By James H. Burns
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — There will be many accolades in the months to come, paying appropriate tribute to the fantasy filmmaking legend, Ray Harryhausen, who passed last month, at 92. As a master of stop motion animation, Harryhausen helped create such movies as “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” “The Three Worlds of Gulliver,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” “One Million Years B.C.,” and “Clash of the Titans.”
Harryhausen wasn’t simply the special effects man on these movies, but — almost always in partnership with producer Charles Schneer — inspired their conception, and oversaw their delineation into celluloid wonderment. But it should not be overlooked that Harryhausen’s incredible worlds of imagination were also a significant part of the New York landscape.
For well over a decade, Harryhausen’s films would become the subject of a full week of “screenings” on the old 4:30 movie: A veritable science fiction, fantasy and creature paradise, for fans of the genres! In the days before cable, when there were essentially only seven TV stations available in New York, these movie shows were part of the backbone of local broadcasting. (Harryhausen’s films would also be seen on what were once the morning movie series, as well as late night “special events” on all three of the major network local affiliates.) It is safe to say that there wasn’t a kid in the Greater New York area who hadn’t been exposed to at least some of the magic of a Harryhausen opus.
Harryhausen himself fell in love with the stop-motion animation medium when he saw, upon its first release (in 1933), another film that would become a New York, and international staple, “King Kong.” Soon, the 13-year-old Harryhausen was a budding filmmaker: And while still a teenager, he began serving as an animator on a theatrical shorts series that would ultimately also run for years on local New York TV, “George Pal’s Puppetoons.” In late 1945, he went to work as an assistant to the effects genius who had given life to Kong, Willis O’Brien, on “Mighty Joe Young,” for which Harryhausen animated several of the key sequences.
Ray visited New York many times, perhaps none more magically than when he escorted Kong’s leading lady, Fay Wray, back to the top of the Empire State Building (this time, by express elevator), in May 2004.
Harryhausen actually lived in the Tri-State area for what he said was six months, just after the last days of World War II, and made many visits to Manhattan. (Harryhausen served during the war in his native Los Angeles, for the Special Service Division, helping to create many films for the military. He noted that he gained invaluable experience working as an assistant cameraman to many renowned cinematographers, as well as on Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series. (Ray also spent some time in the cartoon department run by Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss!), who eventually asked Ray to make a sculpture of his famous drawn character, Private Snafu (“Situation Normal, All Fouled Up”) who was being featured in several shorts, for the Army. The model was used as a guide for the artists drawing the traditional cel-animation shorts. (Later, Harryhausen also created humorous Snafu models and dioramas for the cover of “Yank,” the military’s weekly magazine published for–and written BY–servicemen.)
When the war ended, and the Hollywood post closed, Harryhausen was transferred to Fort Monmouth, in New Jersey, where he and others waited for their final, honorable discharges.
I first met Harryhausen during the New York festivities surrounding the debut of 1981’s “Clash of the Titans”, including a prestigious special installation of his models, and other creations, at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (one of the earliest major salutes to his work). Through the years, Ray was always gracious, and humble, and funny. There was just something incredibly gentle about this man whom with the power of his mind, and the dexterity of his touch, was able to create such enchantment. In the first couple of years after “Clash,” Haryhausen engaged in pre-production on a movie called “Force of the Trojans.”
He planned to perform his usual story-generating and producer-like roles, but would generally only SUPERVISE the special effects sequences, with other talented stop-motion animation artists doing the majority of the greuling, meticulous frame-by-frame filmmaking. Theoretically, there could have been a new Harryhausen movie roughly every four years, as had become his informal schedule. (Through the decades, there would indeed be rumblings about other projects, including two more Sinbad followups, “Sinbad on Mars,” and “Sinbad and the Seven Wonders of the World.”) But when MGM cancelled “Force of the Trojans,” Harryhausen found that he no longer had the ambition to shop a film around (and the original “Clash of the Titans” would indeed be his last feature film). Harryhausen, it seemed, had gained another magical plateau, calling it a professional day before he was sixty-five, with the lifestyle he desired (including a loving wife and daughter, and homes in London and Spain). “It had been harder and harder for me during the last few pictures to sustain my enthusiasm,” he revealed in his memoir, “Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life.” “A dependency had crept in when it was time to begin working alone in my small animation studio.
What had one sustained me during the tedium of animation…, ceased to be intriguing. “Moviemaking takes so much out of one’s life. You have to live, eat and breathe pictures, not just during production, but before and after. Having said all that, I regret none of it. I LOVE the films I was fortunate enough to have been involved with!” (Harryhausen also told friend and film historian, writer Steve Vertlieb, that he was simply tired and wanted to spend the rest of his years enjoying his family, and travelling with his wife.)
But Ray’s repose was nonetheless surprising for many reasons, one of which was that he mentioned to me that he would love to use his unique abilities on a comedy, and that he’d be delighted to work with either Mel Brooks, or Woody Allen… (It’s fun to note that Harryhausen did contribute to a comedy, 1985’s “Spies Like Us”, as an ACTOR, making a cameo along with many other directing notables, and also appeared in “Beverly Hills Cop III”, and provided a voice for “Elf”!) Harryhausen’s most whimsical creations were never really “officially” released to the public on VHS or DVD, until the past decade: A series of short fairytale films, solely featurng his miniature model creations, that he had filmed in the 1940s and early 1950s in his parents’ garage!
All of the films’ miniatures and scenes were designed by Ray, but his mom created the costumes, and his father (a machinist) helped build the models and sets. (Harryhausen’s dad also constructed a special camera crane for Ray, and then worked on the miniatures’ armatures for many of his son’s subsequent movies!)
The charming films are evidence that Harryhausen could be humorous, as well as thrilling, in his efforts. (They can be seen along with some astonishing test-footage, and other shorts, on “Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection.”) There were also several books detailing Harryhausen’s career, which are particularly amazing because they include Harryhausen’s original artwork for both the produced movies, and unrealized projects: And the revelation that one can also become enthralled by Ray’s black-and-white renderings, created only with pencil and ink. (Harryhausen also became involved with several DVD releases, and documentaries about his career, as well as some “fine art” recreations of his models.)
Ultimately, Harryhausen was a fan of the same genre that he had helped enrich, and which inspired so many generations of film-lovers. (For me, it began with the first turn to Hera; when Talos rose; the Harpies descended; and our heroes strove to combat the children of the Hydra in “Jason and the Argonauts…”)
It’s worth remembering that in the days of the classic movie shows on TV, even the poorest New Yorker could be transported to a country of transcendence, simply by flipping on the set. “The land beyond beyond…” was what one of Harryhausen’s movies called this realm. And it was thanks to Ray that so many of us were able to soar along with so many of these lovely myths.
James H. (Jim) Burns is a writer/actor living in Long Island, who has written features for such magazines as Gentleman’s Quarterly and Esquire; and op-eds or articles for Newsday and The New York Times.