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DVD SAVANT

Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection


Ray Harryhausen:
The Early Years Collection

Sparkhill
1936-54 / Color & B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 233 min. cumulative / Street Date September 1, 2004 / 29.95
Cinematography
Restoration Scott MacQueen, Mark Toscano, The Academy Film Archive
Sound design Karen Yee, Scott Weber, Dave Erwin
Film Editors Keith Clark, Mike Klaumann, Bjorn Myrholt, Scott Popjes
Original Music John Morgan, Bill Stromberg
Produced by Arnold Kunert
Directed by Ray Harryhausen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This independently-produced two-disc DVD set is the gap-filler in the celebrated career of special effects animator Ray Harryhausen. The immediate draw is to finally have uncut copies of his wonderful 16mm Fairy Tale short subjects, the ones so frequently shown in schools: I saw at least two of them in the 1960s right at the time when Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine introduced Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien as the first film technicians I knew by name. Going in to see Jason and the Argonauts, I was aware of a film artist for the first time.

The set contains practically everything in Harryhausen's hobby closet - his amateur experiments, elaborate dinosaur clips and later attempts to find commercial work. All are fascinating elements in the evolution of a unique craftsman, making this DVD an excellent companion piece for the recent book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. It also reminds us that practically everything Harryhausen worked on is now on DVD ... the Puppetoon work and Mighty Joe Young may be the last titles not accounted for, as his segment for The Animal World is out as an extra on another disc.

Ray provides good on-camera intros for most of the selections. He's the same unpretentious fellow we've come to love.

Contents:

Disc 1:

Stories and Tales
Mother Goose Stories: Little Miss Muffet, Old Mother Hubbard, The Queen of Hearts, Humpty Dumpty.
Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Rapunzel, King Midas, The Tortoise & The Hare.
Early Films
How to Bridge a Gorge, Guadalcanal, Lucky Strike Commercial Demo, Lakewood Homes spots.
Tests & Experiments
Cave Bear & Dinosaurs, Color, Split Screen and Rear Projection, Evolution, Adventures of Baron Munchausen, War of the Worlds, The Elementals.
Special Features
The Making of The Tortoise & The Hare, Audio Commentary for Tortoise & The Hare, Alternate Ending for How to Bridge a Gorge.

Disc 2:

Featurettes
The Hollywood Walk of Fame, The Livingstone Statue, The Clifton's Cafeteria Reunion, In The Credits, An Evening With Ray Harryhausen, The Bronzes, The Ted Newsom Interview, The Academy Archive Restoration, Filmmuseum Berlin.
Tributes
Birthday Tributes, An Appreciation, David Allen Tribute
Galleries

Disc one is what you'll undoubtedly reach for first to see at full length the short subjects sampled in the Richard Schickel docu repeated on many of Columbia's DVDs. At eighteen years Harryhausen was already an accomplished animator and these various test and trial experiments show that he was firmly in control of his visuals before he mastered his animation style and camera technique.

Some of the tests are like looking at your best friend's amateur fun films - provided your best friend had talent that stands out in a crowd. Harryhausen has all of the puzzle pieces in place - sculpting talent, attention to detail and a superhuman ability to concentrate. He must have disappeared into his shop for weeks at a time while animating. The obvious support of his mother and father can't be discounted either, as both contributed their talents to his films while offering him encouragement.

You can see Harryhausen trying out various dead-end styles and career directions. Early split-screen work reminds us a bit of the haphazard mattes of Bert I. Gordon. His attempts to do commercials aren't that inspiring, and some of his War-themed animation done at night while working in the signal corps is a step backward in quality. That he's now willing to put it all out for us to see will be a great help to aspirants in any field - it's not like all of Ray's efforts were perfect in concept or execution.

One of his abandoned paths is especially interesting. A large animated face for his Baron Munchausen idea shows itself capable of a wide range of expressions and would have worked beautifully. It's completely unlike Ray's later work.

Ray found his groove in his fairy tale short subjects, beautifully shot labors of love that can't possibly have been repaid by sales to school-film distributors. Here's where we see his genius bloom, as he brings storybook characters to life in minidramas that keep advancing in complexity and ambition. I remember Ernest Farino marvelling over these films in his 70s fan magazine FXRH. An effect like the spilling of some milk is difficult to explain - did Ray carve and paint individual replacement-animation frames of milk splatter? Some of the tales are a bit thin, but Little Red Riding Hood has a wonderful 'on the forest path' feel and Hansel & Gretel juggles its violent content well. These are quality shows: I remember my unruly sixth grade class coming to attention, subconsciously intrigued by the complexity and craft exhibited in Hansel & Gretel.

Ray's fairy tales reached into the early 1950s and overlapped with the launch of his career as a feature effects whiz - The Tortoise & The Hare was abandoned unfinished. Ray says it was It Came from Beneath the Sea that did the interrupting, but either his memory is off or he was still doing these shorts in 1954. That short did get finished fifty years later with the intervention of young animators Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh. Besides the completed show, the disc has a making-of short subject and a separate commentary to help us figure out who animated what. I stopped looking for the difference between the old and new footage - it's an almost perfect match.


The second disc is a broad grab-bag of interesting interviews and testimonials for Ray aficionados. Ray's receipt of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is covered and his early years with Ray Bradbury and Forry Ackerman are remembered in a discussion between the three at Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown LA. Various testimonial meetings and interviews with Academy guests, show hosts and Ted Newsom are also included. An unusually good restoration piece shows Academy archivist Mark Toscano carefully reeling through Harryhausen's personal prints and we also get a tour of the Harryhausen exhibit at the Filmmuseum Berlin.

A special treat are three funny 'birthday tributes' from special effects artists, all of which center on the fighting skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. "An Appreciation" is a montage of comments from a couple of dozen directors and special effects luminaries (nice to put faces with some of them) talking about how they were inspired by Ray's work. Lastly, there's a heartfelt speech by David Allen, given not long before his death in 1999.  1


The Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection disc set is obviously a labor of love that goes to great lengths to include many items and detail-oriented mementoes of our effects hero's great career. It's assembled with care and style and makes good use of music by John Morgan and Bill Stromberg, even in the menus. The new video is of fine quality and the older clips are beautifully restored. It's a real archival source item and not just a fan disc, and uncountable Harryhausen fans are going to want to get their hands on it right away.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Galleries of stills, and photos from Ray's early years and the various short subjects.
Packaging: Two discs in single Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2004


Footnote:

1. Don't forget Savant's article The Hollywood Children of Ray Harryhausen, which features memories of several of the professional effects people of my generation who were inspired by Ray's work.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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