Ray Harryhausen: The Eighth Wonder of the World

November’s Kiddee Matinees at the New Beverly are calibrated to reawaken the kiddee in everyone with a month-long procession of the very best of visionary special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013).

At a tender young age, Harryhausen’s life was forever changed by seeing King Kong (1933), which left him obsessed with figuring out how its three-dimensional models were invested with the illusion of life. By his teenage years, he was bringing his own creations to life in short films made in his family’s garage. Ultimately, he gained an introduction to Kong’s creator Willis O’Brien and showed him his work, which received some cherished encouragement and advice. After continuing to hone his skills as a craftsman for animator George Pal and working as a member of Col. Frank Capra’s film division during the War, he made his first widely-seen films – a series of Fairy Tale shorts made available to schools and libraries. In 1949, he achieved his dream when he was hired to assist his hero and mentor Willis O’Brien with the stop-motion animation effects for Mighty Joe Young (1949).  In 1953, he took his first solo flight with Warner Bros.’ Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, inspired in part by the Saturday Evening Post story “The Foghorn,” written by Harryhausen’s childhood friend Ray Bradbury. The film was a major success for Warners, turning a $200,000 investment into a $2,250,000 profit. It ushered in the giant monster craze of the 1950s.

Much of Harryhausen’s early work – It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), The Animal World (1956), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) – could be described as fairly ordinary films with extraordinary special effects, but his work took a quantum leap with 1957’s 20 Million Miles To Earth – the first made of our matinee features. In this exciting film, a rocketship returning to Earth from a Top Secret flight to Venus crashes down in the Mediterranean, thereby becoming separated from its precious cargo: a gelid egg containing an actual Venusian embryo. After passing through the hands of some well-sketched incidental characters, the egg soon hatches its tiny homunculus, a scaly, tailed, yet strangely feline creature that grows incrementally larger in Earth’s atmosphere. Opening in rural Italy and accelerating toward a climax set amid the classic ruins of Rome, the film is wholly engrossing during its live action sequences but most fascinating when it shares with us the dawning personality of its Venusian stranger-in-a-strange-land, which Harryhausen dubbed “the Ymir” after a seminal figure of Norse mythology. (The name is never mentioned in the film itself.) Here, Harryhausen’s concentrated artistry succeeds in investing his creation with personality, even soul, as it responds – sometimes violently – to the hostile world around him. Director Nathan Juran stages scenes around the Ymir that are marvelous, frightening, and also touching – making 20 Million Miles To Earth one of Harryhausen’s supreme showcases.

By this point, Harryhausen knew that monsters were going to be his bread and butter, but he had no particular interest in scaring audiences. Fantasy, rather than horror, was his forté. In developing his next feature, he followed the successful examples of swashbucklers like Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate (1955), Aleksandr Ptushko’s Ilya Muromets (US: The Sword and the Dragon (1956),) and mythological fantasies like Pietro Francisci’s Hercules (1957). The resulting picture was, of course, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), generally regarded as his signature work. It pits the charismatic, sea-faring Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) against a formidable sorcerer (Torin Thatcher), and various other obstacles placed between him and his true love (Princess Parisa, played by Kathryn Grant) – including a Cyclops, a fire-breathing Dragon, a two-headed Roc (mythic bird), and an army of sword-wielding skeletons. Harryhausen’s first color feature and a major life event in the childhood of anyone lucky enough to see it at a tender age, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was not unfairly pitched to its initial audiences as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” It intensifies Harryhausen’s mindboggling menagerie with an unforgettable Bernard Herrmann score, brilliant Technicolor and a newly-refined special effects process trademarked as Dynamation. Columbia made millions from its initial theatrical release and gave it a 1975 theatrical revival following the great success of its belated sequel, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). With this perennial favorite,  Harryhausen became sui generis – a genre unto himself.

Harryhausen followed this triumph with a modest misstep, the nevertheless-charming The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), a somewhat gelded condensation of Jonathan Swift’s classic political satire that offered few stop-motion thrills. However, he came back in force with a similarly liberal adaptation of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1961), the visionary author’s sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – which had been successfully filmed by Walt Disney in 1954. The script originated with Crane Wilbur, the screenwriter responsible for such hits as Andre de Toth’s House of Wax (1953) and Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955), and the direction was entrusted to Cy Endfield, a former card magician and member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, who had become an expatriate filmmaker in response to his HUAC blacklisting as a communist. (Do yourself a favor and make a point of seeing his outstanding British action picture Hell Drivers, 1957.) Opening with a cymbal crash main theme by Bernard Herrmann that will have you sitting bolt upright, the film cleverly augments Verne’s original story of shipwreck survival with a procession of gigantic animals – most of them conveniently edible! – mutated by the offshore experiments of the presumed-dead Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom). Endfield’s direction is generally credited with raising the level of Harryhausen’s feature work, establishing a more satisfying balance between the film’s dramatics and special effects, but really, every department is in top form. Mysterious Island was the first of Harryhausen’s productions to be made abroad with British talent and a British crew, and the film makes the point that it takes the classically trained to put a classic classically across.

Rounding out our matinee schedule is Jason and the Argonauts (1963), perhaps Harryhausen’s most beloved film. Though top-billed with American actors Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack as Jason and Medea, the supporting cast will raise a big smile from any Anglophile, featuring Curse of the Demon’s Niall MacGinnis as Zeus, Goldfinger’s Honor Blackman as Hera, Doctor Who’s Patrick Troughton as Phineas, and The Ruling Class’s Nigel Green as one of the screen’s most likeable and plausible Hercules. Radiant with opulent spectacle, this is basically the story of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece – also covered in Francisci’s Hercules – but it is further studded with several of the most fabulous creatures from Greek mythology, all presenting Harryhausen at the very peak of his powers. You’ll gasp at the towering gladiator statue Talos, thrill to the bat-winged Harpies that torment Phineas, stare with wonder at the fish-tailed Triton himself rising from the sea to assist our hero’s quest, and flinch at the many-headed Hydra, whose teeth give rise to another skeleton army in one of Harryhausen’s most technically demanding and celebrated sequences. Tom Hanks has called Jason and the Argonauts the greatest film ever made, and in the afterglow of seeing it, you just might agree.

These and other Ray Harryhausen films are fairly easy to find on home video – and there are incentives to doing so, such as isolated scores and archival audio commentaries by the Maestro himself – but these are mere souvenirs, sidebars, and no substitute for the heightened thrills that can only be experienced by seeing these films as they were meant to be seen – in 35mm on the big screen. Bring your kids, bring a friend, bring yourself – and if you’re already familiar with these pictures from DVD or Blu-ray – feel your presumed familiarity explode. There are few more complete surrenders to the magic of moviemaking than can be found by sitting in the dark with these crowning works of Ray Harryhausen.

© 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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