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Mighty Joe Young (a.k.a. Mr. Joseph Young of Africa and The Great Joe Young) is a 1949 American black-and-white fantasy film from RKO Radio Pictures made by the same creative team responsible for King Kong (1933). Produced by Merian C. Cooper, who wrote the story, and Ruth Rose who wrote the screenplay, the film was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and stars Robert Armstrong (who appears in both films), Terry Moore, and Ben Johnson in his first credited screen role.
Mighty Joe Young tells the story of a young woman, Jill Young, living on her father’s ranch in Africa, who has raised the title character, a giant gorilla, from an infant and years later brings him to Hollywood seeking her fortune so she can save the family homestead.
In 1937 Tanganyika Territory, Africa, eight-year-old Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel) is living with her father on his ranch. While in her yard, two Africans come by with an orphaned baby gorilla; Jill so wants a pet that she trades her toys and money for him, vowing to always care for the gorilla.
Twelve years later, Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) and sidekick Gregg (Ben Johnson) are on a trip to Africa looking for animals to headline in O’Hara’s new Hollywood nightclub. The two men have captured several lions and are about to leave Tanganyika Territory when gorilla Joe Young appears, now 12 feet (3.7 m) tall and weighing 2,000 pounds (910 kg). When a caged lion bites Joe’s fingers, he goes on a rampage. Visualizing Joe as their big nightclub attraction, Max and Gregg try to rope him, but he throws both men from their horses and breaks free of their ropes. A grown Jill Young (Terry Moore) arrives, calming Joe down. She is furious with both men and storms off with Joe.
Both later meet with Jill, while Gregg becomes hopelessly smitten with her. Having now calmed down, Jill hears out Max’s nightclub proposal, as Gregg tries to dissuade her. Max tells her that she and Joe will be a huge Hollywood hit and will be rich within weeks. Needing the proffered income, she decides she must take Joe to Hollywood.
On the crowded opening night, Joe makes his first onstage appearance, lifting a large platform with a piano above his head while Jill plays it. Joe then has a tug-of-war with “the 10 strongest men in the world”, which he easily wins. Heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera then tries to box with Joe, but Joe playfully tosses the famous boxer into the audience, followed by laughter.
Joe’s popularity grows, and by the 10th week he is Hollywood’s biggest nightclub attraction. But Joe and Jill are beginning to miss their African home; Jill tells Max and Gregg that she is having second thoughts. Gregg tries to convince Max to let them go home but, thinking only about more profit, he is able to glibly forestall her leaving.
By the 17th week, Joe is miserable; he has grown tired of performing and is homesick. To make matters worse, his next act is a humiliating performance playing an organ grinder‘s monkey with Jill, acting as a little girl, turning the handle. When a thrown bottle strikes Joe, he becomes angry, roaring at the crowd while Jill shouts for the audience to stop. Later, during dinner, Gregg and Jill express their feelings for one another, with Gregg agreeing to return with her to Africa.
In his cage an unhappy Joe tries to ignore three drunks who have sneaked backstage; they offer Joe an open whiskey bottle, and he becomes intoxicated after two more open bottles are offered. Thinking it now safe to taunt him, the drunks burn Joe’s fingers with a cigarette lighter. Roaring with pain and rage, he breaks out, smashing through a nearby wall, then wrecking the nightclub’s interior. He also smashes the glass of the lion habitat, allowing the lions to escape into the crowded nightclub, where Joe kills several of them. Jill and Gregg return and find the nightclub in chaos. Jill manages to get Joe back to his cage, while arriving police shoot the remaining lions.
A court decree orders Joe to be destroyed, and Jill’s pleas to save him are denied. Gregg, O’Hara, and Jill devise a plan to get Joe out of California using a moving van, then a cargo ship. When Joe’s executioners arrive to put him down, they find his cage empty and themselves locked inside the nightclub. As the van is leaving, Joe is spotted by an itinerant worker, who later informs the authorities. On the way to the ship, police spot the moving van and give chase. But Joe has been cleverly transferred to a covered truck, and the moving van, driven by Max, is just a decoy. The police eventually stop the van and arrest Max.
Driven by Gregg and carrying Joe and Jill, the truck gets stuck in heavy mud. With Jill’s encouragement, Joe pushes the truck free, and the police then get stuck in the same mud as the truck drives away. Before reaching port and the cargo ship, they come upon a burning, multistory orphanage engulfed in flames.
Jill and Gregg help the caretakers save the children. They act fast and most of the children are saved, but the flames spread quickly, and a last group, along with Jill and Gregg, are suddenly trapped on the top story. At Jill’s urging, Joe braves the raging fire by climbing an adjacent tall tree, carrying Jill to safety, while Gregg lowers each child by rope to the ground. One child is left behind, so Joe climbs up again, grabbing the little girl, then he and Gregg climb down; an orphanage wall collapses as they near the ground, almost killing Joe and the little girl. Max assures Jill that, because of Joe’s heroism, his life will now be spared.
Much later, Max receives home movies from his friends, letting the audience know that Jill and Gregg, now married and living on their ranch with Joe, made it safely back to Africa. Joe waves “Goodbye”, along with Jill and Gregg, to Max.