Mighty Joe Young (1949)

“You can’t rope a gorilla!”–Crawford 

Quick, what’s the name of that old movie produced by Merian C. Cooper about a giant ape who goes on a rampage in New York city?  What’s that you say?  King Kong?  That’s a very good guess, but, no, I’m talking about Cooper’s other giant-ape-in-New-York movie, Mighty Joe Young, which was made in 1949  

MJY features the same basic elements as its predecessor but has an entirely different tone and feel. When we first see Kong, he is a rampaging force of nature come to claim the terrified Ann Darrow, who has been captured by the island natives and left as a helpless, terrified sacrifice to the beast.  When we first see Joe, it is he who is helpless, an infant gorilla placed in a basket no bigger than a baby carriage. Jill Young, Darrow’s counterpart, unlike Ann, is a local inhabitant if not a native and is so taken with Joe that she trades a flashlight to get him and promptly gives him a name.  Kong has a title, Joe has a name.  And as you might expect from a gorilla named Joe, he is a kinder, gentler simian.  He’s big and incredibly strong, yes, but not nearly so large as Kong.  Animated by Ray HarryhausenJoe winds up looking a bit like a cross between Kong and The Bumble.  Harryhausen has ton of fun with him and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects that year. 

The nature of the relationship between Joe and Jill, because it is friendly, is also responsible for a good deal of the pathos in the film. Having been raised by Jill, Joe trusts her and listens to her.  The film jumps from Tanzania to New York with nothing in between; however, the audience does not need to be shown how he got there.  He doesn’t need to be gassed.  So long as Jill is around, Joe simply does as she tells him. And given this trust and blind obedience, we feel his betrayal.  Call me sentimental (because I am), but the sight of Joe caged and pushing his food bowl off the table moved me.  At one point, Jill appears in the show as an organ grinder with Joe playing the role of the Capuchin monkey, complete with bellhop hat.  I know this is ridiculous, but so help me it made me think of Immanuel Rath’s pre-suicide performance in the Blue Angel. (A fantastic and moving film by the way.  I cannot recommend it enough, but it’s not for the faint hearted.  In terms of sheer emotional drain, I would put it on par with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) 

Fortunately, Jill, having enjoyed the high life for a while, eventually comes to her senses, and the rest of the film plays out as a super fun, action packed chase sequence with everyone from Jill’s love interest, Gregg, played by a very young Ben Johnson, to Max O’Hara, MJY’s version of Carl Denham, trying to help the duo escape.    

Mighty Joe Young has a 94% critic rating and a 64% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The 64% audience rating–wow.  That one makes me sad.  One audience member review calls it “corny,” and I’m guessing this sentiment is at the center of most of the negative audience reviews.  I’ve just admitted to being sentimental, so, guilty as charged.  All I can say is that I bribed my nine-year-old into watching it with me with a promise of excessive junk food, and I’m hoping it’ll work on my oldest one as well. Here’s hoping they’re a little sentimental too.

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