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The working titles of this film were Mr. Joseph Young of Africa and The Great Joe Young. The picture ends with the words, "Goodbye from Joe Young." In the onscreen credits, set dresser James Altwies' name is incorrectly spelled as "George Altwils." Arko, Inc. was formed to make this picture by RKO and Argosy Pictures, a production company owned by presenters John Ford and Merian C. Cooper. Cooper also produced and co-directed RKO's 1933 hit film King Kong (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2288), to which this film bears much resemblance. Ernest B. Schoedsack worked as director on both pictures, and Ruth Rose wrote the screenplay for both. Other shared contributors include actors Robert Armstrong, James Flavin, Milton Shockley and Harry Strang; editor Ted Cheesman, chief animation technician Willis O'Brien; animation technician Marcel Delgado; and cameraman Bert Willis. Armstrong's character in Mighty Joe Young is a comical version of "Carl Denham," the character he played in both King Kong and its 1933 sequel Son of Kong (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.4194).
In December 1947, Los Angeles Times announced that Regis Toomey was to co-star with Armstrong and Ben Johnson in Mighty Joe Young, but Toomey did not appear in the final film. RKO borrowed Terry Moore from Columbia for the production. Ten professional wrestlers and boxers, including former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera and wrestler Man Mountain Dean, were featured in one of the nightclub scenes. According to a June 1947 news item in Los Angeles Examiner, Mighty Joe Young was to have been shot in part in the Belgian Congo, but no evidence of foreign location shooting has been found. Hollywood Reporter production charts indicate that the live action sequences were filmed between mid-December 1947 and early March 1948. According to a May 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item, the entire production took nine months to shoot. Modern sources, however, claim that the animation alone required fourteen months. Although Hollywood Reporter announced in December 1948 that Cooper had ordered the "scripting of a sequel" to Mighty Joe Young, no sequel was ever made.
Mighty Joe Young, which employed the same stop-action animation techniques used in King Kong, was renowned animator Ray Harryhausen's first feature film. According to modern sources, the twenty-seven-year-old Harryhausen, who was hired by O'Brien to aid in the preparation of drawings and other menial tasks, ended up doing most of the film's animation. Modern sources add the following information about the production: Over the course of pre-production, many aspects the film's script were altered; in one early draft, for example, the character of "Jill" was conceived as a Tarzan-like wild woman. As with King Kong, the PCA required screenwriter Rose to submit for censorship approval translations of her "native" dialogue. Before starting on the actual animation, Harryhausen studied live gorillas and read Toto and I, a non-fiction account of a gorilla raised from infancy by a woman. Harryhausen used six or seven "Joe" models, which were between five and eighteen inches high and were made of cotton, foam rubber and metal and included 150 moving parts. Joe's fur was made from the skin of unborn lambs, which alleviated the "rippling" problem encountered during the shooting of King Kong. Many stop-motion lions, men, horses and miniature "Jills" were also built. As with King Kong, traveling mattes, glass transparencies and miniature props were employed to create the various special effects in the film. For the nightclub rampage scene, for example, three separate sets were built. The first was full-sized and was used to show the panicked audience. On the second, miniature set, the fight between Joe and the lions was animated. The third set, constructed in Billy Richard's World Jungle Compound in Thousand Oaks, CA, was used to film a lion skidding across the dance floor after it is tossed by Joe. Built on a twenty-degree slope, it contained a see-sawing chute that forced the lion (and in one take, its trainer, Melvin Koontz) to tumble onto the set. To achieve verisimilitude within the scene, details of the audience set, such as the placement of ashtrays, were transferred precisely to the third set.
The film's budget was $1,800,000. Mighty Joe Young lost money at the box office and was the last major animation film that Willis O'Brien ever made. O'Brien won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects. Modern sources credit Harry Cunningham as a model maker. (For more information about stop-action animation, see entry for King Kong). In 1998, Disney Pictures released Mighty Joe Young, an updated version of the story, directed by Ron Underwood and starring Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton.