Happy day/Crappy day. We often live in a bittersweet, yin and yang existence. On what should be one of the happiest days of my life (the official release date of my new book, Legends of the Blues), I just got hit with the devastating news of the passing of my friend and cinematic hero, the great Ray Harryhausen.
For me (and a lot of other impressionable youths in 1958), my enchantment with the work of master stop-motion animator and special effects man Ray Harryhausen all began with experiencing The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
I was nine years old. Upon its release I saw that film a magical seven times in two weeks. I couldn’t get enough of it — the visual splendor, the color, the magnificent Bernard Herrmann score, the wonderful cast…but I was especially awestruck by the film’s unique monsters.
I come from a movie nut family. Together we consumed an average of six features per week (three double bills) at the drive-in. Then, on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday, too), my brothers and I would be dropped off by our parents at the Reseda Theater (or another local “walk-in”) to see a another double bill or two.
We were dropped off one Saturday to catch a matinee showing of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. During intermission I called my mom to let her know that after the second feature we were going to watch Seventh Voyage again. Then, I begged my parents to let me see it two more times on Sunday. When given a choice of films the following weekend, my brothers and I rejected the new features we hadn’t seen in favor of viewing Sinbad a few more times.
Seventh Voyage was the first film I ever saw as a child in which I became conscious of the importance of a film’s musical score. Bernard Herrmann’s Arabian Nights symphony for Sinbad still holds up as one of his finest scores. I personally rate it with not only the finest film scores in history but feel that it holds its own amongst classical music of that genre, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
Even at nine I knew enough about credits to figure out who was responsible for the Sinbad film’s magical beasts: Ray Harryhausen. From the moment I saw those awesome pixilations I began to seek out Harryhausen’s past work and anticipate each new stop-motion adventure with an enthusiasm I could barely control. I read all I could about the man and his work in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine featuring articles written by Ray’s high school pal Forrest J. Ackerman (Ray’s other friend from his teen years was Ray Bradbury. In 1953 Harryhausen brought Bradbury’s dinosaur from the short story “The Fog Horn” to life in the movie The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms).
I had to see each of Ray’s new films on opening day. Little did I suspect that one day Ray and I would become friends, eventually embarking together upon a dream project ignited by the supernatural spark of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was not the first Harryhausen movie I ever saw. I recall being scared witless in the back seat of our Ford as I watched Earth vs. Flying Saucers at the Reseda drive-in in 1956. It was explained to me by my father that this was science fiction. He emphasized the “science” part of “science fiction”, however, impressing upon my young mind that the science part of it meant that this invasion of earth by flying saucers could indeed happen — a fact that would probably come to pass in the near future. Assuming it was just a matter of weeks, I began to plot and prepare for the inevitable while watching the movie.
Ray’s first feature, Mighty Joe Young, may have been my first exposure to the sure and steady artistry of Mr. Harryhausen. After the dramatic success of the 1933 King Kong on the 50s TV package program the Million Dollar Movie (one film would be selected to be shown twice a day weekdays and then three times each on Saturday and Sunday), I can’t imagine that the Million Dollar Movie wouldn’t have shown Mighty Joe Young shortly thereafter.
My Terra Nova Press book of drawings entitled Tribute to Ray Harryhausen contained my graphic interpretations of every creature Ray Harryhausen ever animated for feature films.
Here is a list of Ray’s legacy of feature films:
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)
The Animal World (1955/56)
Earth vs. Flying Saucers (1956)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The Three Worlds of Gullivar (1960)
Mysterious Island (1961)
Jason and The Argonauts (1963)
First Men In The Moon (1964)
One Million B. C. (1966)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)
Sinbad and The Eye of The Tiger (1977)
Clash of The Titans (1981)
Ray and I eventually met through mutual friends. We found we had a lot in common, including a passion for King Kong (we both attended the 50th Anniversary recreation of the premiere of King Kong at Graumann’s Chinese Theater, as well as the VIP party afterwards with Fay Wray) and a keen admiration for the work of the pioneer visualizer of prehistoric life, Charles R. Knight, and for the French animalier sculptor Antoine Louis Barye.
One of my favorite Harryhausen moments happened when Ray was a guest at one of our informal meetings of the Dinosaur Society of Los Angeles. Don Glut had brought a collection George Meliès silent fantasy films to show us. Ray was sitting behind me with his friend and fellow stop-motion wizard Jim Danforth. As we viewed Meliès’ turn of the century short films I couldn’t help but be both amused (and astounded) to hear the then reigning kings of cinematic special effects wizardry both comment on what we were seeing with, “How did he do that?!”
Ray never lost his humility nor his childlike enthusiasm for life. We were both guests at Louisville’s WonderFest convention one year. When I arrived in the convention hotel’s lobby, I was greeted by Ray.
“Bill!” he exclaimed, like a little kid who had just been given the keys to the candy shop. “You’ve got to see my room — it’s HUGE!”
Ray Harryhausen has probably inspired more young people to get into film than any other single person in The Business. Most of the guys I know (and I know a lot of ‘em!) who work in special effects or special make-up effects, or in the science fiction/fantasy/horror film genres idolize Ray. Robert Rodriguez’ Spy Kids 2 is virtually a feature length tribute to Ray and his work.
It was my dear friend Richard Jones (Richard produced a wonderful documentary on the life and work of Ray Harryhausen) who suggested that Ray and I should collaborate on a sequel to The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
We intended the film to be a capper to Ray’s career. Ray had retired, so we weren’t expecting him to go back and animate again. Instead, our plan was to hand the animation of each creature off to an acolyte of Ray and his work, using the best people in the business. Ray would be the overall Special Effects Supervisor. This would allow each team to create a stirring homage to Harryhausen. We were also sure that each artist would try to outdo the others in their attempts to honor Ray, making for a competitive creative process in the most positive fashion and spirit possible.
I got together with Ray and asked for a list of all the creatures he ever wanted to animate but that for some reason or another (usually budget) he never got a chance to bring to life. I then wrote a screenplay incorporating all of these creatures (and a few more) into The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad – Return to Colossa. We’ve been looking for that elusive studio green light ever since. When that happens, perhaps a new generation of nine-year-olds will be inspired to wander down their own Harryhausen-influenced path of fantastic creativity.
Until then, I’ll have to content myself with Ray’s rich cinematic legacy. By the way, if it’s not too late, grab the limited edition of Twilight Time‘s blu-ray version of Mysterious Island. It’s an absolute revelation! The color and transfer of this film is so breathtaking, it’s almost like seeing it for the first time. I pray that someday the rest of Harryhausen’s oeuvre receives the same lovingly detailed restoration.
My work schedule today is now out the window. Instead, I am going to settle in front of my home screen and watch Ray’s films for the rest of the day, reliving the thrills, joy, laughs, beauty and tears — especially the tears today — of the worlds created by the late, great fantasy film legend, that Talos-sized giant of a man: Mr. Ray Harryhausen.