Recapturing Mighty Joe Young: The Album
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
Many pages of the album are devoted to documenting visual effects and demonstrating the achievement of artists and technicians. To this end, photographs of the production in various stages were placed alongside stills from the finished movie.
This reproduction of a single page from the album captures the climax of the movie. Mighty Joe Young, himself sentenced to death, comes to the rescue of children trapped in a burning orphanage.
One photograph (bottom right) shows taxidermist and prop maker George Lofgren handling one of the Joe miniatures. Lofgren developed a process of rubberizing animal fur. Keeping the fur in place, it enabled smoother stop-motion animation than was achieved in King Kong.
Joe Young models
The process of animation was begun around October 1947 and continued for about fourteen months. Six gorilla models of varying sizes were produced. Their armature had about 150 moving parts.
Harryhausen preferred working with the smallest of the models, which was a little over 10 centimeters tall. He nicknamed it Jennifer, after actress Jennifer Jones. Jones’s beautiful hands reminded him of Joe’s delicate fingers. In his youthful enthusiasm, Harryhausen went so far as to eat large portions of celery and carrots. He thought he would ‘animate better’ if he ‘felt like a gorilla.’
Animation technician Marcel Delgado, who had previously worked on King Kong, declared Mighty Joe Young to be superior to its predecessor. The models for Joe were smaller than those used for Kong. To create a realistic coat, the hair of unborn calf was used. It was fine and proportionate to the size of the models.
Joe Rocking the Cage
Early in the story, Joe discovers a caged lion in his native jungle. As Harryhausen explains in An Animated Life, Willis O’Brien shot live footage of a lion on a platform that could be rocked back and forth. The cage was a miniature. Studying O’Brien’s footage, Harryhausen counted the frames of the rocking sequence and matched them with the number frames he needed to animate Joe rocking the miniature cage. The real lion was projected on a screen within the miniature cage.
Through his animation, Harryhausen portrayed Joe as ‘young, mischievous and unaware of his own strength.’ To bring those character traits across, Harryhausen invested Joe with human qualities. ‘If there is one thing that working on Joe taught me, it is that you have to inject something of yourself into a creature. Some of those “personal touches” were from my own character, others were from movies I had seen, some from observation and some from acting classes.’
This was Harryhausen’s favourite scene in Mighty Joe Young. It was also the special effects sequence of which Harryhausen was ‘most proud.’
One of the photographs in the album shows a young man in a jungle setting that is partially painted. The man is a camera assistant. He is holding a clapperboard that bears the name of the director of photography, J. Roy Hunt.
The physical set is small. It consists only of a façade of a hut with a fence in front. The landscape is an elaborate matte painting. The painting is applied onto a large glass plate mounted in front of the camera.
Glass paintings were expensive to produce. They needed to be painstakingly executed so as to blend in with a partial set. This was the responsibility of Hollywood veteran Fitch Fulton. Fulton, nearly seventy years old at the time, had previously worked on Gone With the Wind (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941).
Willis O’Brien watercolour drawings
The album displayed in the centre of the gallery contains a small number of original watercolour drawings by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien showed them at script meetings to producer Merian C. Cooper and director Ernest B. Schoedsack.
‘Sometimes he would make perhaps twenty of these drawings a day,’ Harryhausen recalled. ‘Obie’s continuity sketches were always a delight to behold, and it never ceased to amaze me how quickly he could produce a completely acceptable drawing.’
The tug-of-war sequence
As a ‘technical creator,’ O’Brien was mainly involved in the planning and preparation of Mighty Joe Young. Much of the animation – at least eighty per cent of it – was carried out by Harryhausen. Assistant Pete Peterson (shown elsewhere in the album with Joe) animated a few sequences, as did King Kong veteran Marcel Delgado, whose name can be found on the list of signatures also on display in this exhibition.
This photograph shows one of the acts Joe was trained to perform at the Golden Safari nightclub: a tug-of-war with a group of strongmen. The strongmen – among them former World Heavyweight Champion Primo Carnera (shown here) – were photographed as a rear projection.
The figure of Joe standing on a rock is a miniature. His movements had to be matched with those of the strongmen and the rope as he pulls the men into a pool of water.
The end of the rope that Joe clutches is also a miniature. The actual rope held by the performers disappears behind his hand.
Navigating the Display
The Mighty Joe Young Album at Aberystwyth University