Monster Kid Online Magazine #7
A Review by Curt Hardaway
Throughout my entire life, there have been few people that I’ve considered “personal heroes” in the now-convoluted sense of the term, and even fewer “geniuses.”
On my very short list of both is Ray Harryhausen.
There can be little doubt that film history will proclaim him as the greatest stop-motion animator of all time. While there may have been others in the field who were – and I say “were” because Harryhausen’s kind of stop motion is, for all intents and purposes, a dead art – better animators, it was he who perfected other visual effects techniques that allowed the animation to become part of a believable fantasy landscape. I think he also deserves the lion’s share of the credit for keeping stop motion alive. Without him, the craft just might have been relegated to a brief footnote in the annals of visual effects, not only because of his substantial output, but because he inspired so many others to take up the cause.
I say all of this as a preface to the real purpose of this article which is a review of an extraordinary new book that will arrive on September 14 called RAY HARRYHAUSEN – MASTER OF THE MAJICKS, Volume 2: The American Films by Mike Hankin (Archive Editions, 370 pp, illustrated hardback, $74.95 from www.archive-editions.com). You may be asking yourself, “Do we really need another book on Ray Harryhausen?” The answer is, “Hell, yes!” In fact, we could use three, as you shall see.
That's because Hankin began gathering information and conducting interviews for the project well over fifteen years ago, and has since become close friends with Harryhausen, ensuring a wealth of additional “insider” information.
Before I go any further, I have to tell you that the publisher and editor of the book is Ernest Farino, a two-time Emmy-winning visual effects creator (and co-editor of the famous Harryhausen fanzine FXRH) who just also happens to be an old friend of mine. I’m telling you this for one reason and one reason only – having known Ernie for nearly 35 years, I can absolutely guarantee you that he’s about as anal retentive as anyone can get without being labeled as such. In other words, the book is as thoroughly researched and as factual as you’re ever likely to read. Information has been double-checked, triple-checked, and on and on – not only by Hankin and Farino, but by a number of knowledgeable contributors as well.
Two other things we should get out of the way quickly: 1) the word “majicks” is a real word from the 14th century having several meanings that suggest the conjuring of illusions, so stick that in your urban hat and smoke it, and 2) so far, there is no volume one in the book series. You see, it’s planned as a three-volume set. The first covers Harryhausen’s roots and early career with his Fairy Tales, Puppetoons, and other projects; the second takes an in-depth look at each feature from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG through THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD; and the third does the same for THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER through CLASH OF THE TITANS. The reasons volume two is being published first are practical ones – sales and word-of-mouth. Volume three will be the next published, followed by volume one (admittedly of least interest to the general public).
I’m not going to compare this book to Harryhausen’s own AN ANIMATED LIFE (probably mostly written by co-author Tony Dalton) except to say that the biggest difference between the books (other than accuracy, of course) is the general formatting and layout. Hankin has wisely separated each chapter by film title, making it much easier to find information quickly on any given film while Farino has done an amazing job on the page layouts, many of which are simply astounding in both design and execution. (And keep in mind that I only had a muddy, black-and-white laser copy of the book to review, so I can’t imagine how great it will look in finished form.)
What’s really neat is that most of our favorite scenes from these films are often given their own nifty layouts. There’s a wordless two-page spread of highlights from the orphanage fire in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a two-pager for the lighthouse scene in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, three pages dedicated to the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, two different three-pagers on just the Cyclops’ sequences from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and many, many others. There’s a sense of fun here that can only have been created by true lovers of Harryhausen’s films.
Be assured that the book is profusely illustrated with animation stills, live action and behind-the-scenes photos, and advertising art (including tons of fascinating foreign material) – most of which has never before been published. There are even frame enlargements (from Harryhausen’s own reel of outtakes) of unused stop-motion shots done for several sequences in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. If that doesn’t pique your interest, nothing will.
As far as the text goes, a major difference you’ll notice right away from all of the other Harryhausen books in existence is that Hankin has included a number of interviews with other professionals involved in the making of these films, from directors and writers to producers and stars. He also provides detailed information on all of the other technicians who helped to create Harryhausen’s monsters and milieus, something few others have touched on.
The author’s text is suitably scholarly but a little stiff at times. Don’t get me wrong – he’s extremely thorough, with just about every imaginable facet covered on both the films and the visual effects. It’s just that his writing style rarely got my blood pumping.
There’s also a point right in the middle of the text for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG where Hankin spends over two pages discussing the construction of the armatures for all of the animation models. Admittedly, I don’t really care about armatures that much, but I’m pretty sure it will bring the chapter to a dead stop for most readers. Luckily, that’s the only time it happens, even though armatures are discussed (in paragraphs, not pages) in the other chapters.
There are several moments that shine with life, such as the story about producer/investor Hal Chester wanting to hang on to ownership of his part of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS when the other partners wanted to sell it outright to Warner Bros. As he was protesting, the lawyer he’s talking to pulls out a gun and lays it on the table in front of him. Chester signed.
Another great story is how the harbor water being pumped onto Kerwin Mathews and the other actors during the siren/storm sequence in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD happened to be full of waste from the surrounding ships. It was so bad that Mathews and the others had to be doused with some clean, fresh water for closeups. (Mathews even swallowed some of the sewage and was sick for a few days. Ughhh.)
The book also dispels some common myths that have grown up around certain aspects of Harryhausen films, such as the old story about using a hidden camera crew in a bakery truck in order to get all the shots needed for the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. True, the San Francisco city fathers really did deny the request to film on the bridge because they didn’t want anyone to lose faith in the structure, but the rest of the story – garnered from information supplied by film historian Tom Weaver – is... well, another story.
There were a few things missing from the painstakingly comprehensive text I was surprised about, though. Most noticeably was the absence of any box-office data from EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. Such data is not generally my cup of tea, but I was curious about how much money it brought in compared to what it cost, as was done on the other films. And while numerous other effects problems were mentioned, one of Harryhausen’s biggest gaffes was left out – that of the skeleton growing several feet in height as he chases Sinbad out the door in 7th VOYAGE, even though the sequence is given a full six pages just by itself.
My final petty gripe is that there are numerous photos and illustrations throughout the book that don’t have any captions. Most of them are obviously self-explanatory, but there are still quite a few that deserved a line or two of clarification. But I’m sort of nutso about captions, a curse from my decades of editorial experiences.
While I may seem to be overly critical of some admittedly minor points, keep in mind that, other than a few typos here and there, these are the only flaws I could dig up. That’s impressive.
So, besides the lengthy chapters for each film, what else does the book offer us? For starters, how about the concise footnotes at the end of every chapter that are often as detailed as the text itself. And we get an actual index! Thank the stars! I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sick and tired of books that don’t have indexes. It’s an absolutely crucial feature for any extensive reference book.
And take a look at what’s included in the almost 90 pages of appendixes: story synopses from every film; complete cast and credits to every film; filmographies of practically every person mentioned in the book; thorough discussions of every music score; a sampling of reviews for every film at the time of release (most of these will break your heart, make you extremely angry, or make you laugh out loud); a detailed timeline with information about Harryhausen’s work in relation to the Academy Awards from 1949 to 1958; what each film was double-billed with when it came out; a lengthy section on Harryhausen collectibles with lots of photos; a technical glossary; and last but not least, a glamour gallery of every female lead in the films (some of these will surprise the hell out of you – I think Faith Domergue is the best, myself).
I knew when I first heard about this book project ten years ago that it would be something special, but even I had absolutely no idea that it would end up covering all-things-Harryhausen to such an overwhelming degree. Now that I see what Hankin, Farino, and the large list of contributors have accomplished, I can safely say these books will become the epitome in academic reference on Ray Harryhausen.
To paraphrase Plutarch – “When fans saw the breadth of MASTER OF THE MAJICKS, they wept, for there was no more Harryhausen information to conquer.”