Ray Harryhausen: A Retrospective

Ray Harryhausen: A Retrospective, Part 1, The Monster Movies.

UPDATED 5/8/13: In light of Ray Harryhausen’s passing, we bring you another look at Part One of Jim Knipfel’s Ray Harryhausen movies retrospective.

After seeing the original King Kong for the first time, thousands of kids immediately dug out their parents’ old Super-8 camera (the kind that allowed for single-frame exposures) and started making stop-motion films of their own.  I certainly did, pitting my G.I. Joe in a series of epic life or death battles against a giant, uninterested rabbit (Charlotte). Ray Harryhausen saw King Kong during its initial release in 1933 and did the same thing. Difference was that unlike the rest of us, Harryhausen didn’t get bored with the whole laborious process and quit. He kept at it, turning stop-motion into a life’s work that inspired a whole new breed of effects artists and as the very true cliché goes continues to dazzle audiences generation after generation, even in this CGI world of ours.

Today when we think back on the films he worked on, from Mighty Joe Young to Jason and the Argonauts to Clash of the Titans, we no longer remember the stars’ names or who directed them. No, these are Harryhausen pictures, perhaps the only instance in which an individual visual effects artist has become such a dominant force. Every few years to this day the itch hits me and I need to pull all the Harryhausen films off the shelf, sit down, and watch them all in chronological order. It may be a kind of illness.

So the story’s a famous one. After seeing Kong again and again, studying Willis O’Brien’s masterful and magical stop motion animation, the 13 year-old Harryhausen set up a studio in the family garage and began animating his own dinosaur models, one frame at a time. A few years later, still at it, he contacted O’Brien who invited him over to his studio. The master offered some constructive criticism of the reels and models Harryhausen had lugged over and it became an encounter that was not only momentous for the teenager, but fortuitous as well.

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Another invaluable meeting occurred around this same time when Harryhausen joined his high school’s science fiction club and met fellow members Forry Ackermann and Ray Bradbury. Bradbury and Harryhausen forged a lifelong friendship based on a mutual love of Kong and dinosaurs, and that too would turn out to be very helpful down the pike.

As his stop motion experiments grew more complex and ambitious, Harryhausen followed O’Brien’s lead by undertaking a massive dinosaur epic he called Evolution. O’Brien had started work on his own dinosaur epic, Creation, after completing his groundbreaking work on The Lost World. Just as O’Brien eventually had to abandon his project, so did Harryhausen. But just as the clips from O’Brien’s film earned him the job on Kong, Harryhausen’s finished snippets from Evolution earned him a job at George Pal’s studio, working on Puppetoons. It wasn’t exactly Kong, but it was something.

Then the war came along and Harryhausen put his skills to use for the army, making animated instructional films like How to Bridge a Gorge. As the war came to a close, he snagged a bunch of discarded film stock, smuggled it home and went back to work on his own films. This time, instead of dinosaurs, he began working on a string of (then) hip versions of classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, with each ten-minute film growing more technically challenging. He was about to start work on his sixth (The Tortoise and the Hare) when O’Brien called and offered him a job.

In many ways, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young was a Kong reboot, bringing together nearly the entire creative team from the original. Merion C. Cooper co-produced (this time with John Ford), Ernest Schoedsack directed, Ruth Rose wrote the screenplay, Robert Armstrong starred (this time playing a producer based on Cooper, instead of a director based on Cooper), and O’Brien got sole credit for the effects, though his uncredited assistant was responsible for some 85 percent of what appeared on screen. 

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Quite a bit of the story is familiar: an oversized gorilla (this time only 18 feet tall instead of 50) is removed from his jungle home, brought to the states and put on cartoonish display for the gawking mob. Eventually fed up with the foolishness (and in this case admittedly drunk) the ape loses it, trashes the place and is hunted down in the streets. This time around though things are far more family friendly and softhearted. The film’s also played much more for laughs than Kong was.

From the time he was a baby, Joe Young (as he’s been named) had been raised by a precocious young girl (Terry Moore) who was living in Africa with her father. Even at 18 feet tall he’s still mostly well-behaved and like Kong very protective of his gal, who’s very protective of him in return, even when everything goes all catywhompus.  Unlike Kong, the film ends on an upbeat note, and Moore’s recurring line “Wanna banana, Joe?” briefly became a national catchphrase. 

Working side by side with his idols in his first feature (and maybe that had something to do with it), Harryhausen’s work here is amazing. As O’Brien’s Kong was more human than the live actors around him, Harryhausen gives Joe a real personality, complete with habits and foibles and humor, making him more of an actor than Robert Armstrong ever was. And in purely technical terms, the film contains three remarkable sequences. After all these years and all these viewings I still can’t figure out how they were done, even after hearing Harryhausen explain the process of each in step by step detail. In one early scene, Joe tips over a lion cage, releasing the lion. It sounds simple and when you watch the quick scene you might not even think about it. But if you do stop and think about it, the blend of live action in both the fore and backgrounds, the animated gorilla, the live lion in the cage and the timing that’s involved it just makes my head hurt.

In another scene that would reappear in slightly altered form in Valley of Gwangi many years later, a group of cowboys on horseback attempt to lasso Joe. Again the complexities of trying to blend animation with live action that involves flying ropes are hard to fathom.

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The biggest and most spectacular showpiece of them all, though, involves the complete destruction of a fancy nightclub by a rampaging, drunk, oversized gorilla.        

Yes, if you’re accustomed to CGI the movements are jerky and sometimes you can tell  the actors are standing in front of a screen. But if that ruins things for you, if you feel compelled to point it out, then you’re just a jerk with no imagination.  Here, as in all of Harryhausen’s subsequent films there’s something magical going on. Jerky as the movements may seem, these characters are very much alive, they have spirits and personalities and it’s easy to feel empathy for them. They may push Joe a little over the top to that extent (having him save the orphans from a burning building toward film’s end), but still, Harryhausen’s work remains very easy to believe.

Mighty Joe Young had a huge budget for the time and took two years to make, with only three months of that devoted to the live action. Afterward, as big a hit as the film was, the studio brass was furious about the time and the money involved, so Harryhausen vowed to prove that effects just as good could be achieved much more efficiently and cheaply. As a result of this claim he found himself stuck on a string of low-budget pictures. But O’Brien, who made no such claim and insisted on doing things the way he always had, suddenly found it difficult to find work.

In 1953 Harryhausen got his first solo effects job when he was hired to animate the rampaging dinosaur revived by an arctic nuclear test in Eugène Lourie’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. As fate would have it, while the script was being developed the producers called in Harryhausen’s old friend Bradbury and asked if he might be interested in rewriting the script. When Bradbury read it, something about the story struck him as awfully familiar. He then informed the producers that their script was actually based on a story he’d published in the Saturday Evening Post some two years earlier. Well, they coughed up and bought the rights, and Bradbury and Harryhausen had a chance to work together on a dinosaur picture. What could be better than that?        

To make the animation process faster and cheaper as promised, Harryhausen further developed a technique used by O’Brien, employing several different rear and front projection screens to more fully integrate the animated sequences with the live action. It worked well and eventually evolved into what he called Dynamation, a method still used by stop-motion artists today.   

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As giant monster movies go, it was the most spectacular and influential thing anyone had seen since Kong. And on such a small budget, even the prehistoric creature who trashes the Eastern seaboard, stomps all through Manhattan and rips up Coney (pausing briefly to snack on a cop along the way) was not only a central influence on producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who’s 1954 Godzilla bore a strong resemblance to Beast, it was also clearly an influence on Roland Emmerich, whose supposed 1998 remake of Godzilla was in fact a remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It wouldn’t be the last time Emmerich would shamelessly rip off Harryhausen without giving him a single nod.  The big difference between Beast and the so-called Godzilla remake, of course, was that Harryhausen had given the creature a life and a spirit and a purpose. It was just trying to get back to its spawning grounds after some five million years only to find all these damned buildings in the way. When it suffers those operatic death spasms on the Coney Boardwalk, audiences actually feel something for it. Sure he smashed up a bunch of buildings and ate a cop or two (a scene Harryhausen borrowed from his own Evolution film), but in the end he meant no harm; it was just a big dog trying to get where it needed to be. Emmerich’s monster was just, well, whatever it was. In scientific terms I’d call it “A Waste of Time.”

Man, I hate that movie.

Anyway, two years after Beast Harryhausen moved to Columbia Pictures where he teamed up with producer Charles Schneer, who had a taste for interesting visuals and different (i.e. non-LA) location shoots. They would remain an inseparable team for the duration of their careers.                  

After trashing New York in Beast, Harryhausen offered the West Coast equal time by trashing San Francisco. Instead of a giant dinosaur, in It Came from Beneath the Sea the monstrous threat was a giant radioactive octopus (or sextopus, given that the budget only allowed for six tentacles).           

Directed by Robert Gordon and starring the great Ken Tobey, It Came from Beneath the Sea may not have been the mind blower Beast had been, but it was still a hell of a lot of fun, with some more fantastic and unexpected effects. Animating an octopus presented a whole different ball of hair than animating a dinosaur. Tobey plays the commander of a nuclear sub that’s attacked by some unknown creature. Finding a hunk of said creature stuck in the sub’s propeller, he joins two marine biologists (one of them naturally a young attractive woman) who spend a third of the film trying to determine just what the hell it is. Of course any audience member who happened to glance at the poster on the way into the theater might well have screamed “It’s a goddamned GIANT RADIOACTIVE OCTOPUS, NUMBSKULLS!” but that wouldn’t have done much good.

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Eventually they determine that yes, it’s a goddamned giant radioactive octopus driven out of a deep sea trench by nuclear testing. As might be expected, along the way the sub captain and the two scientists develop an uncomfortable little love triangle, all in an effort to kill a little time until the inevitable debris starts flying.

That’s something about the early films. While the monsters are the obvious draw, we spend most of the film following the assorted human dramas involved in identifying the monsters, the motivations driving the monsters and the proper way to obliterate the monsters. When the monsters finally do make an appearance and the mayhem begins, we’ve at least been given some real human characters to latch on to, like poor, lonely Ken Tobey.       

Well, unsurprisingly given the genre, just as the Navy gets to work on a new, jet propelled explosive torpedo harpoon, the octopus wanders into San Francisco Bay and makes a complete shambles of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf. How it is they always know to go after the picturesque tourist attractions I’ll never know, but they do.        

In ‘56 Harryhausen re-teamed with O’Brien to make a few more dinosaurs. As there were no major metropolitan cities involved, things calmed down a bit, which is ironic given that they were working for Irwin Allen, future king of the disaster film. The Animal World was far from a disaster picture. Instead it was a Disney style nature documentary mostly consisting of live footage of leopards and giraffes and birds and insects, complete with kindly anthropomorphizing narration. It’s all pretty dreary stuff. Then smack dab in the middle of it all is a 20-minute animated dinosaur sequence which remains the only noteworthy thing about the whole drab snooze and quite possibly the only reason the film got made in the first place. The animation is brilliant as ever, plus you get some really cool dinosaur fights.

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That same year the chaos returned in particularly memorable fashion as Harryhausen and Schneer teamed up with B movie maestro Sam Katzman to produce one of my favorites, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

The saucer craze which began in ‘47 was only then starting to sneak into movie theaters. For most low-budget filmmakers flying saucers were a dream because they took so little work. All you needed was a disc of some kind, zip it around the sky this way and that, maybe land it somewhere. The saucer itself was the least of anyone’s worries. They just wanted to see what kind of monster was inside. So directors used pie tins, light fixtures, hubcaps, whatever was handy. By contrast Harryhausen saw the saucers in question as a challenge. He’d never animated a mechanical object before, and since they were the real star of the film he had to make them unique, since we only get the briefest glimpse of one of the inhabitants.

So this time around, instead of a monster, he had to give these saucers some personality, make them interesting enough that audiences would want to watch them. They were extremely detailed, spun in two different directions simultaneously, veered and dipped and stabilized themselves. To my mind the first appearance of a saucer early in the film remains the greatest single saucer scene in the history of American cinema and all it does is buzz over a car and fly away.

Directed this time around by Fred Sears (who’d made the excellent The Werewolf for Katzman), the picture stars Hugh Marlowe as a rocket scientist trying to get a satellite into orbit but having no end of trouble, what with his rockets exploding all the time. Joan Taylor plays his wife and secretary and together they discover that the space program is suffering from a bit of extraterrestrial interference.

There’s some minor destruction along the way and Marlowe learns that the real problem has simply been, to quote the great Strother Martin, a failure to communicate. But by the time he figures out that the aliens sound just like Paul Frees, it’s too late and the Earth is being invaded.

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Well, no one remembers the plot here. All they remember and justifiably so, is the glorious destruction of Washington DC., as once again assorted tourist attractions are demolished (though it should be noted that this only happens as the alien ships are crashing). The Washington Monument topples and the Capitol dome is smashed in a sequence that Orson Welles (who cited the film as one of his favorites) used in F for Fake, The Residents turned into a music video and Roland Emmerich once again ripped off wholesale making millions in the process. It’s another piece of Harryhausen’s work that has become indelibly imprinted on the American consciousness.

By this time other directors like Jack Arnold and Bert Gordon (and for that matter Inishiro Honda at Toho) were starting to make names for themselves in the giant monster game using the same kind of rear projection to greater or lesser effect. But instead of going to all the painstaking work involved in stop motion they were projecting footage of live creatures to give the illusion of monstrous size. It was much quicker than Harryhausen’s method and much cheaper. The problem is they were limited, with the possible exception of Honda, in what they could put onscreen. You can say a blown up iguana is a dinosaur, but it still looks suspiciously like an iguana. Harryhausen had the complete freedom to play around with his imagination. He wanted a Tyrannosaurus, he could build one and bring it to life. He could give his creations facial expressions and humor, he could make them gesture the way he wanted, glance the way he wanted, move the way he wanted. As he often put it, it allowed him to give expression to his Zeus complex. That wasn’t possible with footage of a live tarantula or gila monster who just did what they wanted, forcing the director to find something useful among all that shot film. In the case of ‘57s 20 Million Miles to Earth, Harryhausen wanted a reptilian humanoid creature with a beak and a tail. Can’t very well just shave a baboon and hope to get the same effect, so he sculpted the Venusian of his dreams. Stop motion was the only technique available to him at the time that allowed him to do what he wanted to do, so that’s what he stuck with, making films that no one else could make.

Although the directing credit goes to Nathan Juran, the film was well underway when Juran came aboard. 20 Million Miles was the first picture in which Harryhausen could honestly be considered the auteur. The original story idea was his, his drawings and storyboards directed the script, he supervised the filming of the background plates in Italy and he of course crafted the Emyr, the confused Venusian who finds himself cast into an alien world. 

Harryhausen made the point that it’s easier to get personality into a two legged creature than a four-legged one, so he made the Emyr a biped, giving him a dinosaur-like tail simply to have something else to animate. As a sign of his craftsmanship, he even included blood pressure balloons under the skin to give the illusion of breathing. It was something few audience members would notice, but he wanted it there for himself, as breathing plays such a big role here. (The Emyr is a sulfur-based creature, and every time it breathes oxygen it doubles in size.)

Well, after a spaceship crashes into the waters off Sicily (it was going to be Lake Michigan, but Harryhausen wanted a vacation so made it Italy instead), an egg washes ashore and is discovered by a young boy. Being a business-minded sort, the boy sells the egg to an American scientist (William Hopper), who brings it home for closer study. In what remains probably the film’s most memorable scene, the strange, translucent egg eventually hatches and the baby Emyr emerges, looks around, rubs its eyes and looks around again, quietly establishing itself immediately as a confused, curious and empathetic character. Simple as it is, it’s still a masterful bit of animation, with Harryhausen himself becoming as much an actor as any of the onscreen humans.

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Everything seems to be going well, the Emyr (though never named in the film) seems friendly enough even as it starts growing at an alarming rate. Nice as the creature is, before long it becomes a bit of a handful and much harder to keep hidden. Then, well, he wanders away and starts frightening farmers and dogs alike. After being shot at by humans and attacked by dogs (a scene effectively played in shadow), the Emyr becomes much less amiable. And man, he does not like elephants. The action eventually moves to Rome and in a clear and admitted homage to Kong while at the same time fulfilling the “destruction of a tourist attraction” requirement, the Emyr meets his demise in a confrontation atop the Colisseum.

That same year Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien worked on the effects for The Black Scorpion, which was the first feature (apart from the segment in Animal World) he’d worked on since Mighty Joe Young. Since O’Brien’s work remained quite a slow and expensive process, many of his animated scorpion sequences were re-used several times throughout the film, saving a little money but greatly diminishing their impact.

20 Million Miles to Earth was, in simple, cinematic terms, the most spectacular and original film Harryhausen had done to date and provided a real showcase for what could be done with stop motion effects. Although he often complained about the miniscule budgets he had to work with, what he was able to accomplish working alone with little money is nothing short of miraculous when compared with its giant monster competition at the time and only served to re-emphasize what kind of artist he was.

The film marked not only the end of his black and white period, but also the end of his sci-fi monster movies. As he said, he was tired of destroying major cities and wanted to move on to something else.

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