Last year, TCM featured a nice run of films by the great master of stop-motion animation spectacle, Ray Harryhausen, and I wrote a bit about him and the movies at that time. Over the next three months, beginning this Thursday (August 11, 2011) TCM is going to be showing some of his best—and some of his worst—films:
Aug 11: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
Sep 6: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
Sep 10: CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)—the original, not the recent lousy remake
Oct 8: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973)
Oct 22: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)
Fittingly, the first of these movies, Mighty Joe Young (1949), is Harryhausen’s first feature film. In some ways, it can be seen—even dismissed—as little more than a retread of King Kong. It was written by Merian C. Cooper and Ruth Rose and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack—all of whom had been key figures in the creation of King Kong. And it featured Kong‘s stop-motion animator, Willis O’Brien, as supervisor of special effects. Much of the actual effects work on Mighty Joe Young, though, was actually done by the 29-year-old Harryhausen, working under Willis, the man who had inspired his career with that pioneering—and still to me riveting—animation work in King Kong.
Mighty Joe Young was made to cash in on the continuing box office pull of Kong, which had been enormously successful on its original release in 1933 and continued to bring in money through theatrical reissues in 1938, 1942, and 1946. Despite Kong‘s continued popularity, though, Mighty Joe Young was not a box office success. It was, however, a technical and critical success: its special effects won an Oscar, a prize that Kong was denied, and those effects have been highly influential and much praised in the years since. It’s not a great film. The difference between it and Kong is palpable—there’s nothing in it to compare with the scene of Fay Wray being taught how to scream, to cite just one example. But in those award-winning special effects it is a great beginning to one of the great careers in animation and special effects.
(It was remade by Disney in 1998 with Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron, but the original’s performances and screenplay are weak enough that I don’t automatically hate and reject this remake as I do so many, and I recall enjoying it when it came out. It would be interesting to watch the original and remake back to back and compare. Both are available from Netflix, though not for streaming; you can stream the 1998 remake on YouTube, in tiny bite-sized pieces.)
After Mighty Joe Young, perhaps in part because of its poor performance at the box office, Harryhausen didn’t do any effects work for a few years, working instead as a producer, a role he continued to occupy throughout his career. His next film as a visual effects artist was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)—the second film showing in this run—in which a nuclear test in the Arctic thaws out a giant dinosaur-like creature that then makes its way to New York and goes on a rampage in the streets of Manhattan (New York and Tokyo–the most monster-stomped cities in the world).
Beast is a significant film for a number of reasons—most of which should be fairly apparent even in that short description. It was the first of the giant mutant monster movies—setting the stage for Godzilla, the original of which came out the following year, and all his brethren. It is also a prime example of the subgenre of science fiction and monster movies that was so prominent, and culturally significant, during the 1950s—films having to do with anxiety over nuclear weapons and research, and more generally with the awesome perils in the promise of science that WWII had brought to the fore.
Beast was followed in the 1950s by such other mutant monster menace films as Them! and, obviously, Godzilla/Gojira (both 1954), Tarantula (1955), and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), in which an Army officer is horribly injured by radiation from a bomb test, but recovers, only to turn into… a rampaging giant. (New York is given a break—he stomps Las Vegas, a city much more deserving of wholesale destruction.)
Beast is also significant as the film in which Harryhausen first used the technique of splitting the background and foreground of live action footage into two separate pieces of film, to allow for better integration of the animated material into the live action, greatly heightening the realism:
The background would be used as a miniature rear-screen with his models animated in front of it, rephotographed with an animation-capable camera to combine those two elements together, the foreground element matted out to leave a black space. Then the film was rewound, and everything except the foreground element matted out so that the foreground element would now photograph in the previously blacked out area. This created the effect that the animated model was “sandwiched” in between the two live action elements, right into the final live action scene. Many shots were embellished with additional elements painted on glass, also sandwiched in between the rear screen and camera, as O’Brien had done on his films. (via Wikipedia.)
Since this run of Harryhausen films starts with his first two feature films, it might seem fitting if it were to end with his last, Clash of the Titans (1981). Fortunately, Clash, which is not a great film, is buried in the middle of the bunch. Harryhausen is perhaps most remembered for—and these days most often seen through—his fantasy films, especially the Sinbad movies, the best of which, Golden Voyage, shows October 8. But this block of Harryhausen films ends with two from the other side of his career, the side that he kicked off with his second film and that dominated during the 1950s: science fiction.
In Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), a misunderstanding results in US forces at a space exploration base firing on visiting aliens. Predictably, war ensues. 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) is the more interesting movie. On its return from an expedition to Venus, a US spaceship crashes into the Mediterranean. It was carrying the egg of a Venusian creature, the Ymir, which soon hatches and—you can guess it—grows to great size and eventually goes on a rampage.
Once again, rarely, the site for the rampage isn’t Tokyo or New York. It’s Rome that gets stomped here, and the final scene with the Ymir on the Colosseum is memorable. The film has a lot of similarities to King Kong. Scientists bring the creature back to civilization, and it doesn’t seem innately violent, but rather is driven to go on its rampage by frightening or threatening encounters with humans. (If you recall, Kong breaks loose after being startled by too many camera flashbulbs.) In the end, it falls dead from a famous architectural monument, just as Kong did, and one of the scientists stands over its body, reflecting sadly on why things came to this end.
There is a very good documentary on Ray Harryhausen and his work, The Harryhausen Chronicles, narrated by Leonard Nimoy. It’s available on DVD from Netflix.
Filed under: Movies, Film, monsters, movies, science fiction, TCM