Mighty Joe Young - 1949
In 1937 Tanzania, Africa, 8-year old Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel) is living with her father on his ranch. While playing in the yard, two Africans come by with an orphaned baby gorilla; Jill so wants a pet that she trades her toys and money for him, vowing to always care for the gorilla.
Twelve years later, Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong) and sidekick Gregg (Ben Johnson) are on a trip to Tanzania looking for animals to headline in O'Hara's new Hollywood nightclub. The two men have captured several lions and are about to leave when gorilla Joe Young appears, having now grown to 12 feet tall and weighing nearly 2200 lb (1000 kg).
After one of their caged lion bites Joe's fingers, he grows angry and goes on a rampage. Visualizing Joe as their big nightclub attraction, O'Hara and Gregg try to capture him; he throws both men off their horses, breaks free of their ropes, and nearly kills O'Hara. A grown Jill Young (Terry Moore) arrives, calming Joe down, and commands him to drop O'Hara. Jill is furious with both men and storms off with Joe.
Both men meet again with Jill, and Gregg becomes hopelessly smitten with her. Having calmed down, Jill hears out Max's nightclub proposal, but Gregg tries to dissuade her, citing the freedom and beauty she and Joe enjoy in their jungle home. O'Hara tells her she and Joe will be a huge hit in Hollywood and will get rich within weeks. Jill does need the money, having lived on a poor ranch her entire life.
She finally decides to take Joe to Hollywood to make their fortune. On opening night, a large crowd comes to see the lions and the large gorilla. Joe makes his first appearance on stage, lifting an entire piano on a platform above his head while Jill plays the piano. Joe's strength is again put to the test in a tug-of-war with the ten strongest men in the world; Joe easily wins.
After the contest heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera tries to punch Joe, but Joe just playfully tosses the famous boxer into the audience. Joe's popularity grows; by the 10th week he is the biggest nightclub attraction in Hollywood. But Joe is beginning to miss his home in Africa, and so does Jill; she finds herself constantly mobbed by fans. She tells Max and Gregg she is having second thoughts.
Gregg talks to O'Hara about letting Joe and Jill go home, but O'Hara, seeing only more profit for the nightclub, manages to stall her decision. By the 17th week, Joe is miserable; he has grown tired of performing and is very homesick. To make matters worse, his next act is a humiliating performance playing a organ grinder's monkey with Jill acting as a little girl turning the handle.
When an audience member throws a bottle at Joe and strikes him, he becomes angry, roaring at the crowd while Jill shouts at the audience to stop. Later, during dinner, Gregg and Jill express their feelings for one another; Gregg even agrees to return to Africa with her. Three drunks sneak backstage.
In his cage a very unhappy Joe tries to ignore them, but they offer him an open whiskey bottle; he becomes intoxicated after two more open bottles are given to him. Thinking it now safe to toy with Joe, the drunks burn his fingers with a cigarette lighter. Roaring with pain and rage, he breaks out of his cage, smashes through a wall, and goes on a rampage, tearing apart the interior of the nightclub.
He then smashes the glass of the lion habitat, and the lions escape into the crowded nightclub. Joe fights and kills several of them. Jill and Gregg return and find the nightclub in chaos. Jill manages to get Joe to return to his cage, while arriving police shoot the remaining lions. A court decree orders Joe be destroyed as a dangerous animal; Jill's pleas to save him are denied.
Gregg, O'Hara, and Jill devise a plan to get Joe out of California with a moving van and then a cargo ship. When the execution team arrives at the closed nightclub to put Joe down, they find his cage empty and themselves suddenly locked inside. As the van is leaving, Joe is spotted by an itinerant worker, who later informs the police; an all points bulletin is broadcast.
On the way to the ship, the police spot the moving van on its escape route and give chase. But Joe has now been cleverly transferred to a covered truck, and the moving van, driven by O'Hara, is a decoy to misdirect the pursuit. The police finally stop the moving van and Max is apprehended.
Driven by Gregg and carrying Joe and Jill, the truck gets its wheels stuck in heavy mud; with Jill's encouragement, Joe manages to push the truck free, and the police then get stuck in the same mud as the truck drives away. But before reaching the port where the cargo ship is waiting, they come upon a burning, multistory orphanage engulfed in flames.
Jill and Gregg immediately get to work with helping the caretakers save the children. They act fast and most of the children are saved; but the flames spread quickly, and the last group, along with Jill and Gregg, are suddenly trapped in the top story of the burning building. At Jill's urging, Joe braves the raging fire; he climbs a tree and smashes a window, allowing Jill, Gregg, and the remaining children to escape.
Joe carries Jill to safety and Gregg lowers each child with a rope to the ground; one child is left behind, and Gregg nearly loses his life trying to save her. Joe climbs the tree again at Jill's urging and grabs the little girl and climbs down; an orphanage wall collapses when they near the ground, striking the tree, almost killing Joe and the little girl.
Now safely down, O'Hara assures Jill that, because of his heroism, Joe's life will now be spared. The film ends with O'Hara receiving home movies from his friends, letting the audience know that Joe made it safely back home to Africa. Gregg and Jill, now married and living on Jill's ranch with Joe, are now happier than ever; Joe waves "Goodbye," along with Jill and Gregg, to O'Hara.
Mighty Joe Young is RKO Radio Pictures black and white feature film made by the same creative team responsible for King Kong (1933). Robert Armstrong appears in both films. Written and produced by Merian C. Cooper (who provided the story) and Ruth Rose (who wrote the screenplay) the film was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Willis O'Brien, who created the animation for King Kong, was the supervisor of the film's stop motion animation special effects.
Ray Harryhausen was hired in 1947 on his first film assignment as an assistant animator to O'Brien. But O'Brien ended up concentrating on solving the various technical problems of the production, leaving most of the actual animation to Harryhausen. Buoyed by the enormous success of King Kong in 1933 and its profitable theatrical reissues in 1938, 1942, and 1946, RKO had great hopes for Mighty Joe Young.
Upon its release in 1949, the film was honored with an Academy Award for Special Effects (a category that did not exist in 1933 for King Kong), however, it was unsuccessful at the box office and, as a result, plans to produce a sequel (tentatively titled "Joe Meets Tarzan") were quickly dropped. The film has become a stop-motion classic and has an affectionate following. Special effects artists consider it highly influential, with the elaborate orphanage rescue sequence lauded as one of the great stop-motion sequences in film history.