Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

While there is nothing very wrong with the overblown Charlize Theron remake of this film in 1998, it lacks the naive charm of the original, which in itself is an offspring of the 1933 "King Kong", with which this giant ape story shares a lead in the very old-time Robert Armstrong and a director, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Like its predecessor, the other leads, Terry Moore and Ben Johnson, were hardly A-listers, but do bring a believable simplicity to this tall tale.

The Joe Young of the title is Moore's "pet", having raised him since he was a baby and she was a wee girl on her family's back-of-beyond farm in Africa; he is her only friend and playmate. When Armstrong arrives on safari to find animals to take back to the jungle-themed nightclub he is opening in Hollywood, he convinces Moore (and Joe) to come with him. Unlike Kong who is merely displayed for the titillation of his viewers, Joe is taught to do various "party tricks" including a very camp tug-of-war against a bunch of cavemen-lite strongmen, including the boxing champion of the time Primo Carnera. Being locked up between shows, he pines for home and Moore can't get out of her contract. However when some drunken yobs feed him booze, Joe escapes and wrecks the joint -- including repetitive footage of a number of lions escaping from the broken glass behind the bar over and over again. It's a hoot! Now the police are on his tail, with orders to shoot. But when Joe becomes a hero by saving kids from a burning orphanage (!), a happy ending is assured. This sector of the black and white film is shot with a fiery orange tint which is very effective.

The creature was created by the legendary Willis O'Brien, who did not work on the original Kong, but who had a hand in its sequel and who was a mentor to another legend, Ray Harryhausen. Since this giant ape was in reality only about a foot tall, the special effects may seem primitive to the modern viewer who has been spoiled by CGI, but this does not make the movie any less entertaining. Too often remakes result in the original movie being lost to contemporary audiences, but fortunately this one is available on DVD and hopefully will live on to charm new generations.
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