Ray Harryhausen Film Notes: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

 

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The following are my notes as I presented to my Film Study course, Ray Harryhausen. In this week’s class we discussed the big ape that continues to capture our hearts, sixteen years after the famous Pre-Code ape that started it all. Mighty Joe Young.

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Ray Harryhausen with one of his “Joe” models.

For this week, we will explore Ray Harryhausen’s first feature, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). While not his first solo feature, he served as lead special effects tech under the guidance of his mentor, Willis H O’Brien. (Note the full list of special effects team as mentioned below.) As discussed before, O’Brien’s work in stop-motion animation in KING KONG (1933) is what inspired Harryhausen his life’s work. This is where it all began for both O’Brien and Harryhausen.

THE APE THAT STARTED IT ALL…

The sequel to KING KONG (1933) was released less than 8 months later with SON OF KONG (1933). Robert Armstrong, who portrays Carl Denham the film director/ promoter in the original Kong, reprises his role in the sequel. We then see this same actor play essentially the same type of role with a new name, Max O’Hara. Instead of Denham traveling to Skull Island via the Indian ocean as in KING KONG and SON OF KONG, O’Hara travels to Africa to collect lions for his big night club act. This is where he meets a large and unusual gorilla.

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While most scenes were shot on set at the RKO lot (Paramount), the baby gorilla images were not taken at a zoo, but rather a film crew was sent to Africa.

Jill Young (Terry Moore) has raised this gorilla since “Joe” was an orphaned baby. Jill traded her toys for Joe and nursed him with love. When O’Hara and his safari pal Gregg (Ben Johnson in his first on-screen role) bring Jill and Joe to Hollywood to star as main attractions at O’Hara’s African-themed club. Over time, it becomes clear that Joe and Jill are unhappy and the race to escape from authorities and back home to Africa begins.

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Producer Merian C Cooper with KING KONG (1933)

LOOKS FAMILIAR?

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is in essence a sister story to KING KONG. This film was also distributed by RKO and produced by the same creative team with a very similar plot. The differences however, are more family-friendly than in the Pre-Code KING KONG. Both films present an odd love triangle of a young woman, a young man, and a large gorilla. Both stories travel deep into the safari jungle, then discover more painful exploitation in their rags to riches adventure in the bright lights of the big city.

KONG vs JOE:

On a size scale, Joe is quite large (supposedly 12 feet tall and 2,000 lbs.) but dwarfs in comparison to Kong. In contrast, Kong was much taller. Creator Merian C Cooper originally envisioned Kong as being 40 to 50 feet tall. However, animator O’Brien built the sets and models scaling Kong to be only 18 feet tall on Skull Island then rescaled him to be 24 feet in New York. Someone had a big growth spurt in the Big Apple!

Unlike many of the mega creatures and characters Harryhausen would work later on, there are no atomic age threats, nor Greek gods at cause for these gorillas of freakishly gigantic growth patterns. What caused both Kong and Joe to reach such bizarre heights is not really explored in either film. Although in the case of Skull Island, including dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures running amuck, the implication is that of a protected bubble out of step from the rest of the world’s evolutionary pace.

There are other striking differences between these two apes that go beyond size. You could say that Kong came from a dysfunctional upbringing in the mean, Darwinian jungles of a dark, violent world yet despite his tough exterior, there’s a softer side that only weakens around blond actresses. Joe, on the other hand, was raised in a loving and nurturing environment. Even Joe’s jungles appear friendly, happy and always with an undercurrent of light whimsy.

Kong is prone to rage, expressing violence and pain frequently. He only becomes gentle upon his rare interactions with his delicate beauty. He protects her at all costs like an obsessive lover. His tragic ending is almost a relief to an otherwise painful and doomed life.

Joe was lovingly raised by his beauty. Their relationship is vastly different from Kong and Ann Darrow’s. Joe is more akin to Jill’s well-trained dog. He is expressive, curious and intelligent but also protective. His life is a charmed one until his trip to Tinsel Town. There, he faces humiliation and disrespect despite his talents and kind demeanor. He always shows loyalty and gentleness with Jill. When the time becomes obvious for Jill to escape the big city to retreat back to their African homestead, we are hopeful they will make it.

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HEART and HUMOR:

Instead of a focus on action, tragedy and pain as in Kong’s doomed fate, Joe’s tale is sprinkled with light moments which are both heartfelt and funny. Examples…

While our introduction to ‘grown Joe’ is mostly action, including impressive scenes mixing live action of lions and men on horses, there are also sweet touches with Joe being scolded by Jill. This also includes Jill being picked up by Joe from above by hand. This is where we see Ray Harryhausen’s brilliance at work. The skills are superior in not only in blending the live action with the Joe model, plus also foregrounds and backgrounds seamlessly as possible. Additionally, note Joe’s facial expressions. Joe listens to Jill, but reluctantly. He picks her up gently. She trusts him implicitly. But like a child walking away with his mother after being scolded in front of others after a fight, Joe turns back to give a few threatening gestures behind her back to let the men know he could’ve won the fight if mom hadn’t come along to save their day. It’s a much lighter human touch than we see in Kong’s treatment.

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Joe was not the only stop-motion animated creature. Lions got into the act, too. 

Another example that is both humorous and heartwarming occurs after Jill and Joe premiere in Hollywood. The dialogue from The Golden Safari club attendees as they give feedback on the club’s ambiance and the lions behind the bar are terrific. Note the familiar faces of many character actors such as Charles Lane. The tug-of-war scene is especially funny- from the intros of strong men with women cat-calling from the audience to the competition itself as Joe toys with them. Again, notice how Joe initiates with kindness and only becomes frustrated if provoked. Ray often brings humanity to his creatures.

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Terry Moore takes a break with the strong men from the humorous tug-of-war scene. 

By the 17th week, Joe is literally being treated like a trained monkey. In an organ grinder routine, both Joe and Jill are humiliated and abused as targets on stage. When a few mean drunks sneak backstage and pour alcohol into Joe, the real mayhem begins when one of the jerks hurts Joe. Even in these small scenes, watch the detailed expressions and movements of Joe. Both expressive and realistically reflective of what we would imagine an ape might do in that drunk-meets-rage unfolding. Just as impressive are the sets being destroyed in stop-motion animation while humans and lions running about.

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The orphanage scene is an especially tense and heart-wrenching climax. There are many technical aspects to the scene that make it both challenging and unforgettable. The use of color tone, fire, set design, and special effects within live action added more layers to the suspense. You can see live action, animation, technical assets of set design, backdrop paintings, and stop-motion animation all beautifully orchestrated in this rescue scene.

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The color tinting adds to this nail-biting climax. 

Ray Harryhausen is said to be responsible for 80 – 90% of the stop-motion animation in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, with the focus on the Joe model. As his first feature, we can already witness the mastery of his skills and yet this was only the beginning.

Trivia:

-Baby gorilla scenes were not shot in a zoo, they sent a camera crew to Africa.

-Most scenes were shot in Culver City on the Selznick lot (RKO).

-The early scene of lions in cages were shot at the lion farm in Tarzana.

-Ruth Rose’s inspiration for the Max O’Hara character was largely based on the director, Ernest “Monty” Schoedsack, who at 6.6 tall was a larger than life character in real life and was nearly blind (directed by sound and his asst. director). Ruth Rose was his wife.

-Of the 4 large Mighty Joe Young models, one was owned by Schoedsack and promised to Terry Moore upon his death but a maid stole it, another is Moving Image museum. An armature (not fully covered) is owned by Bob Burns.

-Ben Johnson was a real cowboy who wrangled horses in the Howard Hughes film THE OUTLAW (1943) before switching to acting in front of the camera. John Ford discovered him.

-The actual model for Joe was about 13 inches tall (smaller than Kong’s model.)

-Notable character actors: Ellen Corby (known best from The Waltons), William Schallert as the gas station attendant, Jack Pennick (familiar John Ford extra) as truckdriver of the stolen truck, and Irene Ryan (Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies).

– When Joe smashes through set at the night club, the first scream you hear is that of Fay Wray, stock audio from the original KING KONG (1933).

– All of the special effects sequences alone took 14 months to complete.

-The night club set was based on The Cocoanut Grove,” an LA club at the famed Ambassador Hotel.

-The early cowboys scene in Africa used footage originally shot to be used in a planned but not completed follow-up to KING KONG, (“The Valley of Gwangi”). In 1969, that film was eventually completed however by Ray Harryhausen.

-A sequel to MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was planned, “JOE MEETS TARZAN” to star Lex Barker [who starred as Tarzan in TARZAN AND THE SLAVE GIRL (1950)], but was canceled.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

Produced by: Merian C Cooper and John Ford

Director: Ernest B Schoedsack

Original Story: Merian C Cooper

Screenplay: Ruth Rose

Cast (main players):

Terry Moore … Jill Young

Ben Johnson … Gregg

Robert Armstrong … Max O’Hara

Mr. Joseph Young … himself

Frank McHugh … Windy

Douglas Fowley … Jones

Denis Green … Crawford

Paul Guilfoyle … Smith

Nestor Palva … Brown

Regis Toomey … John Young

Lora Lee Michel … Jill Young as a young girl

James Flavin … Schultz

Musical score: Roy Webb

Dir of Photography: J Roy Hunt

Special Effects:

Marcel Delgado … technical staff

Fitch Fulton … technical staff

Ray Harryhausen … first technician

George Lofgren … technical staff

Willis H O’Brien … technical creator

Pete Peterson … second technician

Visual Effects:

Linwood G Dunn … optical photography

Harold E Stine … photographic effects

Bert Willis … photographic effects

Harry Cunningham … model armature construction

Ray Harryhausen … technician

Jack Shaw … matte artist

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*See you next week as we take a journey with 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH!

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Comments

  1. Good job. RE-posted on twitter @trefology

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Still a film I haven’t seen. Of course, your post makes me want to.

    Wonderful that you are teaching! Hope to see you this year in August!

    Liked by 1 person

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