Ray Harryhausen — Master of the Majicks
by Mike Hankin
Volume 2: The American Films 370 pp., Hardcover
Volume 3: The British Films 638 pp., Hardcover
Reviewed by Tim Lucas
Video Watchdog #166, Jan/Feb 2012
Reprinted by permission
It sometimes seems there are too many books about Ray Harryhausen on the market— perhaps because Harryhausen himself, along with co-writer Tony Dalton, has been personally responsible for most of them. They began in 1972 with his FANTASY FILM SCRAPBOOK, which was subsequently updated with new editions at the time of each new release until his 1981 retirement following CLASH OF THE TITANS; these stand to be replaced next year by a full-out, deluxe refurbishment edition from Aurum Books. In the meantime, he’s given us THE ART OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN (2008), a graphic compendium of annotated production drawings and paintings; A CENTURY OF STOP-MOTION ANIMATION: FROM MELIES TO AARDMAN (2008), which covers 100 years in slightly more than 200 pages, too much of it devoted to Harryhausen himself and his mentor, Willis O’Brien; and the welcomely autobiographical but distinctly authorized and occasionally inaccurate RAY HARRYHAUSEN: AN ANIMATED LIFE (2010). Also available are Jeff Rovin’s FROM THE LAND BEYOND BEYOND (1977), the lengthy chapter that forms the most resonant chapter of Paul M. Jensen’s THE MEN WHO MADE THE MONSTERS (1996) and Roy P. Webber’s THE DINOSAUR FILMS OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN (2004), to name a few. That’s a lot of attention for a non-auteur technician, especially one whose métier is no longer in vogue, and whose films are often less impressive than his own body of work within them.
Between this body of work and the further coverage devoted to Harryhausen over the decades in such magazines as CINEFANTASTIQUE, CINEFEX and FXRH (SPECIAL EFFECTS BY RAY HARRYHAUSEN), it would seem that everything needing to be said on the subject must have been said at least once. Yet all it takes is reading a few paragraphs of Mike Hankin’s RAY HARRYHAUSEN MASTER OF THE MAJICKS to feel the spark that once so memorably leaped from his subject’s fingers to breathe life into a gallery of unforgettable armatured creatures. We’re told, along the way, that they are surprisingly large, thick fingers to have commandeered such intricate work—and it is precisely this eye for detail (and, more importantly, parenthetical detail) that makes these two volumes so precious and so essential.
Unfortunately, unlike the other books mentioned above, Hankin’s are the ones that have already disappeared from print. Though not advertised as limited editions, these hefty hardcovers were published in print runs of only 1,000 copies; VOLUME 2, which appeared in September 2008 (“the very month that Lehmann Brothers collapsed and started the downward spiral of the economy overall,” noted publisher Ernest Farino in an email to me), took two years to sell out, while the supply of VOLUME 3 (“with greater awareness, word-of mouth, and a slightly stronger economy”) was exhausted after only six months. Be advised the same print run will hold true when Volume 1 finally appears, at a still-unannounced date.
Farino, the former publisher-editor of the FXRH fanzine, notes at the beginning of each volume that it was commercially impractical to present Hankin’s chef-d’oeuvre as a whole work, and would hardly have served this project well to launch it with a volume devoted to Harryhausen’s curiosa and juvenilia. Therefore, Hankin “cuts to the good stuff” (as most readers would, anyway) with VOLUME 2, which opens with the 28-year-old animator walking onto a feature film set for the first time, as a young salaried professional hired to assist his hero and mentor, Willis O’Brien on RKO’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) and culminates in the Dynamation breakthrough, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).
Each new chapter opens with a gasp: a full-page photo chosen for its ability to distill a film’s singular magic to a single image, and Hankin’s 104,000-word text escorts us through the fully illustrated details of pre-production, production and post-production, offering pertinent sidebars about key cast and crew members, musical scores, and promotion (including some unbelievably gorgeous international poster art, in full color) along the way. Hankin’s writing is beautifully judged, walking a perfect tightrope between the technical and the wholly accessible, and his remarkable eye for detail extends to offering not only the numbers of the soundstages where live-action scenes were shot, but sometimes the measurements of those spaces as well. He seizes upon scientific details (eg., the pelt of an unborn calf was utilized for the skin of Mr. Joseph Young of Africa), as well as the human details of production (eg., Kerwin Mathews’ moving response to a photograph recovered of him and his mother at his hometown premiere of 7TH VOYAGE). In referencing Stephen Foster’s song “Beautiful Dreamer,” so memorably used in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, he not only mentions it was the last song Foster wrote before his death in 1864, but that the song originally to be performed by Terry Moore’s character was Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” a change of plan which—he doesn’t need to say, and doesn’t—was most fortunate for the film’s shelf life.
The text encompasses the author’s meticulous (and, occasionally, guesstimated) deconstructions of Harryhausen’s guarded secrets about his effects sequences, deleted scenes, as well as details about technical challenges and advancements (it was the introduction of Eastman’s intermediate negative positive 5253 color stock that made it possible to film 7TH VOYAGE in color, as its detail was fine enough to not betray Harryhausen’s use of rearprojected settings), deleted scenes and effects shots, as well as quotes from cast and crew members (original and from other print sources), all meticulously annotated at the end of each chapter. The exclamation-pointed headlines identifying various sidebars throughout the book (“San Francisco Attacked! The Golden Gate Bridge Destroyed!”, “Roman Rampage!”) smack a bit too much of early FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, but the overall tone of Hankin’s writing is a winning combination of the scholarly, the humorous and the obsessive.
As a chronicle of the films themselves, the book is faultless, and its decision to be a collection of definitive production articles rather than a critical biography is commendable. Hankin allows himself room for the occasional evaluative comment, as when he notes that THE VALLEY OF GWANGI seems to be dating better than ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C., but his focus is ideally balanced between process and product. The books include biographic information—such as Harryhausen’s 1962 marriage to Diana Livingstone and the subsequent birth of their daughter Vanessa in 1964, which roughly coincided with the death of his father, who had encouraged Harryhausen’s work to the point of assisting it—and they also chronicle the ongoing hopes and disappointments of his career, but they don’t really aspire to the conditions of biography. Hankin admits early in VOLUME 2 that the only skeletons he found in Harryhausen’s closet were posable. These were admittedly workaholic years for Harryhausen, much too busy and ambitious to allow for much adventure (or misadventure) outside the realm of work. One imagines that VOLUME 1, when it appears, will necessarily be far more focused on the young man behind
the stop-motion figures, and only time will tell how well this book will follow that one. Hankin is perfectly forthcoming about personal issues whenever they affect production— such as the time when 7TH VOYAGE director Nathan Juran’s “explosive” manner was directed at a script girl, resulting in the entire mortified Spanish crew’s refusal to assist him until he offered her a public apology. He also seizes upon an interesting opportunity to chronicle the earliest stirrings of Harryhausen fandom, including color photos of a visit by two early, unidentified fans to Harryhausen’s Malibu home, a testament to the artist’s down-to-earth accessibility that fortunately preserves shots of some animation models before their foam rubber exteriors began to deteriorate.
VOLUME 2’s last 70 pages, nearly a fourth of the book’s length, are reserved for appendices ranging from the necessary (synopses) to the curious (double-bill information, sampled film reviews of the time), and from the completist (Harryhausen’s history on home video) to the strangely gratuitous (glamour shots of Harryhausen’s female stars, mostly from non-Harryhausen films). There is also a Foreword by Jim Danforth, who returns at the end of the book as Hankin covers Danforth’s animation for producer Edward Small’s JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962), a film closely patterned on 7TH VOYAGE not only in terms of its special effects but its casting as well. If some of the book amounts to glossy padding, its overall handsome design, the quality of its photos and, especially, the high level of its scholarship makes the book well worth its original cost, perhaps even twice that figure—but the book is now impossible to find for less than $400.
As impressive as VOLUME 2 is, VOLUME 3—covering Harryhausen’s British films from THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960) to CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981, and thus encompassing such major works as MYSTERIOUS ISLAND  and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS )—eclipses it in nearly every way. The doubled page count results in a noticeably thicker, heavier book, yet the paper stock is conspicuously thinner and the typeface is visibly smaller and more compacted. In addition to the expected chapters and appendices, three pages of three-dimensional photos of various stop-motion figures are included, along with a single pair of anaglyphic 3D glasses. There is a Foreword by Caroline Munro and a Preface by Guillermo del Toro whose clarity and appreciation of the book’s achievement poses a challenge to anyone else attempting to write about it.
Though VOLUME 2 is hard to fault for its depth of photographic coverage, the films made during the VOLUME 3 years were more thoroughly documented, coming as they did after the major success of 7TH VOYAGE. The chapter on ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. alone is an astounding bombardment of previously unpublished images, not only related to Harryhausen’s work but to Raquel Welch’s star-making presence in the picture. (The shots of her in her dressing room are priceless.) The text hits the ground running as a continuation of the story from VOLUME 2 and, with more participants available to pool their memories, the range of interviews is more extensive. This time around, the principal cast and crew members still receive an appendix covering their filmographies, but the actors in particular receive more detail within the chapters, in keeping with their higher status as talent but also preparing the reader for their recollections. Among the fascinating details unearthed for this stretch are cinematographer Wilkie Cooper’s dissatisfaction with the color in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, the manifestations of eventually suicidal actor Nigel Green’s erratic moods on the set of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and an actual frame from a rare 70mm blow-up print of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON produced for Cinerama theaters in Germany.
Roughly 120 pages of appendices complete VOLUME 3, including of particular note an astonishingly detailed list of every known magazine article devoted to Harryhausen ever published, compiled by John M. Ballentine. It’s actually presented twice, once chronologically (which truly charts the rise of attention to Harryhausen’s work) and then again alphabetically. This time, the girlie gallery is annotated with an assurance that no animation effects shots were sacrificed to make room for the parade of admittedly lovely faces and figures. (A flicker-book of a sword-waving skeleton provides more serious content to the lower right corner of these pages.) What has been sacrificed, however, is a sense of closure, as Hankin’s main text stops aburptly at the end of his CLASH OF THE TITANS chapter, with no sense of the thirty years following except for a few titles in Appendix N, devoted to unrealized projects.
It goes without saying that Hankin’s in-progress overview of Harryhausen’s career is unlikely to be surpassed; other books may offer different pictures, different vantages and depths of specific information, but the totality of Harryhausen’s achievement is best represented here. It’s unfortunate that the two extant books are presently unavailable except at high cost, but anyone aspiring to a library of essential books on fantasy cinema will need to acquire them. As for the future of these books, no less an oracle than Ernie Farino prophesied to me that VOLUME 1, still in production, may be in print as early as Summer 2012. Asked if there are any plans for Archive Editions to reprint the two OOP volumes, he writes, “I have no plans to reprint them individually; when all three volumes have been released (and after the upcoming VOLUME 1 sells out), I may very well reconfigure them slightly as a new boxed-set edition, updated and revised. But that’s only a distant possibility at this point.”
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