As a boy reading Famous Monsters magazine, one person’s name that kept recurring in regards to some of my favorite films was Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen’s films were class acts, loaded with imagination, fun, action and cool monsters. In FM, I read about how he worked alone, creating some of the coolest creatures brought to seeming life on film, one frame at a time. But before I had ever heard his name or knew what he had done, I was a fan.
As I mentioned here previously, my mother watched scary movies all the time (still does). She was never worried that I may become traumatized… and, with one exception, I never was while watching them. (The exception was George Pal’s War of the Worlds… which I’ll get around to writing about someday.) So, I caught a lot of monster flicks very young, remembering only small bits of having done so.
I didn’t know what stop-motion animation was, but there was something about those films using the technique that hit me just right... weird, smooth movement and actually character despite their rubbery origins. I noticed the style when I was a wee lad on such things as Karel Zemen’s amazing Journey to the Beginning of Time (which was serialized in 5 minute chunks on the Chicago kid show Garfield Goose) and the very loud Black Scorpion, created by Willis O’Brien.
Not even knowing who had done the effects, Harryhausen’s films were rubber heads and metal armature shoulders over all others, even the man who trained him. (Sorry, gang, while I recognize O’Brien’s genius, Harryhausen took the technique into greater heights than O’Brien was ever allowed to… but that’s my opinion.)
I also recall one Saturday night going to visit my Aunt Irene and Uncle Roy in Aurora. We got there just in time for me to catch a portion of an unusual film they were watching. The scene I walked in on showed a giant merman holding some shakey rock walls from crushing a ship attempting to pass through. I remember seeing most of the rest of the film, with the great skeleton sword fight at the end. Of course, the film was Jason and the Argonauts, which is probably my favorite Harryhausen film of all. While I was college years later, I finally got to see the film on the big screen in a theatrical re-release.
As I grew older, I saw more of Harryhausen’s work on the WLS-TV Channel 7’s afternoon film, in its 90 minute slot. The film, which I quickly came to love, was Mighty Joe Young, animated by Willis O’Brien with his protégé, Harryhausen. I loved the ending when Joe rescues some kids from a burning orphanage. I dug it when the monster made the transition from misunderstood monster to lovable lug. The film was usually shown as part of the station’s theme weeks, in particular Gorilla Week. The other films which were almost always shown were King Kong (O’Brien at his best… it blew everything else away), Son of Kong (a little too cute for my tastes), King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes.
I remember one Friday night out of many, when two of my buddies, Eric and Fish, came over for what was an impromptu stop-motion film fest. At 10:30pm, CBS’s late night movie slot ran The Valley of Gwangi. This is Ray's western dinosaur movie, which is loads of fun.
Then, a half hour past the end of that film, one of the local channels ran Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. Earth is, of course, totally unique in Harryhausen's body of work, creating the flying saucers very effectively. It's loads of fun, particularly the attack on Washington at the end... including the Washington monument falling on a crowd a la the giant octopus' tentacle.
Right around that time, my interests were diversifying, besides the wonders of the female gender I had also become obsessed with comic books… but I remained a monster kid, err… teenager. One day, I was over at Fish’s house and he showed me a comic he had just bought. It was an issue of Marvel Comics short-lived scifi anthology comic series, Unknown Worlds. He bought the first part of a two-part story that were also the last issues of the 4-color comic. The story was an adaptation of the upcoming Harryhausen film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
I had to see it, but how? Well, back in the early 70s, there was still an attitude about long hair. I had long, crazy hair that was like Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, I get along with my stepfather as an adult, but when I was a headstrong kid, I could be a real pain in the ass. Meanwhile, my stepdad hated long hair and was always trying to get to me to cut it.
And in a moment of weakness, fearing I might not ever see Golden Voyage, I set aside my righteous Billy Jack attitude and told “The Man” that I would cut my hair to see the movie. He was stunned and agreed. I got the worst haircut I had ever had in my life (no kidding at all there, really) and I saw the movie. It was better than I hoped. I loved the monsters and, of course, Caroline Munro. My Dad liked Caroline, too.
My crazy hair soon grew back… but I had seen Golden Voyage in a theatre. It was worth it.