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Mighty Joe Young (July 27, 1949)

Mighty Joe Young

Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

This review originally appeared last year on The Mortuary as part of The Ludovico Film Institute’s program on Ray Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young is a wonderful fantasy movie, but I doubt it would have much staying power without the special effects work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen.

At a young age, Harryhausen was influenced by the groundbreaking stop-motion effects O’Brien created for the dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925). At a slightly less young age, Harryhausen was even more bowled over by O’Brien’s work on King Kong (1933), and a lifelong obsession was born.

Harryhausen’s first professional work was a series of Puppetoons shorts for George Pal at Paramount Pictures. During World War II he worked on various short films. He also worked on commercials and an anthology short called Mother Goose Stories. But Mighty Joe Young was his first big feature film. He was working under the direction of his idol, Willis O’Brien. (In supplementary features on the DVD of Mighty Joe Young that I watched, Harryhausen affectionately refers to him as “Obi.”) O’Brien did all of the continuity sketches, but the majority of the painstaking stop-motion animation was carried out by Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young armature

In reality, Mighty Joe Young was a metal armature with hinges and ball-and-socket joints covered with rubber and fur. But on screen, he is a living, breathing creature with emotions that are as easy for the audience to understand as the most overwrought histrionics of a silent-movie actor.

For instance, watch the clip below, which shows Mighty Joe Young’s first appearance at the Golden Safari Club (which was reportedly inspired by the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles). Look at the mix of emotions on Joe’s face. Confusion. Concern for the girl he’s holding up, who is his only friend. And curiosity about all the people thronged to see him. Mixed with the music of “Beautiful Dreamer” (Joe’s favorite song), it’s a powerful moment, and it was created one frame at a time by Ray Harryhausen with metal, rubber, fur, and bits of clay for Joe’s lips and brow.

If Mighty Joe Young had been played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a gorilla suit, it just wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Mighty Joe Young is a series of grand stop-motion set pieces. Each is more spectacular than the one before it, and each tells us more about Joe’s character. When we first see him, he’s a ferocious beast, smashing open a lion’s cage. His ferocity remains formidable, but we grow more sympathetic to him as we begin to see his noble heart. Not to mention the fact that he’s mistreated by humans in infuriating ways.

The human protagonists of the film aren’t nearly as interesting as Joe, but they all give good performances.

Robert Armstrong plays Max O’Hara, the blustery Hollywood producer who brings Mighty Joe Young to America. It’s a very similar role to that of Carl Denham, who Armstrong portrayed in both King Kong (1933) and Son of Kong (1933), both of which — like Mighty Joe Young — were directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

According to Harryhausen, writer Ruth Rose patterned the character of Max O’Hara on producer Merian C. Cooper, who always wanted things “bigger!”

Moore and Joe on stage

Terry Moore plays Joe’s oldest human friend, Jill Young, a white girl who grew up in Africa on her father’s farm. She purchased Joe from two natives when he was still an infant. (She was lonely and had no one to play with.) In many ways, Jill is as much of an outsider in America as Joe is.

Film fans today probably know Ben Johnson best from his work with Sam Peckinpah — he appeared in Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Junior Bonner (1972), and The Getaway (1972). Or possibly they know him as “Sam the Lion” in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) or as G-man Melvin Purvis in John Milius’s Dillinger (1973). If you’re a horror fan, you might know him from Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) or Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980).

In Mighty Joe Young, Johnson plays Gregg, an Oklahoma ranch hand and rodeo rider, which is exactly what Johnson was in real life. He’s a little wooden, but his authenticity makes up for it. Johnson had bit parts in a bunch of films before Mighty Joe Young, but this was his first leading role, and the first time he had his name in the credits.

Moore and Johnson

Mighty Joe Young won one Oscar at the 22nd Academy Awards, for best visual effects.

Despite Harryhausen’s spectacular special effects, Mighty Joe Young was a box-office disappointment at the time of its release, and plans for a possible sequel, in which Joe would team up with RKO’s other hot jungle property — Tarzan (at this point played by Lex Barker), were scrapped.

But it was just the beginning for Harryhausen.

Mighty Joe Young will be shown on TCM on February 24, 2014.

The Boy With Green Hair (Nov. 16, 1948)

The Boy With Green Hair

The Boy With Green Hair (1948)
Directed by Joseph Losey
RKO Radio Pictures

If you only know Dean Stockwell as the craggy character actor who appeared in TV shows like Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica, it might be hard to believe that he was ever an adorable little 12-year-old boy.

Well, he was. Even with a shaved head, which is how he first appears in The Boy With Green Hair, in the 1940s Stockwell was cuter than a barrel of baby pandas.

The Boy With Green Hair was Joseph Losey’s first feature-length film. It’s a lovely little Technicolor parable that opens with the song “Nature Boy.” (You know, the one about “a very strange, enchanted boy”?) Nat King Cole’s recording of the tune was a big hit in 1948, and was the #1 single in the United States for seven weeks. The melody of the song recurs throughout the film.

It’s the story of a boy named Peter Fry (Stockwell), whose parents are dead, but no one seems to want to tell him. He’s shuttled around from home to home, always carrying a letter to show his foster parents (who he refers to as his “aunts and uncles”), although he’s not aware of the contents.

Eventually he settles down with “Gramp,” a former vaudevillian and magician (and current singing waiter) played by likeable old Irishman Pat O’Brien.

Peter thrives under Gramp’s care, feeling good enough about life that he no longer has to sleep with a baseball bat (though he keeps it on the floor next to him just in case). One day, however, his school holds a charity drive for war orphans. As Peter stands in front of a poster with a black and white photograph of an “Unidentified War Orphan,” he’s forced to confront the truth about his parents. They died in the London Blitz, and Peter can no longer deny the horrors of war. All of a sudden, war orphans aren’t just “over there,” they are right here, and he is one of them.

O'Brien and Stockwell

Not long after this revelation, he wakes up one morning with bright green hair. Punks with brightly dyed hair turned heads in the 1970s, and it was even more unheard of in the 1940s. Peter is instantly ostracized by people who happily tousled his hair when it was brown. His teacher, Miss Brand (Barbara Hale), tries to make him feel OK about his condition. He may be the only kid in class with green hair, but there’s also only one boy who has red hair. But nothing stops the bullying and name-calling. The world is cruel to those who are different.

The Boy With Green Hair is told in flashback, as Peter sits in a police station with a shaved head, telling his story to kindly child psychologist Dr. Evans (Robert Ryan). The message of the film might seem simple, but Losey’s direction and Stockwell’s assured performance elevate it to something haunting and strange that can’t be boiled down to a single slogan. It’s a movie that tells a serious, allegorical story about a child that other children can understand.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Aug. 11, 1948)

Mr. Peabody and the MermaidIrving Pichel’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is an enchanting little fantasy that’s perfect for chasing away the winter doldrums.

This movie is an old favorite of mine. I first saw it on TV when I was a kid and absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun to revisit, and was just as charming and funny as I remember.

Mr. Arthur Peabody (William Powell) is a dignified Bostonian on the verge of turning 50, that dreaded age that says, “if you’re not already having a midlife crisis, you’d better start now.” Mr. Peabody and his slightly younger wife, Mrs. Polly Peabody (Irene Hervey), go on vacation to the British Caribbean (now commonly referred to as the British Virgin Islands), and Mr. Peabody has a life-changing experience. While out fishing, he hooks a mermaid.

The mermaid is played by the beautiful and doll-like Ann Blyth. She’s listed in the credits as just “Mermaid,” but in the film, Mr. Peabody decides her name is “Lenore.”

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is book-ended by scenes of Mr. Peabody talking to a psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey (Art Smith). No one but Peabody ever sees the mermaid, so naturally his wife and everyone else all assume that he’s crazy.

The film is coy about Lenore’s existence, but she does seem to exist in physical reality. Mrs. Peabody see the mermaid’s fins sticking out of a bubble bath and scolds her husband for cleaning a fish in the tub. The mermaid also spits water on a man before darting back into the water, and when a woman whom the mermaid considers a rival for Mr. Peabody’s affection goes swimming, the mermaid bites her on the leg.

But there’s still a sense of unreality about “Lenore,” and not just because she’s a mythical creature. Lenore never speaks, but seems to understand everything Mr. Peabody says to her, and adores him. She’s his middle-aged fantasy come to achingly beautiful life.

There are parallel stories about Mrs. Peabody’s flirtation with a handsome chap, Major Hadley (Hugh French), and the beautiful adventuress, Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), who sets her sights on Mr. Peabody. The film wrings a lot of humor out of this situation, as Mrs. Peabody thinks Mr. Peabody is dallying with Miss Livingston while in fact he’s trying to keep the mermaid’s existence secret while planning on running away with her to the Florida Keys.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is a lovely escapist fantasy, and is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon. Highly recommended, especially if you’re sick of cold weather and aren’t going on vacation anytime soon.

Blyth and Powell

Sinbad the Sailor (Jan. 17, 1947)

Sinbad the Sailor was the first film Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made after a decorated career serving in the Navy during World War II. The son of one of the most famous swashbucklers in Hollywood history, Fairbanks cuts a dashing figure in Richard Wallace’s overlong Orientalist fantasy, but there’s too much talk and too little excitement to recommend it to casual viewers.

I have fond memories of Nathan Juran’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which I saw on the big screen as a kid in the early ’80s. I don’t remember a lot about the lead performance by Kerwin Mathews, or how good the story was, but Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects blew me away. Sinbad the Sailor, on the other hand, has no wild monstrosities like the cyclops or the cobra woman. (A mynah bird on a string is the most memorable special effect, and it’s a bad one.) Instead it has fairly grown-up dialogue and a feisty romance between Sinbad (Fairbanks) and Shireen (a Kurdish woman improbably played by Maureen O’Hara).

Fairbanks plays Sinbad in a grand, theatrical style, with lots of balletic movements and arm sweeps. The Sinbad of Sinbad the Sailor is a braggart and raconteur who begins the film by promising to tell his rapt crew of his legendary “eighth voyage” — the one that never made it into the history books. It involves his quest for the lost treasure of Alexander the Great, hidden on the mysterious isle of Daryabar. He’s accompanied by his faithful (and comical) sidekick Abbu (George Tobias), a fat, effeminate cook named Melik (Walter Slezak), and a crew of roughneck sailors led by a brute named Yusuf (played by Mike Mazurki, of all people). Opposing him is the evil Emir (Anthony Quinn), who wants the treasure and the beautiful Shireen for himself.

RKO intended Sinbad the Sailor to be their big film of the 1946 Christmas season, but a strike at the Technicolor processing plant delayed its release. (A problem that plagued David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, as well.) Instead, they dumped a little black and white movie called It’s a Wonderful Life into theaters. Oh well.

This was the first Douglas Fairbanks Jr. film I’ve seen, and while it wasn’t bad, it didn’t blow me away. (I’ve only seen one of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s films — the 1926 two-strip Technicolor adventure film The Black Pirate — and that one did blow me away.) Fairbanks channels his dad in a couple of action scenes in which he leaps from rooftop to rooftop, swings from balconies, somersaults through descending gates, and trips up legions of the Emir’s palace guards. The action sequences are good, but there are too few of them for a film that’s almost two hours long.

The lead actors are all good (I especially liked Anthony Quinn as Sinbad’s handsome antagonist), but the Arabian Nights-inspired sets are chintzy and the script is talky and repetitive. I didn’t hate Sinbad the Sailor, but I was looking at my watch a lot during the final 45 minutes.

A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71″ (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).

La Belle et la Bête (Oct. 29, 1946)

Jean Cocteau began filming La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) almost immediately after the end of the Nazi occupation of France. It wasn’t a quick or an easy shoot. Cocteau had to contend with limited film stock of varying quality, cameras that jammed, aircraft flying overhead that ruined the sound, and the general disarray of post-war France.

The 56-year-old Cocteau was a well-known writer, poet, visual artist, and director of avant-garde films, but this was his first foray into mainstream filmmaking. It begins with an exhortation to audiences to remember what it is to be a child, and to experience magic without the jaundiced eyes of an adult.

This is probably a direct reaction to the critics (most notably Jean-Paul Sartre) who felt that Cocteau was not political enough. Cocteau’s only allegiance in life was to art, and it is appropriate that he made this film as a reaction to critics, since it’s one of the most beautiful and magical pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. His plea to audiences that opens the film seems unnecessary. This is a film that speaks for itself.

In adapting the 18th-century fairy tale, Cocteau used a lot of the same techniques he used when he made his experimental 1930 film Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet); simple special effects, an obsession with mirrors, statues that come to life, and tricks of speed and perspective.

As in the original story (most famously written by Mme Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756, although she didn’t create the tale), Belle (played by Josette Day) lives with her merchant father (Marcel André) and her two nasty, selfish sisters, here named Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). Cocteau added two male characters, Belle’s brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and her handsome but shallow suitor, Avenant (Jean Marais).

The domestic scenes in the film are designed and lighted to look like paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. The characters all wear 17th-century costumes, and the interiors are beautiful to look at, even though the human drama is stifling and petty. Félicie and Adélaïde bicker and ridicule Belle, and are indifferent to their father’s rising debts. Meanwhile, Ludovic and Avenant avoid all responsibility and are only interested in the pursuit of leisure.

When Belle’s father rides off into the woods, the mood of the film dramatically shifts. Using a combination of real parks and woodlands with studio sets, Cocteau creates a magical fairy-tale world directly based on 19th-century engravings by Gustave Doré.

When Belle’s father first enters la Bête’s castle — revealed when a gate of tree branches magically parts — his shadow moves against the castle entrance even though he is standing still. Once inside, candelabras held by human arms mounted into the wall magically spring to light. It doesn’t matter that you can see wires holding the candelabras aloft; the simple but painstaking special effects are still breathtaking. When Belle’s father sits down in the banquet hall, sculptures of human faces on the mantel of the fireplace are actually the faces of human actors covered with soot, their bright eyes the only thing about them that looks alive as smoke pours out of their nostrils.

This delineation between fantasy and reality continues throughout the film. When Belle enters the castle to fulfill the punishment meted out to her father for picking one of la Bête’s white flowers, she floats through long corridors full of billowing white curtains in dreamy slow-motion. There are doors and mirrors that speak to her, and a bed with a white fur spread that slithers open. The special effects are simple, and a lot of them are done “in the can” by simply reversing the film.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Disney’s 1991 version of this fairy tale, but that film bears an enormous debt to Cocteau’s version. Everything from the look of the beast to the costumes, set design, and subplot about Belle’s jealous suitor are lifted directly from this film. While the Disney version is perfectly competent, it doesn’t have the otherworldly power of Cocteau’s vision. La Bête, in particular, is less cuddly and more uncanny here. He’s played by Jean Marais, who also plays Belle’s suitor, Avenant, which would be distracting if he wasn’t completely unrecognizable under the heavy makeup and mountains of hair. Marais plays la Bête as a noble, leonine creature with a deep nasal monotone. Unlike the lovable furball of the Disney film, there are a few moments in which he is truly frightening; appearing as if by magic when Belle’s father picks a flower, drinking from a brook on all fours like an animal, or standing over the carcass of a deer that he has mutilated.

Given that Cocteau was gay and Marais was his longtime lover, it’s tempting to read a lot into this film. For Freudian readings of heterosexual power dynamics and the vagaries of lust, the Beauty and the Beast myth is second perhaps only to the story of Bluebeard. Are all men beasts who must stifle bloodthirsty and rapacious urges in order to be with women? Did Cocteau, who had begun to suffer from painful eczema, feel like a beast himself?

All theories are welcome, but I prefer to heed Cocteau’s advice in the preface and take this magical film at face value.

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