lies back to the States, one regarding an attack by pygmy cannibals. A tea-time panic breaks out, with natives fleeing. A giant gorilla, bigger than the lion cage, plays with a lion until he gets nipped, and then tips over the cage, chasing after the escaped lion. O’Hara stops any shooting, and a group led by Gregg goes after the ape with ropes. One guy beats at Joe with a branch. Joe pitches rocks, and after plucking O’Hara off his horse, threatens to throw him to his death. A grown-up Jill arrives and convinces Joe to put him down. “Joe wouldn’t hurt anybody, … if you treat him right.”
Gregg visits Jill, tacitly apologizing, “We didn’t know he belonged to anybody.” “He doesn’t belong to anybody. He lives here.” Dad is dead now. Gregg likes the place. O’Hara is hiding, and Jill laughs. They can go in to talk, but not with any guns. O’Hara pitches Hollywood nightclub stardom for Jill, and Joe returns while O’Hara is ranting. The gorilla is about to throw a boulder but Jill whistles his favorite song and offers bananas.
“Max O’Hara’s Golden Safari starring Mr. Joseph Young” opens with drumming and goofy native dancing to a manic Hollywood score. There are lions behind glass at the bar and we endure some wise-crackin’ dames and fellahs. No one knows who Mr. Joseph Young is yet. Max, donning safari gear, appears on stage and announces Jill and “lifelong friend.” Jill plays Joe’s song on piano and the whole stage seems to rise up into the air, but a light reveals that it’s Joe, lifting Jill, piano, and all. O’Hara introduces the ten strongest men in the world –ten real-life strong men, including ex-boxer Primo Carnera — and Joe wins a tug-of-war with them. After these stupid shows, Joe is locked into a prison-like cage. Jill has misgivings about the long contractual arrangement.
Ten weeks of this seems like years to Jill. She tells Max she wants to take Joe home, but Max requests some time to find a replacement act. Next, we see that it’s the seventeenth week, and Joe is reduced to having large fake coins thrown at him while Jill plays hurdy-gurdy. If Joe picks up a coin, that table gets free champagne. But a drunk throws a bottle at Joe. He and his drunk jackass friends decide to bring Joe some drinks and laugh at his inevitable hangover. While Jill makes more definitive plans to leave for Africa with Gregg, the drunks outside Joe’s cage grow resentful of his being a supposed “big moocher.” One burns Joe with his lit cigarette. Enraged, Joe breaks out of his cage. He interrupts the dancing upstairs, wrecking the set and eventually the whole club after breaking the lions out. He flings a few lions about, plucking one off one of the drunkards being mauled. “Joe’s loose; he’s gone crazy” is the diagnosis, and when the cops are called in there’s fear Joe will be shot.
After a court ruling that Joe must be shot, the gorilla is imprisoned in a new stronger cell. A guard shoos Jill away so that she doesn’t have to witness the execution. But “Max has a scheme. We’re not licked yet.” O’Hara does seem to accept responsibility, and hatches a plan to get Joe back to Africa alive. He visits Joe and fakes a heart attack to lure away the guard. Jill breaks Joe out of jail, and Gregg drives a van. O’Hara also cuts the phone lines and delays the cops as long as possible. When the van stops for air in a tire, a hobo sees the gorilla and panics. In Polish he explains his stress to a cop. The others highjack a truck and O’Hara drives the van as a decoy. But the cops almost catch up and shoot wildly at the truck and Joe.
They see an orphanage on fire and stop the truck. Jill runs upstairs to save two children. Gregg, following close behind, is cut off by a collapsing staircase, and he climbs up the outside of the building. Jill finds the two kids in a closet, and Gregg joins them. With chunks of building burning and collapsing around them, they head for the roof. Joe climbs a nearby tree and rescues Jills. Gregg places the kids in a blanket and lowers them with a rope, following down. But another child cries from above, and Jill commands Joe to go back up the tree. He does, and grabs the brat as the cops arrive. He cannot get back down the tree, which is now on fire too, so Joe heads upwards to the top before the tree comes crashing down. The kid crawls off while Joe seems hurt, but when a wall of the building starts to fall, he rescues the brat again and is hit with the wall. “My poor Joe,” moans Jill. “It’s all right: there’s nobody in the world gonna shoot Joe now.”
Some time later, Max is back in the producer role planning a water show. He sees film of Jill roped cutesily by Gregg back in Africa. Joe is with them too. “And they lived happily ever after,” remarks O’Hara, “home where they belong.”
Commentary: The film seems to function as a penitential exercise for the atrocities committed unfeelingly and mindlessly in King Kong. Robert Armstrong plays a showman again, as he did in Kong, but this time with some evidence of a soul. Concern for the gorilla is pervasive, certainly from Jill and from the start of the film to the end. Abuses are heartbreaking this time, and the humane perspective is built into the film — not in need of supplying from the outside by viewers of apparent amorality.