Wednesday, November 6, 2019
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*
My one-sentence review of this film: I liked it better when they called it SON OF KONG.
Obviously I don't mean that MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a remake of the 1933 sequel to the classic KING KONG. But just as SON was a less violent film with a more genial giant, so too is JOE. It's also the last time that KONG's three major prime movers-- Cooper, Schoedsack, and O'Brien-- returned to the icon of a colossal ape-- though to be sure, without any of the prehistoric trappings.
There's also no hint of transgressive sexuality anywhere in JOE. Whereas Kong's strange amour fou toward Ann Darrow always seems strange and inexplicable, Joe orients toward his human friend Jill Young (Terry Moore) rather after the fashion of infant to mother. SON doesn't venture into deep psychological waters either, but at least there's a sort of murky father-son dynamic between "Little Kong" and Carl Denham, the man indirectly responsible for Big Kong's death. Joe Young, who starts out looking like a commonplace baby gorilla, becomes Jill's pet on her father's African farm when she's only eight. But as they both grow to maturity, Joe is almost entirely under Jill's maternal thumb, despite the fact that, for no stated reason, he grows to the unusual height of twelve feet.
Joe also proves utterly obedient to Jill even when she's seduced by two representatives of modern civilzation-- also substitutes for Carl Denham and John Driscoll-- into taking Joe to Hollywood. The older
"seducer," impresario Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong, also returning to the Kong-well along with the three prime movers), only wants Jill and Joe to perform stunts at his African-themed nightclub, but when the two of them aren't happy in the Big Time, he ends up helping them escape a dire fate. Gregg (Ben Johnson), the younger "Driscoll" analogue, has a less figurative romantic interest in Jill. Although Joe and Gregg get off to a bad start-- Gregg almost shoots the big ape when the latter attacks O'Hara-- Jill accepts Gregg's courtship later, and Joe never turns so much as a ruffled hair in Gregg's direction.
In my SON OF KONG review I complained that the film was too contrived for me, but at least it continued the Denham character-arc in an interesting manner. JOE is even more contrived, and while not without some melodramatic appeal, SON starts looking better by comparison. Admittedly, JOE may score somewhat better in allowing audiences more empathetic interaction with the big anthropoid, allowing them to get a taste of what Kong's fate would've looked like had he been forced to perform monkeyshines for Denham.
Joe gets a couple of physical contests in the film, playing tug-of-war with ten human musclemen, and fending off some hostile lions, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is even less focused on the combative value than SON OF KONG.
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I've always had a soft spot for the film's near wistful (yes, I know that word's a stretch for describing this film) gentleness. It's unique in this in being the Cooper-Schoedsack team's last of the three films about big apes made for the RKO studio over a roughly fifteen year period. Terry Moore is lovely and charming, while Ben Johnson comes off, and rightly, as a somewhat displaced cowboyReplyDelete
Robert Armstrong, is, alas, rather long in the tooth to be playing yet another go-getting showman, albeit a superannuated one. I believe he was pushing sixty when he appeared in the film, and he looked every day of it.
The opening shots, indeed, the opening credits, are sheer magic (for some of us anyway). There's a thrilling, Tarzan-like ambiance in the movie's early African scenes. I imagine that some of the outdoor shots were rearrangements of the old studio jungle; and likely the one literally used for the Forties Tarzan series when it switched studios.
One can imagine what it must have felt to be a kid in the neighborhood theater watching this movie on the big screen back seventy years ago. It felt pretty exciting even sixty years ago on the small screen. Is it me, or do those C & S adventure pictures, despite their period trappings (of the time of the films' release, I mean) still not make them truly creak? To me they're always fresh; and not, the dated slang and, their old cars notwithstanding, they still sparkle and draw the viewer in.
A heap of talent went into making those three films, and while from a qualitative perspective, I suppose they are, in literally declining order, starting with the best, second best and least; and yet that still doesn't detract all that much from Joe Young. It puts it in its place, yet it's still a pretty good one even as while it doesn't roar like the first film, there is a romantic and professional "resolution" at work in it, with a more benign Denham figure, a much younger and less worldly heroine, who, unlike Fay Wray, really does go for big apes; and Ben Johnson is far more the pleasant, stalwart hero, with none of Bruce Cabot's menacing subtext beneath the surface.
Mighty Joe Young is in these and other of its qualities almost like the Disneyland version of the original King Kong. The family friendly one, not the scream fest from much earlier, which rather sanitizes the ape series, take away its rough edges, which thus makes it fit for a theme park.
After I finished the essay I thought I'd probably been a little too hard on the film, in comparison with its predecessors. Truth to tell, having not screened the film for a while, I was caught up in one sequence just as when I was a kid: the scenes involving the court's decision to execute Joe, instead of just doing the logical thing and sending him back to Africa. The scenes in which Joe saves orphans might've been been more believable, in terms of its palliative effects, if there had been photographers recording Joe's heroic deed, but I suppose that's carping.ReplyDelete
Given that JOE was a response to the enduring popularity of KONG in re-issues, I was surprised to learn that it underperformed. I wonder if it was just a little too tame for an audience that was invested in films noirs and horror comics. JOE seems to hearken back to the days of the Shirley Temple films-- not a bad thing in and of itself, but *maybe* not in step with the times. I suppose JOE's innocent charms were closest to the Disney product of the day, though Wiki reminds me that in '49 BIg Walt hadn't yet released the successful CINDERELLA, and that they were doing pretty good business with their animal documentaries.
While I don't dislike JOE, I have to admit that I don't mourn the loss of a possible Joe Young-Tarzan crossover. Now, Tarzan and Kong might be a different matter...