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Monday, November 25, 2019

1958's Sinbad Holiday

The Biggest Crowd Monsters Ever Drew

How many of us wish to have been born a few years sooner. I read of those who saw classics first-run and bleed with envy. Being there for Christmas open for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad would have been Santa-sent. Missing that boat means I’ll not know impact Sinbad had. By most accounts, it was Kong-scale. Watch extras on the Blu-Ray and hear accounts, one after other, of lives changed, futures decided, as result of ’58 sail with Sinbad. Ray Harryhausen knew from walking out Grauman’s door in 1933 (King Kong) that new dawn had broken. His inspiration for model-making was Willis O’Brien, them brought together soon as Ray was old enough to work on a film set rather than garage tabletops he'd begun on. Sinbad spawned a larger flock to follow now-oracle Harryhausen; they sought him out as he had O’Brien. To state the obvious: There’d be nothing like the massive FX industry to support 70’s-forward film were it not for Harryhausen, and never mind lots fewer fantasy and sci-fi had he directed career energy elsewhere. Plug “I wouldn’t be doing this were it not for Ray Harryhausen” into any two dozen interviews with movie magicians of a past forty years. But hold … are they now supplanted by CGI as RH was by passing of stop-motion? Where is a latter-day Harryhausen for starter-outs to be guided by? Is there a god of keyboard maestros for fans to follow like Jason to a gold fleece? Could visual effects computer-spawned reflect the personality of an RH Cyclops, Ymir, cave dragon, others to reflect the man who built them? Given more exposure to modern genre stuff, I might hazard a guess. As it is, I must leave it for others to say if there is a latter-day Harryhausen to pied-pipe a fresh generation.

There were fewer, far fewer, fantasies, to inspire up-and-comers of the 30’s and before. Harryhausen and kindred friends (and how many do you suppose shared his interest so intensely, beyond well-known Bradbury and Ackerman?) clung to Kong and whatever O’Brien was hired to create, which we know was shameful little for such a massive talent. The Thief of Bagdad in 1940 put Harryhausen on the scent of Sinbad. He’d see Sinbad The Sailor (1947), and later Son of Sinbad (1955), knowing they were punk for not having monsters. Ray trucked his models, drawings, and test reels round town and was told they'd cost too much and not generate enough interest. I’m surprised he didn’t give up for bank work or to open a hardware store (ever wonder how many people in ordinary walks of life might have done something creative-great if only they’d persevered a little longer?). As it is, Harryhausen had strong parental support from a start, and right along, to hard-earned success. They set aside a garage, then a customized add-on room, for him to do projects. Ray’s father made armatures for a Sinbad skeleton and sent it to the Euro location so his son could finish the job and stop-animate their result. Surely Mom-Dad merit placement beside Ray Harryhausen in whatever Halls-Of-Fame he’s been inducted into.

A Latest Sinbad In Support
I’m told Sinbad got made for $650K, thrifty-done and hugely profitable for bringing back a Variety-estimated $3.2 million in domestic rentals, more than any fantasy earned to that point (The Wizard of Oz did two million in 1939, more later from reissues, but cost tons to make). Harryhausen puppets were proven to tune of million-plus rentals for a last several in league with Charles Schneer/Columbia, notable too was what The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms realized for Warners, $1.735 million in domestic rentals. These had been driven largely by TV saturation, taken steps further by Sinbad. A big advantage was fantasy driving this Voyage as opposed to horror or sci-fi, genres with built-in onus by 1958 (too much of both, and discredited for cheapness and tawdry ad/pub). Sinbad was magical, full color, with promise of sights never shown on screens. Any doubt Columbia had evaporated when sales staff got a look. Here was something they could get fully behind and dress up for Christmas. “Dynamation” was the sell, whatever heck that was, but let crowds pay to find out after seeing breath-take clips on TV and a creature-laden float Columbia built for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, plus touring later. Enthusiasm built as holidays approached. Columbia told Boxoffice (11-24-58) that “Only 48 of 350 Technicolor prints are available for Christmas play-dating,” but quickly upped a total to 400 and rushed processing when theatres made a rush for Noel bookings.

Rube Jackter was Columbia’s salesman in charge. He dated back to hustle on behalf of Lasky and Goldwyn, happiest when “I’m peddling film.” Columbia issued a full-page trade ad penned by Rube, as ringing an endorsement for new product as showmen saw in 1958. They’d take his word that Sinbad was something special, and commit accordingly. When does history accord a Rube Jackter credit so rich-deserved? A special “Dynamation” trailer was made as much for exhibitors as their public, and shown at confabs to which theatre-folk gathered. Jackter was sure enough of Sinbad to trade-screen it well ahead of openings, giving all the option to cancel their date if the film didn’t rise to his enthusiasm. All who bore witness encouraged others to do a same, word fast spread to book Sinbad toot sweet, an outcome Jackter figured on and placed further print orders to accommodate. So great was confidence, this well in advance of Sinbad’s open, that Columbia announced Dynamation features as an annual event (Motion Picture Daily, 11-21-58). A soundtrack album was pressed, plus singles, these to play for entrance and exit to Sinbad seating, radio stations supplied as well. A Dell comic gathered dimes, as did Sinbad slippers at clothiers (we could wonder how many were worn to school). Columbia announced that color TV spots would be available for Sinbad, these “as adjunct” to color broadcasts, a “first use” of advertising with tints for television, said Robert S. Ferguson, advertising/publicity chief.

Richard Eyer at the Helm of Macy's Sinbad Float

It's a Stout Oldie That Takes Billing Above The New Release 
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was Gotham-booked for the Roxy (6,214 seats), an open imperiled by a newspaper strike to upset Columbia cart re print promotion. This meant uptick for TV and radio to tune of $25K, more cash, the company said, than would have gone to local sheets (Motion Picture Daily, 12/17/58). Film Bulletin got stats in March 1959 to effect that “five out of every seven persons waiting in line to see “Sinbad” said the TV commercials fanned their desire to see the film.” Whatever a crisis getting word out, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, according to Motion Picture Daily, gave the Roxy a best open since The Robe in 1953. Sinbad was big, but biggest while children were out from school for holidays. After that, it softened. The Film Bulletin, summing up Columbia output from distance of 4-13-59, said that Sinbad, “for which Columbia had high hopes, has proved disappointing in subsequent engagements.” They must have had high expectations, considering what Sinbad did earn. There were encores right through the 70’s as further Sinbads came out of Columbia, also supervised by Harryhausen. To think he did fx for these in a small studio and virtually by himself. The cycle started by Seventh Voyage lasted at least to the 80’s, initial fans having come of age and many doing FX of their own, Harryhausen’s last, Clash of The Titans, out in 1981. Were movies by then too corporatized to entrust a lone wolf like Harryhausen, or was he considered old-fashioned? I’d like to know what went down, as here was a man in his early 60’s, years presumed left to share gifts, but gone to seeming pasture. Was Ray's retirement altogether voluntary?

L.A. Saturation for First-Run Jason in 1963
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was a problem, at least for collectors. For some reason, 16mm IB Tech prints were mis-registered in parts, and initial DVD’s, even a Blu-Ray from Sony, were not what they might have been. Indicator/Powerhouse is more recently out with a best Sinbad I’ve seen. Jason and the Argonauts was another I revisited, and considered by many to be a best of Harryhausen. It took a Variety-estimated $2.1 million in domestic rentals, a lot less than Sinbad, but by 1963, stiff Toga rivalry prevailed, and who knew wheat from chaff? Where much-inferior Captain Sindbad, from MGM, scored up an estimated $2.5 million, you knew merit wasn’t being rewarded. Too many swords and sandals, it seemed. Still, the right people noticed, and would not forget Jason. It came back too for 70’s dates, years after surrender to television. Fans most precocious had long been aboard for Harryhausen, fanzines emerging as Jason and the Argonauts went into 1963 release. One such was The Candlelight Room, edited by estimable fan/historians Ray Cabana, Jr. and Donald Shay. They’d print an “exclusive” interview with Jason star Todd Armstrong, and there weren’t many of those, then or later, a scoop for Candlelight’s premiere issue. As to a best overview of Ray Harryhausen, I’d propose multi-part Cinefantastique coverage by Ted Newsom. It is detailed, insightful, richly illustrated, and not bettered since the 80’s when first published.


Blogger Bill O said...

Ray had a piece of Clash of the Titans.And could've afforded him retirement. Always thought Clash was a back door hit. Got the spikkover audience that couldn't get into Raiders of Lost Ark. At least that happened in the theatre I worked.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

What's to say? You made my day.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I, too, was a little young for that one. I do vividly remember standing in a long line snaking down a Long Island sidewalk to see the follow-up THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER. Of course we didn't know this was monster-lite Harryhausen and wouldn't have cared. Did not feel short changed by the climatic battle with the baby alligator. My siblings and I were also delighted by the similarity of Mr. Mathews' first name to our last name. Caught so many of the other RH spectaculars on annual CBS Thanksgiving airings. Was in a packed house (mostly teenagers) a few years later to catch Ray's ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. I was doubly impressed that this was a Hammer Film... strong enough to play with no second feature!

11:10 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Jason and the Argonauts", "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad", and "First Men in the Moon" are my top three. Born in 55, but didn't see Harryhausen on a big screen until "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad", and by then I knew most of the others from B&W television. Eventually saw several of the earlier films with appreciative college audiences.

One of the glories of Harryhausen films is that they delivered what ads and posters for other movies always promised (Exhibit A: the finale of "Earth Vs. Flying Saucers"). Another is that they worked hard at being real movies -- low-budget, but real -- when the effects were offscreen.

"Clash of the Titans" was a major studio movie as opposed to Harryhausen and Schneer getting a deal to go off and produce something, so it's likely there was a lot more interference than he was used to. Maybe that contributed to his decision to retire. In any case, he certainly seemed to enjoy being a public figure. About the only negative I ever heard was grumbling when he endorsed colorizing B&W features (other than his own).

"Captain Sindbad" isn't in a class with "Seventh Voyage", but it's fun for what it is. There were other interesting also-rans, ranging from lavish to cheapjack, now lost in the shadows of Harryhausen and Disney: "Captain Nemo and the Underwater City", the Dalak movies, Irwin Allen's pre-disaster films, "The Incredible Mr. Limpet", the Thunderbirds features, "The Daydreamer" from Rankin-Bass ... holiday releases and kiddie matinees, eventually becoming yuletide staples on local TV stations. "Captain Sindbad" I remember as part of "Off to See the Wizard", MGM's brief attempt to clone "World of Color" with animated hosts.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) has everything going against it especially that superstar cast. The real star of a Harryhausen film was always Ra. He gave us the boy's own bowdlerized versions of these tales but considering the moment that's all he could give us.

8:59 AM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Standing in the long lines to the theatre until the box office opened; those joining the line around the corner of the long block hoped for a good seat, but I never thought the front row(s)a vantage point! All I can relate to those of you who missed it all in 1958 on the GIANT theatre screen(s) in DYNARAMA, was just that!You missed out-- on all of the excitement of being part of an AUDIENCE responding together, and screaming as the film reeled off in full throttle with the music by Bernard Herrmann, backing up all of the first-time wonders of all of us seeing for the first time-the incredible scenes with monsters, and Torin Thatcher, and giant birds, and cyclops, and Torin Thatcher, and... and the skeleton, and... and all of it in TECHNICOLOR, too! The only word that could explain it all was MAGIC. Something going on, on THAT Screen in THAT theatre: It was pure MAGIC!...( and ''continuous from NOON'')! (...and was Torin Thatcher a joy to watch in this role or what?).

10:32 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Yep, saw it when it came out. Actually, I saw it the first week in February 1959. That's when it came to my small Pennsylvania hometown. Speaking of small, I was a small kid. The manager/head usher/pain-in-the-ass ticket-taker confronted me on my way in and asked if I was too old to continue getting in as a kid. I honestly replied that my birthday was the following week. That was true--I didn't confess that it was my 13th birthday, however! Yes, it would soon cost me 55-cents to get in as an adult, instead of a quarter (a bag of popcorn was still 15-cents, however). Years later, in the early to mid-80s, my wife and I met Ray and his wife Diana at an art museum in Delaware that was show-casing his sculptures and other art. He lent me stills for my fantasy book and I--unlike so many others--returned them when I had used them.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Although I never met Ray Harryhausen I had a somewhat similar experience. A film needed footage of a RED RIDING HOOD film. I had the black and white version of his RED RIDING HOOD. Through Forrest J (God bless him) Ackerman I got in touch with Harryhausen so he could authorize and get paid for the use of the footage ($1,000.00 U.S.). Ray said, "Would you like a fee for having arranged this?" I said, "No. My fee is the enjoyment your work has given me." He said, "Thank you very much."

4:59 PM  
Blogger Chrisk said...

The most popular, successful and box office hit all over the world that is The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

6:29 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Re watched this last night after reading your article.....what a great piece of work.....the 70s sequels seem a bit,well.....tarnished now...just don't have that indescribable 50s sheen to them...

7:23 AM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

This thread brings back a flood of memories. We had The 7th Voyage of Sinbad at our RKO 23rd Street on Lincoln's Birthday 1959 when I was 8. Doors opened early; 9:45 am for this event. Us kids lined up early impatiently waiting for the ticket seller to open up. My buddy dropped his quarter down the subway grating below us and a gent leaving the bar (at 9:30am!) retrieved a long stick and some bubble gun and "fished" the quarter out. The theater was smart enough to show 7th 1st so that the matron, policing the Kiddies' Section, could throw us out when the Ray Milland co-feature came on and we became unruly. To this day, 7th, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth are a few of my favorite movie-going memories. Thanks for the post.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have no problem with Ray's colorizing of his own black and white films as well as the other projects he worked on. In each case the black and white version is included.

There is nothing worse than being a talented person and having no way to exercise our talent. Those projects gave Harryhausen something to do and he did it well.

4:22 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Memories of when Big Holiday Releases were a big deal in a different way. There'd be floats in the various Thanksgiving Day parades (back when the big ones in Chicago and elsewhere also ran on national TV), full-page ads in the Sunday newspaper (the entertainment section and even the color comics), tie-in premiums in cereal boxes, those comic book adaptations, and so on.

Yes, those campaigns pale compared to the monster marketing thrown behind the new franchise epics. But Big Movies -- especially kid-oriented -- weren't nearly so thick on the ground as they are now, excepting that brief 60s flurry of honking big musicals. Even Disney's output was small, compared to any of the majors. Besides being a swell movie, "Sinbad" seems to have hit, by calculation and luck, a perfect storm.

First off, the calculation: Harryhausen and Schneer traded sci-fi monsters -- then primarily a low-rent district -- for Arabian Nights fantasy, which immediately classed it as colorful fun and added an A movie patina with just a hint of Respectable Literature. It was the kind of movie parents would seek out for a Christmas vacation movie night, as well as one kids would seek out on their own. And while there had been a steady stream of low-budget Arabian Nights flicks, there hadn't been a big one in years. In 1958, "First Men in the Moon" might have been treated as a knockoff of the big Jules Verne hits, while "Jason and the Argonauts" could have been totally dismissed as another sword-and-sandal quickie (as it was, Harryhausen believed the sword-and-sandal stereotype did hurt).

Secondly, the absence of big names in the cast very effectively made the effects -- and Harryhausen -- the stars. Sinbad's success proved to the studios that Harryhausen didn't NEED stars. You could argue whether that was calculation or just a reluctance to squander any of a small budget.

Now, the luck: In 1958, the big deal was the grownup musical "Gigi". Disney's only December release was a minor western ("Tonka"). Was there any big-name, big-budget competition for families and kids? In a way that's hard to imagine now, it looks like Sinbad had a remarkably clear field. Even if a grossly inferior fantasy film rolled out that month, it could easily have vacuumed up a lot of family trade (and perhaps soured audiences, the way "Konga" poisoned the well for the more ambitious "Gorgo").

Also, that newspaper strike driving more money into TV spots -- in the case of Sinbad, just a few moments of the skeleton duel would sell kids jaded by years of over-promising print ads and posters.

Incidentally, was it ever necessary for the world at large to "rediscover" Sinbad? I don't think it ever dropped from consciousness, holding up even on local TV in B&W.

5:47 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

One of his major retirement projects was a heroic sculpture of Dr. David Livingstone and a lion. Livingstone happened to be one of his wife's ancestors.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Re: PURPLE MONSTER the serial. Great in all aspects. I wish the Marsha character had appeared in more of the chapters.

7:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon considers the impact of THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD:

Hi John,

Thanks for the terrific column about my all-time favorite juvenile movie, "7th Voyage of Sinbad". I know due to your age that you missed it on its first appearance, which hit like a big asteroid in late 1958. You have company: me! I will never understand how a mom as sympathetic to her little sons as mine somehow let this one get past her. I really won't, and don't. We were hauled off to see any number of Disneys, contemporaneously; and outstanding they all were. But, why NOT "7th Voyage of Sinbad"?! As you rightly point out, it wasn't as if this was NOT absolutely unique in its day. Maybe mom mistook it for another costume picture like "Adventures of Haji Baba" or some other not-particularly-great item, and/or not kiddie fare. If the latter, BOY, was she mistaken! Me, I do think that its release RIGHT at Christmas time--I found an old ad from the L.A. Times that indicated it LITERALLY came out the same week as Christmas Day in our fair sprawling city--might have been the culprit. Mom was always 100% focused on Christmas, and it was a wonderful thing...the decorations and preparations were just magical at our house. Maybe Christmas just crowded out "...Sinbad" and his wonders.

She DID take us brats (me and younger brother) to see "The 3 Worlds of Gulliver" two years later in late 1960, and hard though it may be for today's fans to credit, especially if compared to "7th Voyage of Sinbad", "The 3 Worlds of Gulliver" was pretty terrific all by itself, in my childhood estimation. As for the next Schneer-Harryhausen film, I myself am to blame for not pestering my dear mom (and I had a dad, but mom was the movie person) to give me a quarter and/or take me to see "Mysterious Island" in 1961, which seemed like it would be up my alley. But, I didn't put on the heat and consequently it got away from me, too! I KNOW I would have loved this one as a child, because I love it still today. Anyway, I wasn't going to be so passive with Harryhausen's next. When "Jason and the Argonauts" sailed into town in 1963, I saw that thing TWICE, which was a precedent for me. (And, sat through its tepid, odd co-feature--the same one, two different engagements!--"Flipper", twice as well...fidgeting, waiting for "Jason..."!

The shot of Schneer and Harryhausen is from "3 Worlds of Gulliver", the third guy being its (nominal) co-writer (though apparently it was almost completely written by veteran screenwriter Arthur Ross from Jonathan Swift's original) Jack Sher. In fact, that's the chessboard where Kerwin Mathews and co-star June Thorburn stare up at their Brobingnagian captors toward the end of the movie. Ray Harryhausen had developed a bad case of dysentery while on the shoot and it accounts for his rather alarming thinness here.

I got to know Ray Harryhausen and I could NEVER get over the extent to which I feel he was surprised by and genuinely humble and diffident about his incalculable influence on a whole generation of filmgoers and filmmakers. But you make a very, very good point. They--we, me included!-- imitated, or were inspired by. We never equalled. Not in my book.


7:51 PM  

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