|Ray Harryhausen - The Early Years Collection|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 February 2005|
Ray Harryhausen was 13 when he first saw “King Kong,” which changed his life. He became fascinated by the method used to give life and motion to the giant ape and his dinosaur playmates, and finally sought out Willis O’Brien, the creator of “Kong”’s effects. In the 1940s, Harryhausen did some stop-motion animation for the Army, and began a series of fairy tale/Mother Goose shorts that continued until the early 1950s. These were done in stop motion animation—models that are moved a bit, photographed, moved a bit more, photographed again, and so on. When projected, the models move, often dynamically. It’s the same principal as cartoon animation, but applied to objects.
Now that you know all about stop motion animation, how many here saw “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and/or “Jason and the Argonauts” when you were kids? Hold those hands high. I thought so—almost everyone here has seen those movies, and/or lots of Harryhausen’s other movies. His big-scale adventures and mythological tales had sequences so powerful they sucked the breath out of kids the world over, for almost thirty years. “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (the giant octopus), “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” “Mysterious Island,” “First Men in the Moon,” “Clash of the Titans” (his last movie) and others. Even if the dramatics lacked something, Harryhausen’s dynamic, ferocious beasts were unforgettable.
But he started well before all these. This two-disc set is invaluable for those who admire Harryhausen’s effects work, and is a handsomely-produced keepsake, a tribute to Harryhausen and a warehouse of his earliest work.
Disc 1 includes the Mother Goose Stories (four of them) and The Fairy Tales (five here)—these played in grade schools all over the United States, being shown and shown again, even very recently. Sure, they’re for children, but Harryhausen’s abilities make them fun and watchable for almost anyone.
The first disc also includes as many of his earliest experiments and tests as Harryhausen could unearth, including the footage he showed Willis O’Brien (“Evolution”—dinosaurs at large), and test footage he shot for unsold films, including a Martian from H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” and some bat-like creatures intended for a feature called “The Elementals.”
Also here are a discussion of the making of his short “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Harryhausen abandoned it when his theatrical-movie career took off in the wake of “Mighty Joe Young;” it was completed just a couple of years ago by some dedicated Harryhausen fans using his original models.
Disc 2 is laden with tributes to Harryhausen and the like. A video of the Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony, when he was given a bronze-and-coral star in the sidewalk (near the El Capitan theater), features Harryhausen, life-long friends Forrest J Ackerman and Ray Bradbury, enthusiastic fan Frank Darabont—now an acclaimed writer-director himself, and Arnold Kunert, who worked years on getting Harryhausen that star. He also produced this DVD set.
In the 1930s, Bradbury, Ackerman and Harryhausen were members of the Los Angeles Science Fiction League which met on Thursday nights at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. (Now called the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, LASFS, it still meets every Thursday night, only now at their own clubhouse in the San Fernando Valley.) The three were brought together again and interviewed in the still-in-business Clifton’s. An odd omission: a photo is featured, taken of a 1930s LASFS gathering at Clifton’s, but the only three people identified are Bradbury, Ackerman and Harryhausen. And yet in the same photo can be seen many of the most famous science fiction writers of the time; too bad they’re not identified.
Ted Newsom interviews Harryhausen about the fairy tales, there’s a discussion of the huge statue Harryhausen made of African explorer Dr. David Livingstone being attacked by a lion, now on display at the Livingstone museum in Scotland. There’s some footage shot at the Filmmuseum in Berlin, which houses many of Harryhausen’s models. And there are three of the several shorts made as tributes to Harryhausen; they were presented to the surprised animator at a surprise birthday party held for him at the home of the British Consul in Los Angeles. Too bad more of the shorts weren’t included, but these three are the cream of the crop.
And there’s a brief excerpt from an interview Leonard Maltin conducted with Harryhausen at the Motion Picture Academy in April, 2004. At the end, Maltin says that Harryhausen’s career is a working model of a life well spent. He established his goal early, and with the support of his parents, shaped an amateur’s avocation into a lifelong vocation. He worked for years, retired when he felt like it, and now spends his time being lionized by film fans around the world. That has to be very gratifying.
The importance of this disc cannot be exaggerated, for there was never anyone else like Ray Harryhausen. Yes, Willis O’Brien did some great work, but not as much as we all wish he had. Today, it takes vast teams to do the effects that one man, alone in a dark room, accomplished on a regular basis for more than thirty years. The disc includes a whole lot of people praising Harryhausen in short clips; many are effects artists, some, like Darabont, Joe Dante, John Landis and James Cameron, are directors. When Harryhausen was given his special Oscar, it was presented to him by a tag-team of Tom Hanks—who had INSISTED on being the presenter—and Ray Bradbury.
There were rivals and contenders to his throne, but Ray Harryhausen is unique in movie history—a man who created a genre by doing brilliant work in a very difficult field. It’s not surprising that Columbia just announced “The 8th Voyage of Sinbad”—but without Harryhausen, it will be just another movie. Harryhausen can be imitated, but he’s unique, he’s irreplaceable.
If you’re at all interested in Harryhausen’s amazing career, this two-disc DVD set is a worthy addition to your collection.