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The first major movie that benefited from the stop-motion magic of Ray Harryhausen is the Academy Award®-winning Mighty Joe Young (1949). Harryhausen was a teenager when he first saw King Kong (1933) and was entranced. "I made it my duty to find out how King Kong was made. Occasionally there would be something in magazines describing ball-and-socket joints, etc. I collected every bit of information I could about stop-motion animation and it all developed from there." This led to work with George Pal on his Puppetoon shorts but it was his work on a personal film called Evolution that led to a dream job. Willis O'Brien, the animator behind King Kong, saw rushes for Evolution and hired Harryhausen to work on a new film with the King Kong team.
That team, producer-writer Merian C. Cooper and director Ernest B. Schoedsack, had been fascinated by the way audiences had reacted to their gigantic ape. They had intended Kong as an object of horror but audience members, especially children, looked on Kong with affection and sympathy. They decided to make a movie with another super-sized gorilla but one with more humor, personality and whom the audience could see as a hero. Mighty Joe Young had to wait until after World War II as both Cooper and Schoedsack were heavily involved in the war effort. Their new story strongly resembled the old one. Again Robert Armstrong leads an expedition to a remote land to find a new attraction he can exploit, again a young woman (Terry Moore) and a giant ape are closely linked, again an exhibition of the ape in America leads to disaster. The difference is that here, the girl rescues the ape at the beginning and they become life-long friends. Mighty Joe Young never acts maliciously but is driven to bad behavior by the unthinking actions of civilized mankind.
Harryhausen ended up taking over eighty percent of the animation work on the film. Four models were used for the ape. They were fashioned from a bone structure of small machine parts with ball-and-socket joints. Muscles, made of foam rubber, were placed over this followed by fur. The face was controlled with interior wires to allow full expression. Models of Terry Moore, Ben Johnson and others were also used for some scenes when they were in the same shot as Mighty Joe Young. Split-screen, traveling matte shots and front and rear projection completed the seamless incorporation of models and actors. The results not only thrilled viewers but also netted the animator the Special Effects Oscar for 1949.
Ernest B. Schoedsack directed the film although at the time he was legally blind. His sight had decreased to a blur during World War II and while filming, he relied on his assistant director Sam Ruman to describe what was happening on set. Ten real-life musclemen and wrestlers appear in the tug-of-war with Mighty Joe Young including former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera (he's the one who pops metal bands off his arm muscles). Another cameo is Irene Ryan (Granny on the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies), who is one of the girls at the bar in the nightclub scene. The human love interest, Ben Johnson, was just beginning his film career when he appeared in Mighty Joe Young. He would become much better known in John Ford Westerns and for his Academy Award®-winning role in The Last Picture Show (1971). Speaking of Ford, although credited as a co-producer on this film, he left the production before the beginning of principal photography. Shortly before the film's release, star Terry Moore secretly married RKO Studio head and multi-millionaire Howard Hughes in a secret ceremony aboard his yacht. Their wedding cake was topped with a recreation of a scene from the film, Ms. Moore playing the piano while held aloft by Mighty Joe Young.
Producer: Merian C. Cooper, John Ford
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Screenplay: Merian C. Cooper, Ruth Rose
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Film Editing: Ted Cheesman
Art Direction: James Basevi
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Terry Moore (Jill Young), Ben Johnson (Gregg), Robert Armstrong (Max O'Hara), Frank McHugh (Windy), Douglas Fowley (Jones), Denis Green (Crawford).
by Brian Cady