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Mighty Joe Young

David Bruce Bozarth

A Movie Review in 46 Images

October 24, 2020 I sent the following "alert" to film buffs on the ERB replyall list...

One of Harryhausen's best stop action animation films. Cute, adventuresome, exciting ... yet originally considered a failure since it did not make back its production cost.

One of my faves. On MeTv right now (Svengoolie) and is a place holder for time wasting this Saturday night.

"Mighty Joe Young" is a collaboration between John Ford and Meriam C Cooper and has great credentials in credits, casting, scripting and locations for a 1949 film. Ford had just wrapped "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" with John Wayne and Ben Johnson (among others) and "Mighty Joe Young" came out the same year. Cooper's most famous credit was, of course, 1933's "King Kong".

MJY is often compared to "Son of Kong" by reviewers, and there are SOME similarities, but "Mighty Joe Young" has opening sequences are absolutely charming as heck by (then) child actor Lora Lee Michel--acting career from age 8-14 before "retiring"---finding and taking on/in baby gorilla "Joe Young". Other fun is Ben Johnson as a cowboy in Africa opposite Terry Moore (playing the grown up Jill Young). Later in 1998 Moore would have a bit part in that year's version of "Mighty Joe Young". I have not see that movie---likely due to casting choices and never having been in "a place" at "a time" it was in viewing potential. That film is available on yt ... but not for me ... I like my jungle tales from the 1940s. :)

"Mighty Joe Young" falls between the end of Weissmuller's Tarzan film group and the beginning of Lex Barker's outing. Jungle films were still going strong in 1949---and that might also explain why MJY does not get as much love as I think it should. However, even imDB gives the film a SOLID 7/10.

"Mighty Joe Young" comes up in TV rotations about once a year, so if you have not seen it, look for it. It's worth the watch.

If you still dive in DVD bins of slashed priced films you can sometimes find MJY. It is worth the few dollars expended.

BTW, in a bit part, Granny (Irene Ryan) from Beverly Hillbillies has a hilarious cameo.

There were a few appreciation emails in return, which got me to thinking ... has anyone really looked at "Mighty Joe Young" for the Tarzanic and King Kong relations over the many decades (a century plus for Tarzan!)? Also, "today's generation" might think of "Mighty Joe Young" as the Charlize Theron film of the same title from 1998, which I have NOT seen myself, but some have said it was pretty entertaining. With that in mind I thought it might be fun to "do the movie" in 46 stills from the original "Mighty Joe Young" with review/commentary.

If you've come along this far, stick around as the pics are the hit, the comments are film and pithy, and perhaps you, too, might take a look at this film when it shows up on tv, or might go and find a copy of it for yourself!

Opening credits reveal that John Ford and Meriam C. Cooper are the producers. "Mighty Joe Young" was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, also known for "The Four Feathers" (1929), "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932) and "Dr. Cyclops" (1940). "Mighty Joe Young" was Schoedsack's last movie as a director.

The producers...

The Title!

Named actors. Terry Moore (birth name: Helen Luella Koford, had worked as "Judy Ford" and "January Ford" prior to 1948 before settling on Terry Moore). Ben Johnson, rodeo champ and sidekick in many John Ford and John Wayne movies. Robert Armstrong, already had chops for "ape" movies in the original "King Kong" (1933) and "Son of Kong" (1933).

In an unusual presentation the Ray Harryhausen animated character was elevated to a "star" credit as "self"!

After an opening sequence, largely matte work blended with live action, the story begins when 8 year old Jill Young (portrayed by child actress Lora Lee Michel) interacts with two African Hunters carrying a basket. Jill looks inside! She immediately offers to trade with the natives, telling them to wait. She gathers items from the house, including a "but that's not mine!" (her Dad's big flashlight).

The deal is made and she takes the baby gorilla—"I'll name you, Joe!"—inside before her father comes home.

Dad (Regis Tomey) notices things amiss, but some bizarre movement under his bed sheets leads to a discovery!

It's Joe!

Dad and Jill have a discussion on Joe ... who will grow up to be gigantic and dangerous... but Jill has an answer for everything ... sorta.

Story shifts to New York City some 12 years later. As if the screen shot is not sufficient to show the passage of time!

Gregg (Johnson) comes to see Max (Armstrong) for a job.

Africa! Top two thirds is a matte painting, the bottom third is live action. Nicely done! In fact, the matte work and live action scenes are top notch, and in some ways even better than what was used in the Kong movies.

Max, the entertainment promoter, wants real live animals for a New York City show. Gregg and his cowboy band have been lassoing critters.

Discussing the next day's collecting...

Joe finds the camp! He does not like lions!

Joe faces off the cowboys out to capture him!

Poor cowboy! (He lives...) Note: A lot of exciting scenes during this segment!

Joe is a bit miffed! Beating chest and lots of growling.

Jill to the rescue, facing down Gregg who was about to shoot Joe!

Later, things settled down, Jill scolds Joe just a bit, and they go home.

Some time later, after talks and stuff, Max opens his wildlife extravaganza in New York City.

Jill is part of the show!

So is Joe! Wow!

Ten strongmen to tug-o-war with Joe. There's a lot of comedy involved in this sequence...

Know this fellow? He's not credited, but you know who he is, right?

A few weeks later the show, always trying to top the night before, has Joe in a somewhat cruel comedy spot.

Later, three drunks taunt the giant ape backstage. Idiots!

Meanwhile, Jill and Gregg are becoming romantic (as we knew they would!).

Tormented Joe breaks out!

The scenery in the night club gets rearranged a bit!

Sadly, Joe is placed behind bars. Things are not looking good!

When Jill, Gregg and Max hear Joe is to be shot by police sharpshooters a desperate plan is hatched!

Max dupes the cops. Jill releases Joe...

...Gregg does his part!

Uh oh! An unexpected detour to the ship headed for Africa!

The pursuing cops bog down in the pursuit!

An orphanage on fire! (Note: the orange/red/yellow is part of the original black and white film. What an emotional difference!)

Jill and Gregg spring into action!

Joe sees what is going on!

Two girls safe! But Gregg is still in danger!

Gregg is down safely, but there's yet another child and no way for either Jill or Gregg to save her!

Jill sends Joe to save the girl. Joe's tree is on fire!

Surviving the tree fall, Joe then saves the little girl a second time when the burning building collapses on him!

Jill weeps as she and Gregg tell Joe "No one will shoot you now!

Later, in Max's office, a reel of film from Africa shows Jill, Gregg, and Joe waving a hello.

The myth that Joe is real continues in the final frame.


As much fairy tale as high adventure, "Mighty Joe Young" is a treat. A pleasant bit of film that speaks of the old Fast Talkies, the opulent "cast of thousands", and the simple romance between two souls from different backgrounds, joined by a common interest.

Long Live Mighty Joe Young!