Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by Ruth Rose, from an original story by Merian C. Cooper
Starring Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong, Mr. Joseph Young of Africa, Frank McHugh, Lora Lee Lichel, Primo Carnera, Charles Lane.
Technical Creator Willis H. O’Brien
First Technician Ray Harryhausen
King Kong was a milestone in film and in stop-motion animation, due to the animation of Willis H. O’Brien. It was followed by a sequel, Son of Kong, the same year, but O’Brien became disenchanted with director Ernest B. Schoedsack and even asked to have his name removed from the credits. It wasn’t until 16 years later that they worked together on a third giant ape film, Mighty Joe Young.
The movie beings in Africa, where eight year old Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel), the daughter of a rancher, trades for a baby gorilla, which she names Joe. Twelve years later, showman Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) goes to capture animals for a new African-themed night club, with Gregg (Ben Johnson), a cowboy from a wild west show, along to help gather specimens. Things are looking successful when the camp is disrupted by a giant ape: Joe Young (Mr. Joseph Young). They try to capture him but when it looks like he’s about to kill one of the crew, Jill (grown up to be Terry Moore) comes on the scene and scolds Joe until he lets the man go unharmed. Joe will do whatever she asks.
Max thinks this will be a sensation, so he persuades Jill to bring Joe to Hollywood. Things go well, at first . . .
The star of the film is Joe Young and the animation that makes him completely believable. He’s nowhere near as big as Kong – 10-20 feet tall,* but he has plenty of personality and even a humorous side. There are several set pieces – Joe’s attack on the camp, for a start – that are masterpieces of the format. O’Brian, and his young protégé, Ray Harryhausen** not only animated Joe, but fit him in superbly with live action. You have to watch very closely to see the places where live actors switch to be their stop motion counterparts.
The casting of Armstrong – who was Carl Denham, leader of the expedition, in King King – is a nice touch, and Terry Moore and Ben Johnson are appealing leads. Moore is especially nice in her reluctance as a performer and how much she hates stardom, and this was Johnson’s first noticeable role. There’s a bit of stunt casting with former heavyweight champ Primo Carnera*** plays himself going up against Joe. And character actors Frank McHugh and Charles Lane**** also showed up.
The film did not to well when originally release. It did win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but that doesn’t impress audiences, and the movie did poorly so much so that a planned sequel was never started. Schoedsack never directed another feature. O’Brien worked from time to time, but not regularly; Ray Harryhausen had eclipsed him.
The movie is a charming use of one of the most demanding techniques in film, and is worth watching for the set pieces alone.*****
*He changes size in different scenes, an effect that Schoedsack insisted on for dramatic effect.
**The two great geniuses of stop motion; Nick Park is the third. Harryhausen later claimed that he did most of the actual animation work, since O’Brien was bogged down with technical challenges.
***Carnera was billed as the tallest heavyweight champ of all time (he wasn’t) and was known for being one of the strongest champs around. He was supposedly managed by mobsters and was something of a curiosity, which continued after he lost the championship to Max Baer in 1934. Interestingly, he was heavyweight champion when King Kong was released.
****A typical Charles Lane performance of the era: three lines of dialog and not credited.
*****Disney did an undistinguished remake in 1998.