Might Joe Young (1949)

61061Honestly, Might Joe Young isn’t what I would call a horror film. Fantasy, Drama, Adventure and maybe a touch of Romance. So, I don’t get why when I talk about King Kong as a horror film, which I hold that it is due the revulsion of Kong’s death at the end, that Might Joe Young gets referenced. Other than basically being a softer version of the same story, with better technical effects. The two films are going for very different moods, Kong is darker while Might Joe Young more light-hearted. But since I recently watched it, I felt the need to talk about it.

Might Joe Young opens in Africa with an eight-year old Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel) trading away a number of goods for a basket containing a baby gorilla from a pair of natives. She hides the gorilla, who she has named Joe in her father’s bed when he returns home. While surprised he tries to tell her that she can’t keep Joe, since as he would be dangerous when he grew older. But Jill won’t have that and see Joe as her friend. Twelve years later Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) is making a trip to Africa to capture animals for his new night club in Hollywood while also drumming up publicity. He takes along Gregg (Ben Johnson), a cowboy to help him capture the animals. Which they do rather successfully capturing a number of lions. As they prepare to depart Africa, they hear Joe, now full-grown and over 12 feet tall and follow the sound to one of the caged lions. Which bites Joe sending him on a bit of a rampage. One that grows worse when O’Hara orders Gregg and the other capture Joe visualizing him as his main attraction. Joe easily breaks free of the ropes and continues to rampage, eventually attacking the men. But before any harm can be done Jill (Terry Moore) arrives and calms Joe down. She then chastises the men for attacking Joe and orders them off her land. After seeing Jill calm Joe, O’Hara is dead set on getting them as his main attraction, sending Gregg the next day to talk to her. After a little convincing from O’Hara and Gregg, Jill agrees to go to Hollywood with Joe. Their show is a huge success, but as the weeks wear on Jill grows tired of the fame and hates having Joe locked in a cage. So, she decides to quit, but O’Hara talks her into staying until he can find another act, something he never does. One night after a bad show, Gregg takes Jill out to dinner where the two both admit their feeling for one another. At the nightclub so drunk and rowdy customers get Joe drunk, then burn him with a lighter sending Joe off on another rampage where he destroys the nightclub and sends people screaming.  Jill and Gregg return in time to calm Joe down and return him to his cage, with the help of O’Hara, before the police arrive. Who shoot and kill the lions the Joe has freed. Though the damage is done and the court order that Joe be put down. O’Hara feeling terrible about it since he pushed so hard for them to be his stars, hatches a plan to save Joe with Jill and Gregg and get him back to Africa before the police can do their job…

This film is a masterpiece of stop motion blended with live action. For a film that sixty-seven years old I’m amazed at what the filmmakers were able to do. Which I honestly shouldn’t be since Willis O’Brien the animator for King Kong was on point, with Ray Harryhousen as his assistant.

Might Joe Young has some of the best painted backdrops I’ve seen and add an amazing level of charm to the film that couldn’t have been acquired any other way. The sets and backdrops make the film feel grand in scope even if it’s easy to tell it was filmed on a lot, though I never once cared.

The acting is OK, with the principle actors being enjoyable. But the supporting ensemble just sort of fades into the background and aren’t that memorable. Except for the three drunks that get Joe drunk. Their fun, even if they’re assholes. Terry Moore and Ben Johnson do share some on-screen chemistry and their romance comes off as believable.

Final thoughts, it’s easy to see why this film is lauded as it is. Even if it was a failure when it was first released to the box office. Even though it won an academy award for best special effects. Overall I like this film, beyond the special effects, which are delightful, the story itself was slow and not all that memorable. But if you’re a fan of early cinema and haven’t seen it, Might Joe Young is defiantly worth the watch. 8/10

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