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Monday, July 19, 2010

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 (Path├ęcolor), 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.


Blogger Dugan said...

Your posts as usual make me smile and think back to another time. I had both the Gold Key and Classics Illustrated comics for "First Men In the Moon." Your reference to "Bon Voyage" flashed me back to my mother dropping us off at the Empire theater in downtown Minot, ND to see the latest Disney film and get us out of her hair for a couple of hours. I remember that film being a total dog. Disney didn't even have enough sense to throw in a stupid slapstick chase to keep the kids happy.

Unfortunately the only Harryhausen film I ever saw in the theater was "Sinbad And The Eye Of the Tiger" one of his few real disappointments.
But I always thought his films played really well on TV.


11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a special place in my heart for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and the non-Harryhausen fantasy JACK THE GIANT KILLER... I saw them at a time when I could still experience wonder and magic, when all things seemed possible. CGI is not art; it lacks the "fingerprints in the clay" of its master; it is just typing on a keyboard and moving a mouse on a pad.

1:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Fingerprints in the clay ... I like that.

1:36 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson sent along some interesting e-mail observations about Ray Harryhausen:

The Harryhausen films, even the weakest, always managed to look and sound better than a lot of more expensive films. Even when they had to kill a lot of time between effects sequences, they usually offered something more interesting than the soap operas that figure in most such films (Rich monster hunter and rugged guide clash over professor's perky niece while sidekick with accent gets eaten off camera).

While Harryhausen definitely shaped every step of his productions (Did he do ANY work-for-hire after "Mighty Joe Young"?), producer Charles Schneer probably deserves credit for helping hide the budget limitations and evidently minimizing interference. The basic deal seemed to be that Schneer would scare up production money and sell a completed film to Columbia or whoever. Studio execs weren't looking at the script and suggesting a cockney street urchin stow away to the moon ("We can get you Moochie!") or arriving on set and messing with Harryhausen's delicately planned shots.

Only in recent years did I finally see "Jack the Giant Killer," and found myself wishing Harryhausen had done it (or some other actual fairy tale). The animation and effects were respectable enough, but non-effects parts were clunky in a way the Harrryhausen films never were.

The final Sinbads and "Clash of the Titans" showed creeping clunkiness, perhaps because suits were now interested enough to butt in. "Clash" especially was marketed as an A film and loaded with special guest deities at least as distracting as the owl, so you know Harryhausen had to Take Some Meetings, Planning-Wise.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Who among us does not enjoy Bubo the Owl? The little dude plays a key role in defeating the Kraken, as I recall. He's like Toto with wings and without the annoying yap.

10:33 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Until I read this, I had no idea "First Men in the Moon" was a Harryhausen movie. What a thrill it was to watch that on its original release at the Paramount theatre -- which, alas, was torn down decades ago.

I ran "Jason & the Argonauts" for my daughter when she was eight or nine. She loved it -- even the Bernard Hermann score. A kid with good taste.

6:18 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I was one of the "lucky ones" who actually saw "The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad" in 1958 whe it was brand-spankin' new. I was 6 years old at the time and my Grandfather took me to see it at the old "Roxy Theater" (now LONG gone ) in Whittier, CA. I didn't have a CLUE as to how the monsters (Ray calls them "creatures"...) were created, but I was DEFINITELY impressed and awed by the combination of Harryhausen's magic and Bernard Herrmann's wizardry as well. I also saw "Gulliver" as well as "Mysterious Island" (which holds the record, in my memory, of having the longest line I've ever seen to get in to see a theatrical feature. Kids were EVERYWHERE!!) at the cinema when they were new also. BUT, for some reason (and I still haven't figured out just what it was...) I MISSED "Jason" and "First Men" on their initial theatrical runs.....much to my everlasting regret. I think the ONLY Harryhausen featrures that I HAVEN'T seen on a big screen are "It Came From Beneath The Sea" and "First Men in The Moon"....I'm sure that, one day I will....but in the meantime I certainly HOPE for a blu-ray release of Harryhausen's ONLY "Panavision" feature "First Men".......all of his fims are just wonderful and I'm now introducing MY Grandsons to them (after my Sons grew up on them, of course...), and I find that, even with my large collection of home-video releases, I keep "going back" to certain films again and again and Harryhausen's films are at the top of that list.....


7:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I, too, saw SINBAD in 1958 at the Playhouse Theatre, Statesville, N.C.

In the lobby was a full-size boat with a sign that read, "SINBAD will sail in this boat on his eighth voyage. In the meantime, visit ADAM'S SPORTING GOODS for all your fishing needs."

I waited for that eighth voyage, but...

9:04 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I've probably said this here before in reference to Kong, but... for me what makes these films special is a certain sense that the creatures aren't in fact 18 feet tall, but rather, toys come to life. I'm convinced that our inner three year old delights in this, delights in seeing our toys start swatting adults about, in a way that the more convincing and realistic CGI effects never will produce.

Happy to say, my kids love these movies, too. Though for my money the best constructed one, the one that works best as a movie for all ages, is Mysterious Island (it also had the best director, probably not coincidentally). But Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is up there with The Adventures of Robin Hood in the pantheon of Movies Beyond Criticism.

4:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon sent along some interesting thoughts on Ray Harryhausen and "First Men IN The Moon":

Your "First Men IN the Moon" piece is superb, a perfect tribute to Ray Harryhausen in his time and in ours (i.e., "today".) And the comments elicited are great, too. I liked the one by the guy who said CGI is not an art. I think he's wrong, but to the extent that it seems so far impossible for CGI to have any personality almost whatsoever, he's right. And if he is right, then CGI is a highly-specialized, and I daresay much more demanding than it appears to be craft. Nothing wrong with a craft. I always used to enjoy all those films they'd make for kids to see, which were popular on early TV and even shown in classrooms sometimes, about bakers baking, plaster workers, men working on assembly lines, blacksmiths, etc. I think of what I did for so many years, makeup and its allied work done in a so-called 'laboratory' (I never understood why or when that term was adopted for what was much, much more similar to typical 'art studio' activities) as more craft than 'art'. Art must among other things include that will o' the wisp, personality. Individuality, if you prefer. I'm certain that's what your reader is getting at, and I couldn't agree more with him. Ray Harryhausen not only pushed stop-motion animation into new and exciting areas, but did it with flair and abundant personality. It was not, in my opinion, EVER simply the fact of dimensionality that made his creatures remarkable and memorable, although that was certainly a lot of it, but rather their overpowering----and only in a good way!-----distinction as characters. And, did they ever make an impression on our generation, most definitely including former attendees of Saturday matinees made unforgettable by Ray Harryhausen. What is the evil, titular 'Gremlin' in the Joe Dante farce of 1984, if not Ray's Ymir with a different head? Ray's influence is huge, and the most impressive thing to me is that you could detect his style even in creatures directly modeled from nature, such as the big crab and the big bird in "Mysterious Island"----or, you convinced yourself you could! As an adult, sometimes lucky to be enabled to design something for movies myself, I had to force myself not to ape Ray Harryhausen!

4:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

More from Craig Reardon about Harryhausen and unique qualities of his work:

The proof of Harryhausen's influence is palpable in the subsequent design of later movie monsters, so many of which bear the imprint of his original inspiration----often obviously-so.

Then there is the aspect of movement itself, and movement is an art, or we would not watch actors, we'd merely listen to them; nor would we appreciate dance. Ray's marvelous sense of pantomime, which is acting of a very high caliber lacking merely speech, was equally so influential that it was unconsciously copied by stop motion animators and probably computer animators as well, and often these attempts fall short of their original model, particularly in leaving a distinct impression. It's literally like watching a dance routine in an old movie musical----there may be a lot of guys out there doing terrific work in synchronization, but----they're not Fred Astaire, they're not Gene Kelly. Animators know that in most of their work, they're the boys in the chorus, they're not Kelly or Astaire----that was Ray Harryhausen.

If I could get 'em all in one room, I'd address them thusly: "Let's face it, my boys: Ray Harryhausen WAS 'Talos'....and we're all just puny 'Argonauts'! And he's never really been toppled; there was never any drain plug on HIS heel!"

Too, the time and the movies were perfect for one another. As you rightly say, the absence of anything comparable in addition to their inherent excellence made these films unforgettable. I remember seeing "In Search of the Castaways" around the time of "Mysterious Island"----which I had not seen. It slipped through my fingers in 1961. When I finally saw it, it was SO much better than the otherwise excellent Disney film that I couldn't believe it. When I saw "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" sometime in the '60s in reissue, I was likewise even more impressed that the Schneer-Harryhausen Verne looked MORE impressive and expensive (except in regards to the magnificent Harper Goff-designed Nautilus), and even its cast of lesser lights held their own----particularly Craig, Lom, and Merrill----even with the high-voltage likes of Douglas and Mason. The borderline outrage is that these astonishing films, made for relatively nothing, were not received with any more enthusiasm from critics, who imagine they know everything, but frequently earn a 'fail' in the annals of posterity for their lousy calls. Yet, had he not been blessed with the longevity he's enjoyed, Ray might never have known how much his work enthralled so many and that he'd been an inadvertent Pied Piper leading a lot of ragtag kids, vs. rats (!), into his profession and even into producing and directing.

4:47 PM  
Blogger J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for this,'First Men' was the first Harryhausen movie I saw, on the weekly Sunday afternoon monster movie show. I was about 4 or 5,it made me a fan of sci-fi/monster movies for life!

Re:CGI vs. Stop Motion,the best term I've heard to describe the movement of Harryhausen's creatures is "mystical". I wish I could remember who said that(maybe Ebert?),but it's true. Nothing "mystical" about CGI.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening of 'Jason' in 2006 at Richmond's Byrd Theater movie palace,Harryhausen introduced the film and came off as a very nice guy. When the film was over,he received a standing ovation.

5:03 PM  

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