Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 1949. Argosy Pictures, ARKO. Story by Merian C. Cooper, Screenplay by Ruth Rose. Cinematography by J. Roy Hunt. Produced by Merian C. Cooper. Music by Roy Webb. Production Design by James Basevi. Costume Design by Adele Balkan. Film Editing by Ted Cheesman. Academy Awards 1949.
Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack bring another tale of a giant gorilla to the big screen, taking advantage of the progress of visual effects technology since their classic King Kong became one of the most iconic movies in history. They also play up the sentimentality and dial down the ironic pathos in their desire to appeal to the post-war suburban crowd, an effort that the film’s poor box-office record shows was for naught. It’s a twee but enjoyable tale of a young woman (Terry Moore, whose emphasis on widening her eyes rivals the title character for the most outrageous visual effect in the film) who adopts a baby gorilla and raises it to be her sweet and gentle giant of a pet. When a greedy theatrical producer convinces her to bring her beloved Joe to Los Angeles, she agrees because she wants to see the world outside her native African home, but exposing Joe to the cruelty of the civilized world leads to disaster. Performing her gimmicky tricks with him in a nightclub makes Moore feels guilty about taking this free animal and forcing him to perform, and then when drunken audience members treat him cruelly, it sets in motion a magnificent level of destruction that gets our primate hero in trouble with the law. The human element is not particularly captivating, there’s no Fay Wray-level connection in this one, but it is awe-inspiring to see just how much of the film’s ninety minute running time is devoted to special effects considering the painstaking effort that was obviously put into creating them. The stop-motion animation isn’t state of the art today but Joe still comes across as an actual character thanks to the efforts of the great Ray Harryhausen, here working on his first feature film. The plot finds some terrific and creative ways to show off the crew’s technical prowess, such as a ridiculous stunt in which the gorilla holds up a platform upon which Moore is playing piano; the narrative eventually feels like a mundane television episode, but the destruction of the club sequence is magnificent, followed by an amazing rescue at a burning orphanage. Remade to great effect in 1998.