Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Man Who DOOMED San Francisco!

Last Wednesday, movie producer Charles H. Schneer died at age 88. Now normally, among honest actresses (an admittedly rare breed), a dead producer is the best kind, but Schneer will be missed by film fantasy fans everywhere.

The screaming headline above: "San Francisco DOOMED!" comes from the preview of the second movie Schneer produced, It Came From Beneath the Sea, his first of 13 collaborations with film legend Ray Harryhausen. Here's Ray and Charles together, preparing to make fantasy film history. Ray, as always, is the bald one. Since the bull-headed model between them is from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the next-to-last of their mutual films, this picture is from late in their collaboration.

Charles was not simply the Roy Disney (Money man) to Ray's Walt (Creative). Charles was a true collaborator, as deeply invested creatively in their projects, as he was to making them happen. If you look at their string of films, as we are about to do, you will see that he was as important to fantasy films as George Pal.

Oh look, here's George Pal with Ray. Was Ray cheating on Charles? No. Harryhausen and Pal went way back, to Ray's early days working on George's "Puppetoons". Besides, no one who met George Pal could avoid falling in love with the darling man. Plus, well, don't they both look a bit drunk?

Ray probably wished he was drunk when this next, quite recent, picture was taken, since he's stuck posing with Little Dougie. Well, when you're a figure as towering as Ray, you have to put up with a lot of annoying fans.

Charles made other films besides his work with Ray Harryhausen. But perhaps the less said about them the better. One was Hellcats of the Navy, the film which brought Nancy Davis and Ronald Reagan together. When you're partially responsible for America getting stuck with that evil cow Nancy Reagan as First Lady for 8 years, 8 years you spent safely living in London, well, you're well advised to keep quiet about it.

Another of his films was I Aim for the Stars, an admiring biopic of Wernher Von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist and SS officer who developed the V-2 rocket that rained death on London on behalf of Hitler, and then, after the war, came over here and was a major force in America's rocket programs, while teaching rocket science to kids on TV for Walt Disney, all his enabling mass murder for the Nazi's forgiven. Shrug it off. So he was a Nazi swine. That was so last decade.

Another of his non-Harryhausen films was the oppressive musical Half a Sixpence, starring the flash-in-a-pan, overbearing Tommy Steele.

You see why I think we should perhaps just skip his non-Harryhausen movies?

After producing his first film, The 49th Man, Charles saw The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and was excited by the possibilities of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation techniques. They met, and decided to sic a giant sextopus on Northern California to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco was DOOMED!

What, you ask, is a sextopus? Well, aside from being something I've been called on more than one occasion (Eleanor Roosevelt had such a mouth on her!), it's also an octopus with only six tentacles, which is, of course, cheaper to hand animate.

They had to smuggle their cameras onto the bridge secretly because the San Francisco City Council refused them permission to shoot on the bridge. Why? Because they felt the movie would "undermine public confidence in the bridge." Yes, the council was afraid that the movie It Came From Beneath the Sea would make people afraid to use the Golden Gate Bridge in case a giant sextopus might tear it down while they were on it! Well, the movie came out and there was no drop in bridge use, and now it's been out for 53 years ago, and so far, there has not been any giant sextopus attacks on the bridge, or indeed, any proof that there are any giant sextopuses at all, nor even any giant octopuses. What science has proved is that George W. Bush was not the first, nor even the dumbest, idiot politician in America. The San Francisco City Council: protecting Californians from the fear of giant mollusks for more than half a century.

Their second film together was Earth vs the Flying Saucers, a spectacular depiction of Washington DC getting trashed by aggressive flying saucers. Except for being in black and white, and the fact that Hugh Marlowe makes Gene Barry look like Marlon Brando, it's every bit as good as George Pal's War of the Worlds.

At the age of 6, Little Dougie saw this film in it's original release. It opens with a faux-documentary sequence. Since Little Dougie hadn't yet learned to read (I wouldn't say he's mastered it even now), he thought the film was a newsreel, and it scared the bloody hell out of him. The fact that Hugh Marlowe had a successful career as a professional actor, he still finds frightening.

This shot is supposed to be at a missile base on the east coast, but it was actually shot at a water purification plant in El Segundo, a couple miles away from where Little Dougie was living at the time in Redondo Beach. It wasn't bad enough that Dougie thought the movie was really happening, the friggin' flying saucers were invading his neighborhood.

No, that's not the vehicle waiting last week to take George Bush back to whatever evil planet he came from in the first place, his mission to destroy American values and economy accomplished. It's Harryhausen's aliens trying to attack Eisenhower. Too bad he was off playing golf. If you ignore the script and the acting, Earth vs the Flying Saucers is a damn good movie.

The next Schneer-Hrryhausen collaboration was the sci-fi thriller 20 Million Miles to Earth. In it an earth rocket, sent up by a secret American space program, returns from the planet Venus with the egg of a Venusian, which hatches, grows to be a huge monster in about three days, and goes on a rampage in Rome before being shot to death on the Roman Colosseum.

Where to start? Okay, the rocket was supposed to have landed on Venus, where the astronauts (Paul Drake from Perry Mason) had adventures. The temperature on Venus is around 800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is as thick as Jello. I hope they had good cooling systems on their space suits, and, let's say sturdy and heat-resistant technology on the ship.

The Venusian creature, a "Ymir," just grows, without eating. When it does eat, it eats nourishing sulphur. If it's a species that evolved on Venus, it would find our atmosphere unbreathable, and it would freeze to death in the chilly (compared to 800 degrees) Mediterranean climate of Italy. They call this science fiction, because all the science in it is fictional.

Incidentally, the film is set in Italy because Ray was bored with life in Los Angeles, so he set the story in Italy to get a free trip to Italy. That is executive thinking at its finest.

Bart Braverman from the TV series Vegas, as a small boy (with the very non-Jewish stage name "Bart Bradley") plays the obnoxious child-hustler who is supposed to be plucky and adorable. This horrible character type also recurs in Schneer & Harryhausen's Valley of Gwangi, where it's just as unbearable. 20 Million Miles to Earth is a very entertaining movie, but it is wildly preposterous from beginning to end.

For their next film, Schneer and Harryhausen switched to color, and from sci-fi to Arabian Nights fantasy with one of their biggest hits, the beloved 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

That's gay actor Kerwin Mathews, who is about as Arabic as I am, in the film's most famous sequence, having a scimitar fight with a living human skeleton. How do you kill a living skeleton? The picture revolves around a mission by Sinbad to release Mrs. Bing Crosby from a curse laid on her by an evil sorcerer. Since it's all fantasy, one can't point to scientific errors, but there's still the fact that it presents Bhagdad as a seaport. There are now way too many Americans who know only too well how very far inland Bhagdad is.

And look at the poster for this film above. It says "The sheer magic of Dynarama now recreates the most spectacular adventures ever filmed." Recreates? Did someone think that sword-fighting skeletons, fire-breathing dragons, horned cylopses, four-inch high crooners' wives, and Scandinavian Arabs actually existed at some time in the past?

But silly as it is, it's a tremendously fun, deservedly beloved movie, and it has a terrific musical score from genius Bernard Herrman. And the skeleton fight is rightly considered some of Ray's best work. Here is Ray's own sketch of the climax of the skeleton fight, showing just how you kill a skeleton.

They liked Kerwin Mathews (So did I!), and so kept him around for their next fantasy epic, an adaptation of Jonathon Swift's satirical classic novel Gulliver's Travels, which they titled The Three Worlds of Gulliver, since it was felt that using the extremely well-known title of the famous-for-centuries classic novel might confuse people. If they'd filmed The Wizard of Oz, they'd have called it Dorothy and the Blustery Day. Plus, Gulliver only visits two fantasy worlds in the movie, so the title is actually more confusing.

As this photo implies, starring in two consecutive Schneer-Harryhausen fantasy classics (as well as an imitation Schneer-Harryhausen fantasy film, the 7th Voyage knock-off film Jack the Giant Killer, which is actually a lot of fun also) must have given Kerwin a severely swelled head, although every thing I've ever heard about the late Mr. Mathews indicates that he was a lovely, charming man. I wrote an obituary piece on him titled The Last Voyage of Sinbad, and a follow up piece titled Oh What a Bagdad Had. Click on both and enjoy.

Their next joint project was an adaptation of Jules Verne's sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the science fiction classic Mysterious Island, about a group of American Civil War soldiers escaping from a southern prison camp only to get marooned on an island beneath which lurked the Nautilus, with an elderly Captain Nemo rattling around all by himself.

Little Dougie had just read the book when the film came out, so he was surprised, to say the least, by the parade of giant monsters the castaways had to deal with, since there are none in the novel. Well, at least they weren't assaulted by a smoke monster, attacked by Ben Linus and The Others, or jostled about in time. Time jostling was George Pal's province at the time. Here they are battling an attack by giant crabs. These days, they have a lotion that will take care of that in one shower - ah - so I'm told, that is.

The actor in the center of that shot is Gary Merrill. When the movie was shot, he had just divorced Bette Davis, after a decade of marriage. After ten years of - ah - "Wedded Bliss" with Bette Davis, all the giant monsters Ray Harryhausen could hurl at him weren't enough to raise a sweat. "Huge crabs? Giant honeybees? An undersea tentacled horror? A volcanic eruption that destroys a whole island? Puh-lease! Child's play. Try surviving Bette's journey through menopause."

Ray, Charles (as opposed to Ray Charles), and many of their fans agreed that their next film, Jason and the Argonauts, was their best one, although I think that Clash of the Titans is at least as good, and as a hero, Harry Hamlin is a vast improvement over Todd Armstrong. In the picture above, the titan Talos is strolling along the beach, stomping on Argonauts. Clearly Talos spends a lot of time on the beach. He's so bronzed, he looks like he's made of bronze.

The move from Arabian Nights and whimsical satirical English fantasy literature into Greek mythology was a good idea. Both Ray's techniques and his artistic temprament were a good fit with the Gods of Olympus. Oddly enough, it was actually a remake of the recent international mega-hit Hercules, starring Steve Reeves. Watch them as a double feature sometime. Two more vastly different versions of the same story are hard to imagine. Harryhausen & Schneer's film has a strong, literate script, a damn good cast (Honor Blackman, fresh from playing Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, plays Queen Hera), 1964 state-of-the-art special effects, including a magnificent 7-headed hydra (see below) and a battle between three Argonauts, and a whole platoon of living skeletons. Reeves's film has a lousy script, a laughable excuse for a monster, ludicrous overdubbed dialogue, cheap special effects, the nearly-naked body of Steve Reeves, and a shirtless crew of Argonauts (Jason is a supporting character in his own story) all of them handsome and covered in rippling muscles. Yes, Hercules is by far the better movie!!!!

Of course, like all fairy tales, there's a boy-meets-girl subplot, and the hero and heroine are last seen sailing off to Happily Ever After. But for adults with some literary knowledge, it has a blackly hilarious edge, because the lovers are Jason and Medea, and the educated know that the marriage of Jason and Medea will end one day with Jason dumping her for another woman, and Medea, All-Time Mother of the Year, taking revenge on her husband by murdering their children. Lovely bit of horrific irony there.

Their first foray into the world of anamorphic widescreen came with their Cinemascope science fiction literary adaptation H. G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon. Nominally science-fiction, the science in this film makes 20 Million Miles to Earth look like a lecture by Stephen Hawking.

The 19th Century astronauts travel to the moon via "Cavorite," a ludicrous substance which "Cuts off' gravity the way a window blind cuts off sunlight. After that, finding a moon full of caves with a breathable subterranean atmosphere, and a population of intelligent insectoid creatures is a small leap. That the astronauts are able to cavort about the surface of the moon in ocean diving suits with no gloves, and just tight-fitting cuffs around their wrists to keep their air in is almost believable next to Cavorite.

The first hour of the film, on earth, with a lot of expertly-played comedy dominated by the great comic actor Lionel Jeffries as Professor Cavor (And a tiny, unbilled cameo appearance by Peter Finch) is actually the best part of the movie. Once they take off for the moon, it all becomes rather odd, and there is a singular parcity of Harryhausen's animated creatures, though some of the sharp satire of Wells's novel does find its way into the movie. There is a clever modern-day prologue, that depicts a modern moon landing with astonishing accuracy, given that we were still five years away from actually landing on the moon, in which the modern astronauts find evidence that humans had preceeded them to the lunar surface. And there's an ending Wells would have approved of; learning that Cavor's head cold had wiped out the entire lunar population.

A remarkably odd dinosaur adventure came next: Valley of Gwangi, based on a story by Harryhausen's mentor Willis O'Brian. Set at the turn of the century in Mexico, it's a cowboys and dinosaurs story, with a lost world in a cut-off valley, a two-bit wild west show, a band of gypsies led by a blind crone who croaks out dire pronouncements about "The Curse of Gwangi," and even a dwarf who gets eaten by a tyrannasaur in front of a paying audience. (That's entertainment!)

After Gwangi, Schneer and Harryhausen returned to Sinbad for two consecutive films. The first, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, featured John Phillip Law as a blonde Sinbad, a most unusual trait in an Iraqi. The villain is Doctor Who, Tom Baker to narrow it down. There's a lovely Miklos Rozsa musical score, and a terrific, tour-de-force sequence of Sinbad's men battling a six-armed statue of Kali.

Things were more of a mess in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, as the lumpy, inelegant title shows. Determined never to cast an Arabic actor, or even close to one, as Sinbad, this time they went with Patrick Wayne, John Wayne's even-less-talented (hard as that is to imagine) son. Had they done a fourth Sinbad film, they probably would have cast Tab Hunter. Come to think of it, Tab would have been a double improvement on Patrick Wayne. Tab can act, and he's sexy. Wayne is neither. The plot is a mess, with a villainess who grows weaker as the film goes along (strong villians get more powerful, not weaker) and they end up in an arctic pyramid.

There's another Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton this time, only he's a good guy in this one. Tyrone Power's daughter, Taryn Power, is in it, and beautiful Jane Seymour. There's a saber-tooth tiger, a friendly troglydite that could have been played just as well by an actor, and a giant golden minataur, sometimes animated, and sometimes played by the actor who played Chewbacca in the Star Tours movies. But dopey as the whole thing is, it features some of the subtlest, most amazing animation Ray ever did.

You see one character is a human prince transformed into a baboon. Instead of using a real baboon, Ray animates the baboon, and animates his human emotions onto his face with a delicacy and artistry that surpassed anything he had ever done before. The movie is pretty bad, but the animation of the baboon's face is amazing. The best work he'd done since Mighty Joe Young.

Charles and Ray were to make one last film together before mutually retiring. Clash of the Titans was a glorious last hurrah. Returning to Greek myths, this time they took on the myth of Perseus and Medusa, but felt so utterly free of any duty to tell the ancient story as it has been for millennia, that they stuck The Kraken, a character out of Norse mythology, into the story as the ultimate menace, rather like having Seigfried and Brunhilde battle Paul Bunyun and Pecos Bill.

The cast is about as star-packed as you can get. Laurence Olivier is Zeus. Claire Bloom is Hera. Others in the cast include Ursula Andress, Sian Phillips, Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith, Flora Robeson, Tim Piggot-Smith, and gorgeous Harry Hamlin, at the height of his himbo beauty, as Perseus, wearing peek-a-boo, nipple-revealing togas.

Harry and Ursula, though widely seperated in age, took to each other, and ended up having a child together. Yes, Harry and Ursula's son owes his existence to Clash of the Titans.
But with all the great actors on view, it is Harryhausen's creatures that steal the show: his beautiful Pegasus, a horse that doesn't so much fly as gallop through the air, the multi-armed, out-of-place Kraken, a brace of scary giant scorpions, and most wonderful of all, his chilling, amazing Medusa, a brilliant sequence, whose lighting, Ray has stated, was based on Joan Crawford movies, More than just the lighting if you ask me. Well, Joan had nicer skin, and less-unruly hair.

An intelligent, literate script, a brilliant cast, even in the small roles, some of Ray's greatest creations, a budget far above any he'd had before, and even some lovely manflesh (Jason and the Argonauts had finally learned its lesson from Hercules), it was a lovely way to go out.

Here's Little Dougie's DVD of the film. Even on the disc, they've made sure you notice how hot Harry looks in the picture, as he attempts to give head to the Krack-en. I must apologize for the way Ray Harryhausen has scribbled his name across the disc. He must have vandalized it when he was visiting me here at Morehead Heights. Ray is always coming by with armloads of Tallulah Morehead memorabilia he begs me to sign for him. Such a trial, but it's the curse of movie legendom that I must bear.

Ray and I made two pictures together. The second, 1,000,000 Years Ago, was produced by Hammer Films, and so doesn't concern us here. But our first, the 1956 Amassed Artists black & white shocker THAT!, was a Charles Schneer production, albeit one he seems to have forgotten he ever made.

I play a lady scientist called in to help Kenneth Tobey and Richard Carlson save the day when a rogue dose of radiation causes my normal pussy cat to grow to the size of The Smithsonian Institution. Needless to say, my giant pussy regards mere humans as cat toys, and the city of Washington DC is nearly shredded to bits. I come up with the brilliant plan to cover the Washington Monument with shag carpeting, turning it into a gigantic scratching post. All Mankind seems to wilt when confronted by my giant pussy, but I stiffen their resolve to destroy the huge furry thing, which is using the National Mall as a massive litter box. Once treed on the Washington Monument, we bombed the oversize pussy with a massive overdose of catnip. Ray had the time of his career, bringing my enormous pussy to life.

There was a lot of discussion about the title. Originally they wanted to call the movie It Came From Out of the Cat Box, but that was felt to be too close to their earlier It Came From Beneath the Sea, as well as Ray's pal Ray Bradbury's It Came From Outer Space, and might cause confusion, as well as pretty much begging critics to call it doo-doo. I suggested just shortening the title to the punchier It Came!, but this was felt to sound too much like a science ficiton porn movie.

They used Bad Kitty for a working title for a while. The problem was, in scenes using a real kitty (Ray only lay his magic hands on my giant pussy), when the first AD would yell stuff like "Bad Kitty, scene 12, take 4!" the cat would hide.

Then we tried calling it Bad Pussy, but marketing had some kind of problem with putting out posters that read "See Tallulah Morehead's Bad Pussy!" Finally, we just went with THAT!, joining the ranks of films of the decade with titles like The Thing, It, Them, They, Those, Them Thar, and Pronoun!, all very scary movies.

Charles H. Schneer, the unsung half of Ray Harryhausen. The 20th Century would have been a lot more mundane without him. Thanks Chuck.

Cheers darlings.

Donations in name of Charles H. Schneer may be made to the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, Department of Development, Mayo Clinic, 200 1st Street SW, Rochester, MN 55905.


Sister Mary Martha said...

Waiting with breath withheld for your Huffington Post on the Grimies.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Bless you, Sis, but I'm sorry. No Grammy post from me. I'm simply not qualified to write one. My idea of "current music" is Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert. Really, I don't even know who the people are anymore. But then, writing jokes about something I don't understand and know nothing about could possibly get me a gig writing for Jay Leno.

I've never watched a Grammy Show, as I was out of my twenties before Music was invented. I grew up surrounded by savage beasts with unsoothed breasts. I did win a Grammy myself quite a while back, but I didn't attend.

I was awarded "Best Spoken Word Album" over 40 years ago. Sadly, it was for my album TALLULAH MOREHEAD SINGS THE BALLADS OF ROGERS & HART. One admiring critic wrote of my album: "It makes you feel better about Lorenz Hart being dead."

For a really funny take on The Grammys though, here's one written by Annie Levine and her writing partner, Brock (He has a last name, but who needs a last name, when your name is Brock?), both budding screenwriters in their 20s. Annie is the daughter of my friend Kent Levine. It is very funny, and I couldn't have written a word of it, because frankly, I don't know the difference between Coldplay, U-2, and Abu Gharib. I know who Stevie Wonder is though.


I'm happy you enjoy my HuffPo columns. My next will be on Friday the 13th, recapping the SURVIVOR premiere from the night before, and then I'll be doing those weekly throughout it's run.

My next awards show review will be following The Oscars. Those I am qualified to make jokes about. I did post a brief piece on THE DARK KNIGHT last week:


Thanks for asking. Cheers.

WV: inslob. How Felix Unger described having sex with me.

Second WV: nomeness. A quality unique to residents of Nome, Alaska. Sarah Palin REEKS of it!

lump516 said...

I'm quite willing to blame Charles Scheer for HALF A SIXPENCE (and I actually like musicals), but Ron and Nancy were married five years before they did HELLCATS OF THE NAVY. Too bad she didn't meet Werner Von Braun first . . .

Viagra versus Cialis said...

These vintage movies always makes me laugh a lot! stunning review as usual.