Recapturing Mighty Joe Young:

The Movie! The Memory!! The Make-believe!!!

From adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes saga, non-human primates have played a prominent part in the evolution of motion pictures. Ridiculous and sublime, they act as uncanny doubles of our uncouth selves.

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Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Until well into the 1980s, silver screen simians were often aped by actors in hairy suits. A memorable exception is the original Kong, the uncrowned King of Skull Island. The title character of Mighty Joe Young (1949) is one of his descendants.

Joe was brought to life by the creative team responsible for King Kong (1933) and its sequel, Son of Kong (1933). The large volume in the centre of this gallery is Joe’s baby album.

The album commemorates the collaborative efforts that earned Mighty Joe Young an Academy Award for Special Effects. Showing off the tools and tricks of the trade, it contains documentarian photographs as well as drawings and watercolour paintings by Willis ‘Obie’ O’Brien, the film’s ‘Technical Creator.’ The album also records the work of Obie’s apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, whose name became synonymous with pre-CGI fantasy film and stop-motion animation.

The album was on public display as part of this exhibition for the first time. It was compiled retrospectively, probably by and for members of the crew. Along with hundreds of books and journals, it was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University by the film historian Raymond Durgnat (1932–2002), to whose legacy this exhibition pays tribute.

Surrounding the album in the gallery were posters, promotional materials as well as 1940s concept drawings for animated movies. Also on show were prints by Gustave Doré and John Martin. Their fantastic and awe-inspiring images are precursors of cinematic spectacles. Both O’Brien and Harryhausen referenced them in their work.

As a curator, educator and writer, I aim to promote interconnections between the arts as well as the creative industries and academic disciplines devoted to them. Instead of imposing a context in which our album might be contained, I let it take over this gallery to disclose its stories and open new associations.

Audiences were invited to shape the evolving display by sharing their responses to Joe in animation workshops scheduled during the show’s run. Like the homage in Lego they encounter in the gallery, the videos created in those workshops became part of this exhibition.

Harry Heuser, curator

Bricktacular Beast (2017)

Richard Boalch

Lego sculpture

Courtesy of the artist

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