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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Little and Big Kid Shows Of Yesterday and Today --- Part One

A lot of adults who'd grown up on Ray Harryhausen films stood on line last weekend beside kids going to see Iron Man 3. Some had been there fifty-three years earlier when The Three Worlds Of Gulliver opened for Christmas, difference being 1960 crowds limited to youth and less enthusiastic parent accompaniment. An FX-laden Gulliver, carefully marketed by Columbia for the "entire family," thus rode the bobsled to post-holiday receipts that wouldn't make Variety's Annual Rentals Chart of million-dollar-or-better earners. What change in a public's taste, then, carried Iron Man 3 to $175.3 million in a first three days on 4,253 North American screens? One demographic helped explain. Seems 55% of Iron Man's viewership was above the age of 25 and 61% male, a decided "tilt toward older men," as Entertainment Weekly put it. Some of these were offspring, if not grand-offspring, of Ray Harryhausen's following. His descendents, if you will. Just as we can credit Walt Disney with continuing momentum of animated features, there is Ray to thank for record weekends Iron Men and kin enjoy.

Gulliver's Team From L to R: Director Jack Sher, Charles H. Schneer, and Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen kept multitudes from putting away childish things. He made it OK to go on admiring Sinbad and giant octopi. There was room for awe in adulthood for quality his work represented. You could be grown up and still want to make playroom monsters move just like magician Ray. If childhood had left us only The Magic Sword and Jack The Giant Killer, both imitators of the RH brand, it would have been easier to pack up youth and not look back. Remember when Tom Hanks gave Harryhausen a special Academy Award and said, Never mind Citizen Kane ... Jason and The Argonauts is the Greatest Movie Ever Made. Nobody laughed or thought him infantile, Jason by then representing a mythology as persuasive as that it dramatized. RH was a behind-camera Zeus for 1963 watchers and ones to come.

Harryhausen got respect for modeling by hand, then moving results a same precise way, even as progress (but was it?) eclipsed him during a Star Wars era. He retired (in 1984) after Dynamation, Super or otherwise, went past sell-by date, but had satisfaction knowing his were the last special effects driven by a singular personality. Blue-screens would be vacant and soulless from there. Friend Ray Bradbury recalled 1948's The Fountainhead being a favorite of Harryhausen; his identifying with the story's Howard Roark made sense. Retirement was a gift to Ray's legion, a thirty-year ongoing outreach to thousands plus a successor crop of effect wizards. He was by all account the kindliest and most accessible of major fantasy names, having earned first credits at precisely a right moment for dinosaurs on theatrical loose and children who'd thrill to seeing them. As with still-among-us Christopher Lee, Ray's army would never stand down, the two ranking top among venerable names genre fans dreamed to interface with. Never aloof as Sir Chris sometimes seemed, Harryhausen even took lunch on frequent basis with followers when in Southern Cal.

The disrupt that was Star Wars, plus imitators, rendered stop-motion quaint by then-comparison, just as SW would itself get the heave from CGI (query to experts: Do early CGI pix look as primitive beside what's being done today? I'd check myself but for painful sit through 90's stuff). What Star Wars and sci-fi's comeback did achieve was hospitality at theatres for Harryhausen stock going back to The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, it plus Jason and The Argonauts getting big screen play as result of that and success of newer Sinbads (Golden Voyage and Eye Of The Tiger, 1973 and '77, respectively). The Harryhausens weren't alone in benefiting from the boom, Paramount reviving ancients War Of The Worlds and When Worlds Collide as a combo, while Universal debased 3D classics It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From The Black Lagoon via single-strip red/green presentation.

The Harryhausens rode highest in a 50's market where appetite for king-size monsters had been quenched by revival of King Kong and little else. To said deprivation came RH with table-top giants that were a first to equal Willis O' Brien creations. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was stunning proof that prehistory (or creatures escaped therefrom) could be staged for a price and sold at profit. It Came From Beneath The Sea and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, each good for $1.1 million in domestic rentals, showed Beast's bounty to be no fluke. Columbia was the dealer, each roll so far a greater gamble that paid. 1958's The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad took a Variety-estimated $3.2 million in domestic rentals (producer Charles Schneer boasted of six million on total worldwide rentals). Christmas holiday opening seemed the trick to exploitation of these, a wider target being parents who'd attend rather than drop-off youngsters as was case with monster pix. Would families be attracted to Technicolor, romance, and costuming under Yule trees to follow? The Three Worlds Of Gulliver for 1960 (Three as "3" in ads) would determine if Sinbad holiday lightning could strike twice.

Check out also Greenbriar's There Is Only One Ray Harryhausen from July 2010, and Part Two of Gulliver HERE.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had a black and white 16mm print of Ray Harryhausen's puppet RED RIDING HOOD. A television company needed footage of RED RIDING HOOD, preferably, they said, from a silent film.

They liked Harryhausen's film. "How much?" they asked. "Can't sell it to you, it is not mine," I told them.

Then I got hold of Ray Harryhausen through Forrest J Ackerman. He was thrilled. I got him a thousand dollars for it "How much do you want for getting me this," he asked.

"Nothing. You have already given me more than enough through your work," I told him.

It was a nice way, provided purely by chance, to say thank you to him.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Where SINBAD succeeded, GULLIVER failed this then-youthful movie-goer.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"Do early CGI pix look as primitive beside what's being done today?"

I don't know, but I strongly suspect some of the weaker stuff in Jurassic Park having been redone for the recent 3-D reissue. I remember thinking of certain things then (like the stampeding herbivores) having a slightly washed-out, insubstantial look that's gone now.

4:34 PM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

Ray's stuff was marvelously designed (he was the defacto art director for his films) and they were a lot of fun as movies. They may have a bit of a revival in later years as folks get tired of CGI overload.

JURASSIC PARK holds up pretty well even though some of the seams are now visible to viewers. The MATRIX films, on the other hand, look quite primitive even though they were bigger productions than JURASSIC PARK.

It's a matter of design and film making more than technology. The most dated thing about films from the early 2000s will be the electronic game influenced visual style. I'm willing to bet folks will go on about "primitive digital equipment not being up to normal-contrast, natural-looking color, and odd over-all tints. The idea that they worked hard to achieve that look will be forgotten.

Spencer Gill (

1:12 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I remember standing in a l-o-n-g line of ansty kids snaked around the block waiting for an afternoon matinee. At the time, I knew from nuthin' about Sinbad, giant octopi or crashing flying saucers, and when I sat down in that Northport Long Island theater all I expected was what I was promised, a movie with giants and pixies starring a man with a first name that sounded like my last name. And it all looked pretty good to me for seventy minutes or so. Then Gulliver faced off with that baby alligator and wham! I was transfixed! This was magic! It wouldn't be until ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (the movie, not the year) before I saw another Harryhausen epic on the big screen, but I made damn sure I saw all his stuff on TV. Remember that run of three or four years when CBS ran one of Ray's multi-monster epics every Thanksgiving night? A very big deal in our household!

Of course technology will advance. But, just as assuredly, Ray Harryhausen films will continue to delight. Because the man didn't just surmount the most obvious limitations of his craft... he twisted them to his, and our advantage. Tiny budgets for fantasy films forced him to become a one man industry, so he forced himself to be nothing less than brilliant in every role he assumed; designer, technician and actor. His creatures were wonderful sculptures, full of life and character, fabulous works of art. His signature technique of shooting models against rear screen projection through hand painted mattes, then back-winding and double exposing the same projected image through complimentary mattes was an ingenious innovation that kept costs down while actually improving the visual impact. And finally, the sensitive manipulation of these little manikins resulted in Oscar worthy performances, actual personalities that rank with some of the cinema's most memorable characters.

And don't forget... just one guy! Think of the superhuman concentration needed, not to mention the staggering pressure the man put on himself. Everything I read suggests it wasn't CGI that chased him into retirement but the reality that big budgets would demand that he share responsibilities, as he did in his last film CLASH OF THE TITANS (that one cost more than all his previous movies put together!)

I love Reg's story. I am consoled knowing Harryhausen spent his later years realizing the enormous awe, respect and love his life's work engendered.

9:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson offers a unique reading of "First Men In The Moon":

After reading yesterday's post & re-reading the 2010 post, revisited "First Men in the Moon." Overanalyzing another screenplay:

-- After the modern-day opening, we spend a lot of time watching the hero be less than heroic. He's hiding from creditors, and his plan to get rich quick by writing a play -- his first -- suggests the extent of his business acumen. He lies to his fiancee and gets her to sign fraudulent documents. He immediately sees money and power in the anti-gravity stuff, babbling about trusts and monopolies instead of applications (aside from one using his war surplus boots). He's sold on the moon expedition by the promise of gold nuggets on the surface. In short, he's a jerk (despite the actor's game attempt to make him an engaging jerk). On the moon itself he shows courage to save his fellow earthlings, but has no problem chucking as many natives as possible into an abyss. And his line at the end of the movie -- cute, but more than a little dickish when you think about it -- suggests his adventures didn't improve him.

-- The professor, comic and giddy at first, is genuinely horrified when the hero unleashes kick-thorax on the selenites. The scientist who wants to communicate/negotiate with the monsters and gets killed for his trouble is a sci-fi cliche, but this one is sad and earnest; he knows what he's getting into.

-- The selenites themselves are carefully rendered as neutral: Not pleasant, but not evil or hostile either. Their only expressed concern is protecting themselves from what they understand to be a violent race; the declaration that the professor won't be allowed to leave is not quite a death threat. Not a word about conquest or Earth women.

-- The professor's exclamation of joy is "Imperial!", followed by the selenites repeating it to show comprehension. Since the hero almost personifies the worst accusations against British imperialism, it can be taken as a conscious joke.

The film is not a political tract; perhaps neither the screenwriter nor Wells intended any such reading. I suspect there were more eyebrows raised at a moon mission including an American and a Russian. But it's all quietly there. It would have been incredibly easy to make the hero more lovably irresponsible instead of an implied swindler, and to give the selenite leader a line or two about destroying the inferior humans and taking their planet. Instead, the weird kid who paid attention to the dialogue had a lot to argue about with his friends.

4:41 AM  

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