Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Fifty

50 joe

#50 — Mighty Joe Young (Ernest B. Shoedsack, 1949)

There was really no pretense to originality with Mighty Joe Young. “Mightier than King Kong,” the trailer shouted, and similarities to the colossal primate who scaled the Empire State Building in the prior decade were more than superficial. Mighty Joe Young director Ernest B. Schoedsack shared that same title on the earlier film. His King Kong co-director, Merian C. Cooper, was a producer on Mighty Joe Young, and Ruth Rose worked on both scripts. While the oversized gorilla named Joe Young is different enough from his predecessor that it’s not reasonable to refer to the film that introduces him as a reboot, there are enough similarities between the two stories that it’s clear the team was trying to force that fabled second lightning strike. There is still a creature removed from his jungle home, an ill-advised attempt to turn him into a stage attraction, and a decent amount of mayhem in a major city center.

Willis H. O’Brien was another carryover creator from King Kong. The special effects maestro was brought in to repeat his movie magic on Mighty Joe Young, but it was one of his hires that made the greatest impact. Preoccupied with other technical challenges on the film, O’Brien delegated most of the tasks related to animating Joe to his new assistant, Ray Harryhausen. The future legend was working on his first major film, but much of his signature style is already evident, notably the slightly choppy movements that somehow conveyed more personality, and therefore more effusive realness, than if the figures operated with a fluidity that inserted them more seamlessly into the live action. More than any similar screen characters to that point, including King Kong himself, Joe Young seems vividly alive, bounding through the film that bears his name with an energy and thundering sprightliness that imbue a certain childlike quality, heightening the emotions stirred whenever he is threatened.

There’s one very personal consideration that makes Mighty Joe Young a uniquely special film in my personal viewing history. In my recollection, faulty or not, Mighty Joe Young was the first older film — black and white, markedly different in its very construction, a classic by virtue of age — to which I felt a connection. Like a lot of kids raised in the nineteen-seventies — when the expectation that all pop culture had bold color, big energy, and rambunctious pacing — I had a instinctual aversion to old movies, with their deliberate pacing and comparatively static cameras and editing. Mine was the first generation to have our attention spans gnawed to the nub by an antsier brand of television entertainment, defined by Laugh-In, The Monkees, and Sherwood Schwartz. Before MTV repainted the landscape, Sesame Street layered on the primer. I wanted my entertainment in the form on constant distraction. The deliberate pacing and stolidness of classic Hollywood cinema was in direct contradiction to such a degree that images in nothing but shades of gray propelled me straight to boredom.

I was repeatedly confronted with these musty old movies. Television stations relied heavily on the dusty libraries of the venerable studios to help fill out the program day, and films that had gone largely untouched for years filled out the late night and daytime hours, especially on the couple of big city independent stations that suddenly reached whole new media markets through this newfangled thing called cable TV. As I remember it, Mighty Joe Young played regularly on WGN-TV out of Chicago, routinely popping up on weekend afternoons. I’d turn on the big console television in the hopes of finding cartoons and instead discovered this marauding transplant from the wilds of Africa. Certainly a roaring gorilla was the perfect ambassador to diplomatically wear down the resistance of a kid who could still convey his age using only the fingers on his two little hands. In that respect, it wasn’t a remarkable breakthrough, but the film still feels transformative in my memory, opening up my understanding that the timeline of personally engaging cinema stretched back further than I initially imagined.

Yes, this happened early enough in my development that I could’ve and probably would’ve come to the same conclusion any number of other ways. Still, I know enough people with nothing more than the barest interest in a movie with a copyright date earlier than their own that I remain grateful that Mighty Joe Young put a thick crack in my prejudice early on. Without Mighty Joe Young, I might not have many of the other forty-nine films on this list.