There Is Only One Ray Harryhausen
Is there any filmmaker so well regarded ... no, let's say beloved ... than Ray Harryhausen? He pioneered effects back when they were special, before monsters and spaceships became so commonplace as to dull senses. Jason and The Argonauts recently came out on Blu-Ray. Is there anything so impressive as its creatures moved one painstaking frame at a time? Much was lost when movies merged with computers. Better I think to experience the individual magician's sleight of hand. Remember when we could recognize FX artists by dinosaurs they animated? Harryhausen put boldest signature to all of his. There was no star/director team so identifiable as Ray and his marvels. The impact he had on my generation was immense ... wait, let's try a new word ... Dynamational. Did anyone ever nod off during a Harryhausen set-piece? I met him twice at shows. We all want celebrities to fit gracious expectations --- this man more than did. My first luck was an encounter not at autograph tables or a panel group, but waiting outside for cab service, which thankfully was delayed for us both. That ten or so minute chat made the whole trip for me. A second occasion gratified doubly for Harryhausen's saying he remembered me from the first. Wish I could recall what we talked about. It wasn't technical stuff because I've yet to figure out hows and wherefores of his brilliant work. That may be as well for my being able yet to gawk at his creations like I was ten (wonder how many RH fans ended up making their own stop-motion movies at home ... must be hundreds ... a lot of them ended up pros at it).
Better revise to eleven ... for that was inexcusably late age of seeing my first Harryhausen at a theatre. Fully aware of deprivation I've suffered for missing Jason and the Argonauts in 1963 (the CBS primtime run a few years later was no substitute), there's little chance my enjoyment of the Blu-Ray, considerable though it is, can equal that of age comparable fans perceptive enough to have made ways to JATA on first-run. Never mind Mysterious Island and The Three Worlds Of Gulliver. I'm still wondering how I missed those but did manage to see paltry likes of Bon Voyage and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. By the time First Men IN The Moon showed up at the Liberty, I was primed. It was Spring in fifth grade and everywhere you looked were comics and mags and paperbacks beating drums for Columbia's sci-fi blowout. There were even 8mm highlight reels in color offered through the company's home movie catalogue. Colonel Forehand gave me First Men's pressbook ahead of his playdate and inside was a herald called The Luna News (below). Headline worthy there and elsewhere was fact of a major studio booking first-class space travel during a decade when release of such had slowed to a crawl. Already I knew that Columbia's advertised Lunacolor wouldn't necessarily be good color, but in the wake of fare like The Earth Dies Screaming in B/W from the UK or The Time Travelers off AIP's economy line (Pathécolor), it was a decided step up. First Men producers made their low budget look like big money in any case, and revenues reflected a public's willingness to try on fantasy in a year not otherwise abundant in it. First Men IN The Moon realized a good-for-the-genre $887,000 in domestic rentals, with an even better foreign showing of $910,000. Certainly Columbia got behind First Men with lots more promotional enthusiasm than was put forth on behalf of Hammer films they distributed.
What troubled me about Harryhausen's films (still does) was juvenilia sprinkled there and here to relieve kids of too much stress Ray's monsters might create. The Sinbads pulled punches that way. Clash Of The Titans had, as I recall, a comical little owl (?) presumably meant to evoke memory of pace-deadening robots in the Star Wars pics. It seemed FX movies had to play by whatever set of narrative rules prevailed at the time. Jason and The Argonauts was enhanced for not bringing a kid along on its voyage. First Men IN The Moon kept integrity via a framing device so arresting that it's surprising someone hasn't used it again since. I remember hoping throughout for continued restraint upon Lionel Jeffries, his character threatening to spiral off into bufoonery but thankfully kept in reasonable check. Sad days for many came upon realization they'd outgrown Harryhausen fantasies. It was a temporary condition, however. Adulthood and appetite for nostalgia restored magic to most. I went to see The Valley Of Gwangi barely three years after First Men and thought it infantile outside RH's contribution. Even One Million Years BC, coming between them, went seemingly nowhere but for dinosaurs performing their bits. First Men IN The Moon might have been the last Harryhausen entered into with serious intent. Its writer, Nigel Kneale, had done wonderful things with sci-fi prior to this, including The Abominable Snowman and various Quatermasses. Those that label First Men best of the Harryhausens may be on to something. It's surely the most literate and thought-provoking of the lot.
Few of us seem to have lost love for Harryhausen's creations, whatever our reservations about films hosting them. Jason and The Argonauts' Blu-Ray release brought outpouring of praise for not only that one but others by RH it reminded online reviewers of. A few years ago when Ray Harryhausen received a special Academy Award, presenter Tom Hanks said flat out that Jason was The Greatest Picture Ever Made, and he wasn't being ironic. Once captivated, few turn backs on Harryhausen handiwork. There was a 1972 kiddie showing of The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad at a downtown Hickory, NC theatre during my freshman year there. I was set to go that Saturday morning and resigned to company of little kids, but lo and behold when I mentioned the show to boys on my hall, there gradually came a tide of interest in Sinbad that swelled attending numbers to pretty near everyone not doped up, hung over, or otherwise indisposed. Carolina Theatre management must have been surprised to find such a large contingent of eighteen and nineteen year olds sallying forth to watch a movie deemed more suitable for elementary ages. What I remember best about that day was how entranced we all were with dragons, Cyclops, and time-honored sword-wielding skeletons, hard-won maturity surrendered in the face of Harryhausen's magic. Now the latter's being practiced on homescreens, with RH sharing secrets among DVD extras. A surprising lot of his are available on Blu-Ray. Indeed, Harryhausen may be the best represented vintage name so far via that advanced media. Sony is at present taking votes for the next High-Def delivery. I shouldn't think it will be long before all of the Harryhausens, at least those released through Columbia, are available on Blu-Ray.