Before cable TV, the only entertainment hope for Sunday afternoons in St. Louis was KPLR-TV's "Sunday Movies." Three films played back-to-back-to-back starting at noon; these features drew heavily from Hollywood's B-list. But leavening the steady stream of gimpy Westerns and generic crime dramas was a rich vein of Technicolor wonder: the films of Ray Harryhausen.
Ray Harryhausen's name appearing in the opening credits was a guarantee, a gift, a free ticket to fantastic realms where evil men wrought terrible deeds and heroic men fought their way through oceans of monsters to win lithe girls and glory. Drawing upon the classics of Greco-Roman mythology for plot and enhanced with visually arresting special effects of Harryhausen's own design, the crisply paced films meshed perfectly with the black-and-white morality of childhood. In The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts (the acknowledged gold standard of Harryhausen's work in the fantasy genre), evil is real and tangible in the sculpted flesh of Harryhausen's monsters; these were things that lurked under nocturnal beds. But bravery and cleverness and good intentions could always overcome these beasts even when the beasts were so magnificently rendered that the child couldn't help but root for the monster, too.
It is the magic of Harryhausen's creations that allow adults to enjoy his movies long after the real world has become a grim and gray place. Blessed with an artist's eyes and hands, and the patience of a saint, Harryhausen painstakingly brought his creatures to life through stop-motion animation. Carefully moving and photographing his models one frame at a time (a technique he honed working with stop-motion master Willis O'Brien) and then combining this footage with footage of his human actors, Harryhausen gave the illusion that the Hydra was real, that dinosaurs roamed the earth and that statues could come to life. Much as he was inspired to pursue a life in film by O'Brien's special-effect work on the original King Kong, Harryhausen's work from the '50s and '60s inspired filmmakers George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro to do the same.
When asked about the enduring legacy of his films, Harryhausen, whose voice is tinged with a slight British inflection after years spent in London, responds with a laugh, "I'm grateful they've lasted. Charles Schneer and I produced these movies way back in the '50s, and I'm grateful that they've lasted as entertainment after all these years. I think our films are better appreciated today than they were when they were first released." And despite the fact that Harryhausen's movies are considered B-pictures owing to their tight budgets, he notes that, "We've outlasted all these so-called big-budget films. We made them in an unusual way, not the typical Hollywood way of making them. Charles Schneer and myself and the writer would create this script these are not director's pictures in the European sense of the word."
And Harryhausen often wasn't the credited director in any sense of the word. But while Don Chaffey handled the human actors in Jason and the Argonauts, it fell to Harryhausen to wrangle Talos the living statue, the Hydra, the harpies and all those famous fighting skeletons (technically, "The Children of the Hydra's Teeth"). How many other movies can you think of where the film is known by the special-effects man's name instead of the credited director's? Harryhausen cites the co-operative nature of his work with Charles Schneer, as well as the lessons learned from Willis O'Brien (he worked with the Master on the original Mighty Joe Young) as reasons for his films' enduring appeal. After his discharge from the army post-World War II, Harryhausen decided not to return to work with special-effects man George Pal, because "[Pal's] technique was very stylized, and it didn't leave much room for creative quality on the set," Harryhausen explains. "The beauty about Willis O'Brien's technique of a single figure [is that] you create all the little nuances while you're animating, because one pose leads to another. And I think that's so important, that you have a stimulation of original creation during the process of animation, rather than a cut-and-dried script that you have to follow because of dialogue and synchronization and all that."
That spark of life Harryhausen gave his characters is most famously evident in the iconic skeleton sequence in Jason. As wave after wave of sword-wielding skeletons wash over the desperate Jason, each individual skeleton displays quirks of movement and reacts to the wild sword-swings of Jason and his comrades. The scene unfolds in five heart-pounding minutes, and yet it took Harryhausen four tedious months to animate. The action is vivid and believable enough that British censors excised the whole sequence for fear that it would scar children.
Fortunately, in America we soaked up the skeletons in all their bony glory. But on the topic of violence in his movies, Harryhausen is adamant. "Fantasy is bigger than life. It has to be, otherwise it's not fantasy. I know we've got a bit of violence in some of our films, but that's for dramatic sake and not for any other reason. There's a big difference between fantasy violence and realistic violence. People know the difference."
But Harryhausen feels that the difference is blurred in too many of today's films. "So many films today are depressing; the subject matter's depressing," Harryhausen states unequivocally. "I've never wanted to sit for an hour and a half to watch someone in the process of dying; I don't find that entertainment." Harryhausen believes that the difference between menacing skeletons and today's monsters is that in films like Jason, "We tried to keep the hero alive, and the fact that good inherits the earth instead of evil. Today, some of the films I've seen are not my cup of tea. They frighten me." Citing the power that O'Brien's King Kong wielded over his imagination as a child, Harryhausen says, "If I had been affected by Little Caesar in those days [the same way], I could have been a godfather today!"
When it's suggested that he's a godfather in the more traditional sense of the word to thousands of children worldwide Harryhausen's response is quick and hearty: "Thank God!"
Ray Harryhausen personally screens an archival print of Jason and the Argonauts at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at the Webster Film Series (470 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-968-7487). Tickets are $4 to $6.