Second Reel

Women, Gorillas, and De-Evolution: Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Plot Summary

As a small child, Jill Young, a white girl living on her widower father's ranch in Africa, one day trades her father's flashlight for a baby gorilla carried on the backs of two passing African men who refuse Jill's initial trade offer of jewelry. She names the gorilla Joe and convinces her concerned father to let her keep the pet.

Twelve years later, in New York, producer Max O'Hara is making plans to open a safari-themed nightclub in Hollywood. As a publicity stunt, he decides to take a group of cowboys to Africa — a group which includes champion roper Gregg Johnson — in order to capture lions to use in his nightclub.

In Africa at their campsite, O'Hara, Gregg, and their English guide Crawford are sitting in a tent discussing the day's events when Crawford hears a roaring noise offscreen. He seems to recognize the sound, but is stunned to hear it in that region. He rushes out of the tent, calling for someone to bring him his gun.

Gregg and O'Hara follow Crawford outside to find a very large gorilla tampering with one of the lion cages. O'Hara stops Crawford from shooting the ape, and instructs the cowboys to pursue and capture it instead. The men have a difficult time roping the gorilla, which knocks some of them off their horses before climbing up a small cliff. When O'Hara rides by, the ape reaches down, picks O'Hara off his horse, and raises him above his head. Gregg takes aim at the gorilla as Jill, now a young woman, emerges from the brush and stops Gregg from shooting. Jill instructs the gorilla, the grown Joe, to release O'Hara, which he does. Jill reprimands Gregg for trying to hurt Joe, and tells him that he is on her property. Angered, she commands Joe to lift her up to the top of the cliff and the two leave for home. O'Hara is amazed by what has just happened. "Find out where she lives," he tells Gregg. "I gotta talk to her!"

Gregg finds Jill at home. He apologizes for the previous incident, and Jill explains that Joe wouldn't have hurt anyone if he had been treated properly. She explains that she doesn't own Joe, but that Joe lives there with her, and that he is her only friend. She explains that her father died months ago and that she runs the farm by herself. O'Hara and Crawford nervously emerge from hiding, worried that Joe will be near. Jill tells the two that she won't let Joe hurt them, invites them in, but instructs them to leave their guns outside the gate.

O'Hara is eager to bring Jill and Joe back to Hollywood to be the main act at his new nightclub. In a frenzy, he tells Jill about the fame and fancy parties that await her and asks her to sign the contract he has brought with him. Gegg and Crawford suggest he ease off and give Jill a chance to think. This annoys O'Hara, who lambasts the two for sabotaging his plans. During O'Hara's tirade, Joe appears at the front gate. Crawford and O'Hara run and hide as Joe picks a up large rock to throw at the men. Jill tells Joe to put the rock down and appeases him with some bananas. O'Hara, impressed by Jill and Joe's rapport, again emerges from hiding, determined to sign Jill. "Let me show you what the real world is like," he tells her. She signs his contract.

Back in Hollywood, O'Hara's nightclub is open for business. People are streaming into the huge building, whose large neon sign reads "Max O'Hara's Golden Safari Starring Mr. Joseph Young of Africa." Inside the club, dancers and drummers prance around jungle decor to tribal rhythms played by an orchestra. Patrons sip drinks while watching lions kept behind glass in back of the bar. Everyone is talking about the enormous spectacle of the place, and everyone is wondering "Who is Mr. Joseph Young?"

In his office, O'Hara tells the men of the press to be patient. Soon enough, he says, the show will start and all will be revealed. Gregg enters and tells O'Hara that it's show time. O'Hara, dressed in a safari outfit, heads for the stage.

On stage, O'Hara tells the audience that they are about to meet Joseph Young. First, though, he wishes them to meet his lifelong friend, Jill, whom he introduces only as "this charming young lady." "It is she alone," O'Hara tells them, "who can completely control the amazing power of the personage whose name appears in lights outside." Jill takes her seat behind a grand piano and begins playing. "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Joseph Young of Africa," O'Hara says, leaving the stage. Jill and the piano begin to rise, lifted by something hidden in darkness. With loud emphasis from the orchestra, a spotlight suddenly reveals Joe, holding Jill and the piano on a platform above his head. The crowd is startled at first, and many stand up, preparing to flee. As the act continues, though, and the music swells, they take their seats and applaud.

Later in the show, O'Hara introduces several of the world's strongest men, who engage Joe in a tug-of-war. Jill instructs Joe to pull on the rope, which he does, causing all of his opponents to fall into a pool. One of the strong men tries to hit Joe, who picks the man up and throws him into the audience. Despite that small trauma, the patrons enjoy the act and laugh at and applaud Joe.

As the weeks go by, Jill and Joe begin to feel the strain of performance. Jill is upset that Joe is locked in a cage when not on stage. Joe begins to lose his appetite. After 10 weeks, Jill can take no more. Gregg leads her to O'Hara's office to put an end to the act. Jill tells O'Hara that she and Joe are returning home to Africa. "Joe can't live in a cage," she tells him, "and neither can I." O'Hara convinces her to stay until he finds a replacement act. Seven weeks later, Jill and Joe are still headlining.

One night, after a particularly humiliating act in which Jill and Joe, dressed as an organ grinder and monkey, perform while the audience is instructed to hurl giant coins at the pair. Some patrons throw bottles, one of which hits Joe on the head. Jill screams at the audience to stop, and the curtain is dropped early.

Three drunk patrons, upset that the act ended so soon, decide to get Joe drunk. They sneak off to his cage and give him bottles of alcohol. Joe drinks them all and soon begins to feel the effects of the drink.

Meanwhile, at a Chinese restaurant, Jill tells Gregg how awful it was to be part of that night's act. She vows never to do it again, and Gregg supports her choice and tells her that he won't let O'Hara interfere with her plans to leave. Jill tells Gregg that she wants him to come home with her. She confesses her love for him and the two kiss.

Back at Joe's cage, one of the drunk men, angry that Joe has consumed all their liquor, burns Joe's hand with a cigarette lighter. The angered Joe breaks out of his cage and chases the men onstage. Joe rampages through the club, tearing off pieces of the staging and hurling them at the fleeing crowd. He breaks the glass on the lion pen and fights with several of the large cats, throwing them across the club in a terrible fit of destruction. Everything is destroyed.

Jill and Gregg return to the chaotic scene. Gregg hears sirens, and fears that the police will soon arrive and shoot Joe if he is not contained. Jill hurries through the rubble and succeeds in returning Joe to his cage before the police arrive.

Some time after the nightclub rampage, a judge rules for Joe to be shot. Jill is devastated, but O'Hara and Gregg soon tell her of their plan to sneak her and Joe out of the country before the court order can be carried out. On the night Joe is to be shot, O'Hara distracts the guard stationed at Joe's cage. Jill frees Joe and leads him outside to a truck driven by Gregg. Jill, Joe, and Gregg drive away. When the police realize that Joe is gone, they set out in pursuit.

During the chase, the three fugitives pass a burning orphanage. Jill tells Gregg to stop the truck, and the two run into the burning building to rescue some children left behind. When Jill, Gregg, and two remaining children become trapped on the roof, Joe climbs up a tree and assists by carrying Jill to safety on his back. Gregg lowers the two children to the ground with a rope, and then climbs down to safety himself. As Gregg reaches the ground, however, another child appears on the roof. Jill commands Joe to climb the tree once more and rescue the stranded child as O'Hara and the police arrive on the scene. Joe rescues the girl, and in doing so is struck and injured by falling debris. "It's alright, Kid," O'Hara tells Jill, "There's nobody in the world gonna shoot Joe now."

Months later, back in New York, O'Hara is busy planning "the greatest water show the world has ever seen." His press agent has set up a movie screen in O'Hara's office, and shows for O'Hara a home movie sent by Jill and Gregg from Africa. Jill walks into frame on the small screen, smiling. A lasso is tossed around her from offscreen, and then Gregg, holding the rope, walks into frame. "Hey! Look at that," O'Hara says, watching the movie. Joe walks into frame, startling O'Hara even as a 2-dimensional image. As Jill and Gregg kiss and wave to the camera, O'Hara says, "And they lived happily ever after!" "I sure hope so," says the press agent. "Oh they will," O'Hara assures him. "They're back home, where they belong."