Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Schneer Magic

Without wanting to turn this into some sort of creepy obituary blog, it would be negligent of me not to also mention the passing of legendary film producer of Charles H. Schneer who passed away last Wednesday, aged 88. Obviously the kids today are going to say, “who he?” In which case, boy did you bunch of miscreants seriously miss out on something wonderful.

Serving in the US Army’s Signal Corps Photographic Unit during the Second World War, Schneer moved to Hollywood once hostilities and ceased and found a job at Columbia Pictures’ low-budget production unit. Having the idea for a film about a giant octopus that attacks San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, an old army buddy introduced him to a young stop motion animator called Ray Harryhausen. In fact It Came From Beneath the Sea was so low budget that the massive cephalopod, stirred into action by an H-bomb test out to sea, ended up with six tentacles rather than eight because of budget constraints.

The pair then collaborated on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, co-written by the blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon, in which aliens intent on conquering the planet give Washington DC’s famous landmarks a pasting before they’re brought down by human ingenuity, and 20 Million Miles to Earth where a reptilian life-form brought back from Venus wreaks havoc in Rome. If the stories weren’t always up to much, those films became a perfect showcase for Harryhausen’s exceptional animation skills.

Following their success Schneer helped find the backing for a personal project of Harryhausen’s that he had been shopping around Hollywood with little success. Released in 1958, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the duo’s first film released in Dynamation, the name they had devised to describe their technique of combining stop-motion animation with live action photography. Their fantasy adventures, loosely inspired by The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, continued down the years with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, but the duo’s most celebrated production, and the finest proponent of Dynamation, has to be their take on Greek mythology and the quest for the golden fleece.

How do you explain the impact Jason and the Argonauts had to kiddies who have grown up in the warm digital embrace of computer generated animation? The scene where the giant bronze statue of Talos comes to life was astonishing enough – with the head slowly turning to stare down at the Argonauts before it steps down from the plinth, accompanied by the eeriest grating sound ever – but even more mind-blowing was the celebrated sword fight between Jason and his men and the seven skeleton warriors, brought to life from the teeth of the recently slain Hydra.

No wonder the film, more than any other, is said to have inspired a generation of filmmakers. While many have tried to equal it, like in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, even with modern technology at their disposal none have come remotely close to Harryhausen’s achievement. Because of his painstaking attention to detail the animation for that climatic duel alone is said to have taken four months to complete. The time set aside between the end of principal photography and the film’s eventual completion allowed Schneer to go off and produce other live action films while his partner was still hard at work, including Hellcats of the Navy starring Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, and even Half a Sixpence with Tommy Steele as Arthur Kipps.

I may not have rushed to watch the latter two, but the visual feasts Charles H. Schneer’s and Ray Harryhausen conjured by like a couple of wicked little magicians played a big role in my viewing habits as a youth, either making up part those long gone science fiction and fantasy film seasons screened on the BBC or as a solo effort that became the perfect antidote for a wet Saturday afternoon, taking the audience away to another time and place.

As his obituary in the The New York Times mentions:

A hands-on producer, Mr. Schneer contributed enthusiastically to the story lines of his films, Mr. Harryhausen said on Monday. He scoured the papers for accounts of the paranormal, of which there was no shortage in the 1950s. He accompanied his crews on location, and at least once helped stave off an embarrassing anachronism.

The film was Jason and the Argonauts, shot on the Italian coast. In one scene, the script called for Jason’s ship, the Argo, to sail around a bluff and into view. But as the cameras rolled, to everyone’s astonishment, Sir Francis Drake’s galleon the Golden Hind sailed by instead. It had been launched by a British film crew also shooting in the area.

As Mr. Harryhausen recalled in an article he wrote for The Guardian in 2003, Mr. Schneer rose to the occasion at once. “Get that ship out of here!” he cried. “You’re in the wrong century.”


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