Recapturing Mighty Joe Young:

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















Put on display like a corpse in a glass coffin, this album is a relic of a bygone era of moviemaking. It features documentarian photographs, production stills, concept drawings and watercolour storyboards. These images showcase ingenuity, commemorate teamwork, and highlight the efforts of the many artists involved in creating make-believe. They are shown alongside each other in the album to demonstrate how ideas were realised.

Why showcase this album here? Why now? Why bother commemorating the production of a relative commercial failure that, by now, is technically outmoded?

My motivation for staging this exhibition is rooted in a queer identity and a sense of belatedness. Mighty Joe Young – the story of a captured primate exploited for profit and sentenced to death for revolting – affects me with its pathos and its promise of xenophilia triumphant. By accommodating its memorialization in our gallery, I seek to contest notions of cultural relevance and the trivialisation of nostalgic longing as ahistoric sentimentality.

The album defies history by unfolding Joe’s story in fictional time. It captures the film’s production in the sequential order of its narrative, not in the chronological order of its planning and shoot.

Conceived in 1945, filmed over a period of fourteen months, and released in 1949, Mighty Joe Young did not keep up with the times. Its compassion for the outsider and its indictment of consumer culture is an expression of early post-war idealism. Was the right to consume equal to the pursuit of happiness for which GI Joes and Jills had risked their lives? Mighty Joe Young’s climactic orphanage fire suggests otherwise.

‘Mr. Joe Young,’ as the giant yet gentle gorilla is announced in the credits, stands apart from the Atomic Age monsters of the Cold War era in whose destruction we are encouraged to relish. The menace in Mighty Joe Young is not its title character. Mighty Joe poses no threat to the Average Joe. The enduring, transcontinental friendship of Jill and Joe is proposed as an alternative to the fears and desires that tear us apart.









Perhaps, this is why Mighty Joe Young was not a commercial success. By the time of the film’s release, red-menaced consumers had been conditioned to accept as the new normal what the film fantastically surmounts. The contemporary press called Mighty Joe Young ‘incredible corn.’

A banana peel of discarded values, a throwback like Mighty Joe Young – and an album devoted to its making – can make us mindful of lost chances, and of the biases and restraints operative to this day.


Harry Heuser, curator


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