In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance - due to the length of the essays, some of the entries such as Berlin Alexanderplatz and The War Lord will be broken out individually.
March 13th, 2007.
If you've never seen the original King Kong, Mighty Joe Young will be your favorite Marion C Cooper/Ernest B Schoedsack movie written by Schoedsack's wife Ruth Rose about a giant ape who becomes infatuated with a young woman and is taken across the sea to America by Robert Armstrong to be put on display in a fancy show until he inevitably runs amok, creates havoc and is hunted down by armed authority figures featuring models by Marcel Delgado and pioneering stop animation effects by Willis O'Brien. If you've seen the original King Kong, it will be your second favorite. Mighty Joe Young has the same basic plot, the key difference being that the monkey here is significantly smaller. Also they bring the ape to Hollywood as opposed to New York in this one, which is totally different. You could think of it as a sort of Son of Kong, that is if Son of Kong hadn't already been made by the same people sometime between the two films. The movie is famous enough that it was remade in 1998, but not until after they'd already made a sequel to Kong, remade Kong, made a sequel to the remake of Kong, had Kong fight Godzilla over in Japan, and planned to remake Kong all over again.
Ok I'm being flippant, but honestly this is a great movie that can stand proudly on its own two sets of knuckles. Kong might have been an overall better and more original story*, but technical advances in model animation - O'Brien was assisted by the great Ray Harryhausen, his first film credit - make the title character even more realistic and sympathetic than his famous uncle. The emotion that O'Brien and Harryhausen are able to portray in Joe's face alone are just as impressive as the effects in the big action sequences (which, if I haven't mentioned already, are pretty damn impressive). It was made 16 years after Kong, and I guess that doesn't seem like a huge amount of time, but it's like comparing 1988's Best Visual Effects Oscar winner Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to 1971's Best Visual Effects Oscar Winner Bedknobs and Broomsticks.** Both of those movies got attention for combining live action and traditional animation, but you look at Roger Rabbit and can clearly see how far motion control technology had evolved in less than two decades and created cartoon characters more seamlessly integrated into that world whose personalities were more seriously considered in the process. The same goes for Mighty Joe Young - the advanced effects are really felt, even if they were based on the same basic concepts as King Kong. They make Joe so much more alive: it's easy to tell when he's sad, excited, scared, drunk - at one point he's in the back of a truck being chased by cops and he makes hilariously goofy faces at them. During the big finale where he's rescuing orphans from a raging fire they even got him making a serious "oh shit!" face (see bottom of article). He's such a genuine character that he even gets an opening credit ("Mr. Joseph Young as himself").
The whole thing starts with baby Joe being traded for a flashlight (not just a regular flashlight, one of those giant tactical flashlights insecure security guards who aren't allowed to have a gun carry around - the Joe Young of flashlights). It's hard to say who gets the better deal, although the natives only needed to grab the monkey out of the African jungle whereas that flashlight probably cost the owner whatever the 1949 equivolent of thirty bucks is, plus the price of batteries. There's a terrifying moment where the little white girl who's just purchased Joe decides to play a joke on her father by putting the monkey under his covers to find when he returns home; when the dad sees the bulk in his sheets he aims his gun at it. I guess that becomes a big theme of the movie, how ready some people are to destroy something they don't understand. But jesus man that could have been your daughter! Think about what you're doing next time, Charlton Heston.
Anyway several years pass, the father has died (presumedly of a gun-related accident) and the girl and her monkey happen upon an entertainment promoter and his gang of cowboys. Ben Johnson, sounding more John Wayne than ever, plays a cowboy who really wanted to go to Africa for some reason. This inspired the promoter to take a gang of cowboys to Africa for the purpose of roping lions...sadly we never get to see any of that ill-conceived plan in action, but the cowboys do team up to try and rope Joe. I guess it was executive producer/second unit director John Ford's influence that brought all the hootin' and lasso-in' into the film (Cooper co-produced several of Ford's best movies from 1947's The Fugitive to 1956's The Searchers...hm, was Kong's driving storyline of rescuing the girl from savages an influence on that last movie?) Anyway, this first action sequence of the cowboys on horseback trying to capture Joe sets the bar for the rest of the film, with flawless transitions of animated men and horses reverting back to live footage in the same shots as they're tossed into the background by the mighty monkey. Then Jill gets Joe out of there, leaving the defeated broncos to wonder what the hell that was all about.
We downgrade from Fay Wray to Terry Moore, playing adult Jill with an aw-shucks farm girl naivete. Personally I think she sells out to the Hollywood fast talker a little too easy, but I guess she's bored on her plantation in Africa with all the servants and her giant ape. Since this is more a family-oriented film than King Kong there's no weird sexual connection between her and the gorilla: for example, he doesn't try to disrobe her at any point. She's able to tame him by playing "Beautiful Dreamer," which if I'm not mistaken is the same song Tori Spelling dueted with Dustin Diamond on in a very special "Saved by the Bell." This makes for a particularly amazing sequence once the promoter has convinced Jill to let them take Joe back to California, and opens the show with Jill playing the tune on piano when the whole platform magically rises - the lights go up and there's Mighty Joe supporting the girl and the piano! Can you imagine being an audience member on opening night? You figure you're going to see some hammy prop comedian named Joseph Young, then the stage lights come up and a friggin' massive gorilla is up there. Probably be less exciting if you saw it a week later and knew what the show was all about though...unless of course the monkey went nuts and started rampaging through the crowd, smashing the glass panels behind the bar and freeing a pride of hungry lions!
Quick aside: what does this guy have against lions? Of course lions are dangerous, but in this film they're like the Ducky Boy gang, threatening to kill anyone who happens by. Joe makes it his personal mission to kill as many of these lethal leos as possible. And it's not like he's just protecting the humans either: the first time we see the fully-grown Joe, he's attacking a caged lion who's just minding his own business. Leave him be, Joe, he was just grooming himself for christ's sake. I guess they just needed an official "bad guy" for Joe the way Kong had all those dinosaurs to fight. So that's it: lions are Joe's enemy (lions and liquor - since it's some drunk assholes getting Joe tanked at the club that causes his rampage, 'twas almost booze that killed the beast).
The big finale, a red-tinged orphanage fire-rescue sequence, isn't nearly as iconic as Kong's Empire State Building date with destiny, but by all rights it should be. The design of the giant orphanage and the ambitious action that takes place around it - Joe climbing up the building, grabbing some screaming kids, making his way down tall trees and back up again - is as riveting as anything made today, if not more so (I for one didn't care what was happening with the Kraken in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie). Even the flaws make the scene charming: the visible strings on the model look like gorgeous streaks on old celluloid. Shots of Joe in action are just as believable as ones featuring Ben Johnson, using his lasso to scale the house and rodeo some children to safety. I have to say these tykes are pretty lucky: what kid wouldn't be super-psyched to be saved from a burning building by a cowboy and a giant monkey? I'd say that more than makes up for having parents who abandoned you or are dead.
This was Willis O'Brien's triumphant return to overseeing model creation and visual effects (although by most accounts Ray Harryhausen*** handled most of the animation) after a 16 year absence. I know there was the tragedy with his ex-wife killing his two sons in a murder-suicide while he was working on Son of Kong...jeez, I hope that wasn't what kept him from working for such a long time. David O Selznick had failed to convince the Academy to give him a special award for his work on King Kong, but this time the Best Visual Effects Oscar existed, so he won it.
Mighty Joe Young was the last film directed by Ernest B Schoedsack (that he received credit for); Merian Cooper and Robert Armstrong (who played Carl Denham in King Kong and the Carl Denham-like promotor in Mighty Joe Young) would on to die on the same day in 1973. Cooper always claimed that dreams about a giant monkey wrecking Manhattan had inspired King Kong; whether or not he had another dream 16 years later about a smaller giant monkey fighting cowboys and decided that was just as good an idea is anybody's guess. I'd be more curious to know wonder whether or not Denzel would have come off as intimidating in Training Day if he had shouted "Mighty Joe Young ain't got shit on me!" It probably just would have confused most of the people listening.
~ 2010 ~