Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen!

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Stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen turns 90 years old today. One of the most important exponents of stop-motion animation and its integration with live-action footage, Harryhausen has more than earned the retirement from the industry he has enjoyed since 1981’s Clash of the Titans. His menagerie of mythical beasts, living statues, warrior skeletons and alien invaders set the gold standard for special effects animation: inspired by, but undoubtedly building upon, the work of Willis O’Brien (who mentored him on Mighty Joe Young), Harryhausen’s creatures were endowed with a distinctive inner life that manifest itself in nuanced mannerisms or full thespian emoting. These miniature models were made to give fully rounded performances that invariably overshadowed the lunky performances of their human costars. A relentless populist with a boyish imagination, you could tell that he was driven by a desire to bring his mind-load of beasts into full-colour motion as directly as possible.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Harryhausen at a book signing. Arriving a little late, I was shocked to find him alone next to a pile of books and DVDs. Where were the legions of geeks? Could it be that his appeal had not filtered down to younger generations who hadn’t grown up marvelling at Saturday afternoon Sinbads and Bank Holiday Argonauts? My own affection for Harryhausen’s work had taken me by surprise when I welled up at the sight of one of the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons at a public talk he gave during the Animated Exeter festival a few years back. So, that should tell you something about the level of critical distance I’m able to take here. Anyway, I had a little chat with Ray and asked him to sign my copy of his book, and my old VHS of Jason. “Is this your favourite of my films?” he asked me. A bit sheepishly, I replied: “I have a bit of a soft spot for Earth vs the Flying Saucers.” Perhaps because he was hard of hearing, and I soft of speaking, he asked me to repeat myself, and in the middle of a quiet city-centre Waterstones I found myself loudly declaiming my appreciation of the 1956 alien invasion epic for which he supplied peerless animation and compositing in scenes of gleeful mass destruction. Since I plan to spend my autumn years shouting at people in bookshops, it was good to get some practice in, and to shake the hand of a man whose films still provide a little corrective every time my cinematic diet gets a bit too dark and heavy.

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen. My humblest of gifts is a slideshow and gallery of some images and posters that should remind you of some of his achievements. View the slides above or click on any image below for a larger view:

See more Spectacular Attractions galleries here.

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Johnny Eck in Tarzan Escapes


The strangest thing I’ve seen this week came a little way into Tarzan Escapes, a rather brief, throwaway visual gag that puzzled me, and then made me feel a bit daft for being puzzled. In almost every one of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, there’s a trek up the treacherous cliffs that lead to the escarpment where Tarzan and Jane are developing a mini suburban home in the jungle, complete with homemade domestic gadgets and a fully equipped kitchen. Quite often, they use library footage, or second-unit sequences to show the local wildlife. There’s a lot of recycling in these films, with action scenes and shots of Tarzan swinging through the trees (performed by a trapeze artist in some cases) appearing repeatedly. So, it’s always a pleasant surprise when they throw in something novel.

En route to the escarpment this time around, the group that is ostensibly seeking Jane’s signature on a family fortune is actually going to try and entice her back to England, while Captain Fry (John Buckler, who died in a road accident a week before the film’s release) aims to capture Tarzan, presumably to stick him in a sideshow. Thus is efficiently established Tarzan and Jane’s ongoing see-saw dialectic between civilisation and … er, whatever the jungle is supposed to represent by the time they’ve built all the household appliances out of bamboo. On the trek, Fry’s cowardly and ineffectual assistant Rawlins (a career playing butlers clearly beckoned for Herbert Mundin) checks out the local animals, growing increasingly uneasy at the sight of big cats and crocodiles. The final straw, though, the one that makes him question his sanity, is the appearance of a large, thick-legged bird. Click on the slideshow to view:

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Notice anything odd about it? Like Rawlins, I did a double-take. I’m no naturalist (that’s animals, not clotheslessness), but I think I recognise a wide variety of species from this crazy planet of ours. But yes, the bird is actually a bloke in a costume. Not just any bloke – that’s Johnny Eck, “half-man” sensational star of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932).

Having looked up this moment, I was surprised to find that it was itself used in the first Weissmuller Tarzan film, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Had I not noticed it? Why did they choose to slip in this surreal moment, dressing up a human actor for one of the animals? They occasionally use actors in ape suits for complex bits of monkey business, but the “scenic” shots of wildlife are mostly shot on location using real animals. Only when they need something to attack or be ridden by a human do they cut to trained animal actors. I suspect the answer is that they did it because they could. The footage was shot during the making of Freaks, another MGM production, that would eventually be released a month before Tarzan the Ape Man, and might even be making sly reference to the bird creature into which Olga Baclanova is transformed at the end of  Browning’s film. It’s tempting to read into it a subtext about capture and escape, the threat of Tarzan being turned into a sideshow exhibit, but it was probably just an opportunist in-joke.

Eck sounds like a pretty amazing guy, exploiting the prominence offered by his extraordinary physique to pursue his eclectic interests in arts and entertainment; he was a painter, pianist, diarist, magician, actor and, best of all, a Punch and Judy man.  Tom Waits namechecks him on the Black Rider album, and loosely based the song Table-top Joe on his life. Find out more about him at the great Johnny Eck Museum.

Johnny eck