The International Writers Magazine: Life Review
RIP Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)
John M. Edwards
When special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen received a special Lifetime Achievement Oscar at an Academy Awards ceremony a while back in 1992, the presenter Tom Hanks said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. . . . I say ‘JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS’ is the greatest film ever made!"
Ditto: I, of course, concurred.
I saw this adaptation of the Greek legend regarding Jason and the Golden Fleece as a young fourth-grader on an old black-and-white TV set up on a toilet seat while I was taking a hot bath at the same time—an activity, of course, my parents objected to, warning me about possible electrocution. The film fired up my imagination, especially the classic scene stealer of sword-fighting skeletons, which supposedly took Harryhausen almost four months to film.
With time being in short supply, Ray Harryhausen has made good use of it, clocking in with 15 major features and a number of experimental shorts, including his first solo feature film “THE BEAST FROM 20, 000 FATHOMS (1953), based upon a short story by Ray Bradbury involving a lost dinosaur attracted to a lighthouse. Originally called “The Fog Horn” Bradbury’s elegiac tale was bought from The Saturday Evening Post to avoid being sued for breach of intellectual property—even though the two Rays had been friends since they were teenagers.
However, one of the most important milestones of Ray Harryhausen’s career was, of course, “MIGHTY JOE YOUNG” (1945), which won an Oscar for Willis O’Brien, then Ray Harryhausen’s mentor. This proved to be Harryhausen’s dream job, since he was heavily influenced by O’Brien’s two classic stop-motion films, “THE LOST WORLD” (1925) and “KING KONG” (1931).
In fact, without The Ape there would be no Harryhausen.
Born in London, England, UK, on 29 June 1920 and died in Los Angeles, California, USA, on 7 May 2013, Raymond Frederick Herrenhausen (later Anglicized to “Harryhausen”) almost singlehandedly redefined stop-motion special effects. He worked diligently bringing such creatures to life as The Cyclops from “THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD” (1958), which was Harryhausen’s first foray into Technicolor, and Kali from “THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD”(1973), which was a surprising box-office smash hit. Other memorable monsters he created--often with the help of his encouraging parents (his father Fred was a machinist and his mother Martha was a seamstress)--were built with movable endoskeletons and dressed with latex. The literal bestiary, of course, moved almost imperceptibly single frame by single frame. Ray quipped, “My parents nurtured this unusual passion in me by taking me to films . . . and later enthused about my experiments with marionettes and models.”
I like “The Centaur” with a club fighting “The Griffin,” with we the audience suggesting that both hybrids might have been created via “animal husbandry.”
Or, even better, “The Medusa,” with we the audience being careful not to look at her and thus turn to stone.
Or, even still better, “The Roc” with we the audience witnessing the improbable gargantuan beast flying around like a gangly chook straight out of The Arabian Knights.
||Whichever monster you like best, Harryhausen was fair enough when he said he did not pick favorites because “the others get jealous.” But, according to some, the understated homunculuses and harpies got preferential treatment in his alt universes.
How does a life spent fidgeting behind the camera start? When Harryhausen was thirteen years old, he attended a screening of the King Kong film at the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard (along with his childhood friend Ray Douglas Bradbury according to some biographers) and his life changed forever. Harryhausen wrote about the epiphany, “I find it all rather difficult to believe that a film about a giant gorilla had the influence to alter the direction of my entire life.”
Although he eventually married his Diana, and had a daughter named Vanessa, Harryhausen by nature was a “loner” and “geek.” He preferred working by himself in abject silence, even over the excitement of filming in impressively massive alien atmosphere sets. Harryhausen admitted many times, “I prefer to work alone and do everything alone, even today.”
When with wherewithal and gumption he at last landed a job with his hero Willis O’Brien on the already mentioned landmark animation of Mighty Joe Young, known for the classic scene where the rather large ape battles a rather large elephant (both animated), Harryhausen was well on his way.
After a stint working with the director George Pal on his “Puppetoons,” and rushing through a series of animated shorts of fairy tales like “King Midas” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” the cerebral soft-spoken Harryhausen decided to make it big in Tinseltown with an innovation he called “Dynamation.” His good friend, the late Forrest J. Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, said about Ray Harryhausen’s breakthrough innovation of using “split screens” to match the animation to the real live action, “monumental”!
In fact, when I was a young kid collecting horror, sci-fi, and fantasy memorabilia, I paid a trip to Forry’s Hollywood Hills mansion, right down the street from the set of “House on Haunted Hill,” and marveled at his museum, which not only included the latex-covered movable models for many of Harryhausen’s films, such as the “Ymir” from Venus in “20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH” (1957), but also the crazy knife-wielding voodoo doll terrorizing Karen Black from the memorable 1970s TV production “TRILOGY OF TERROR.”
I asked if I could have one of the Harryhausen models, before Forry’s secretary amusingly asked us if he could call us a cab, which we did need in the affirmative, and then he replied with a deadpan grin, “Okay, you’re a cab!”
Much later, when I found a copy of Ray Harryhausen’s Film Fantasy Scrapbook, at the now-long-gone P&M Bookshop in Plainfield, New Jersey, a mecca for the fanatical memorabilia collector, with boxes full of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Mad, Cracked, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella mags, as well as much older pulp magazines like “Astounding Stories, Amazing Stories, and Galaxy,” I nearly jumped for joy.
From this find I found out more about some of Harryhausen’s more obscure films, not so easy to catch on TV, such as “IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA” (1955), which featured a giant squid destroying San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and “EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS” (1955), which is about angry aliens attacking Washington, DC. I did eventually see both films, thanks to the modern-day magic of Netflix and Amazon.com. However, Amazon was fresh out of “THE ANIMAL WORLD” (1956), which might have never actually been released, unfinished business.
But Ray Harryhausen really reached his prime in the 1960s, probably because hippy stoners were wild about special effects, including LSD trails. And so Harryhausen brought to life “THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER” (1960), “MYSTERIOUS ISLAND” (1961), and his masterwork “JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS” (1963). And then came “FIRST MEN IN THE MOON” (1964), which was adapted from an H.G. Wells book of the same name, and “ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.” (1966), which featured a scantily clad Raquel Welch being snatched away by a gigantic pterodactyl, as well as Cro-Magnons spearing obscure dinosaurs. All of these films featured “Dynarama” printed right on their movie posters.
One of Harryhausen’s most important films (based upon an unfinished script and sketches of Willis O’Brien) was “THE VALLEY OF GWANGI” (1969), where cowboys try to lasso an angry Allosaurus. If you have never seen this flick, drop it into your Amazon.com cart right now and speed toward the checkout. This film always struck me as being “spaghetti” Wild West vs. Jurassic Park vs. Blazing Saddles, with a little Django thrown in.
But not every film can be a success: “SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER” (1977), just could not compete with the other Sinbad films. I’ve never seen it, and neither have you.
But what could brave the box office was “CLASH OF THE TITANS” (1981), a swansong film that influenced Terry Gilliam for one, with its impressive depiction of “The Kraken” from Norse mythology. However, a planned sequel called “THE FORCE OF THE TROJANS” has not been made—yet.
Harryhausen has been a big influence on many other masters of special-effects films, such as Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and George Lucas, who said, “Without Harryhausen, there would have been no 'STAR WARS.'”
Ray Harryhausen was only 92 when he passed away.
(If you want to know more about this wizard pioneer, pay a visit to The Official Ray Harryhausen Website: [www.rayharryhausen.com])
© John M. Edwards, June 2013
He recently won ten NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards