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Are we running out of Ray Harryhausen debuts on Blu-ray? Nope, there are few more to go, from RKO, Fox and Warners. A hugely anticipated title is this childhood favorite, that really benefits from the extra boost of HD enhancement. And Twilight Time comes to the rescue in the quality and extras department.
In conventional terms First Men in the Moon is probably Ray Harryhausen's best-constructed movie. Just as real Gemini & Apollo space missions were making fanciful outer space adventures obsolete, Harryhausen and Charles Schneer came forward with this winning version of H.G. Wells' classic 1901 science fiction novel. Filled with good humor, turn-of-the-century charm and awesome imagery, it has a first-rate script by English Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, who succeeds in updating the original story yet leaves most of it as a period piece. The casting makes excellent use of the underrated Lionel Jeffries as Wells' endearingly daffy inventor of a flubber-icious goo that 'severs the magnetic ties of gravitation'.
Charles Schneer's London-based production is first rate. Back in Victorian 1896, wastrel Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) is too impatient to write plays in his rented cottage but sharp enough to string along lovely Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), a fine woman he doesn't deserve. Keenly attuned to get-rich-quick schemes, Bedford become excited when his neighbor, eccentric inventor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) shows him the antigravity paste he's invented. Fired up with the spirit of adventure (and evading his creditors), Bedford joins Cavor on an expedition to the Moon, with Kate becoming an inadvertent 11th-hour stowaway. The three zoom across the heavens to the Moon's dead surface... only to discover an entire alien civilization thriving in its cavernous interior.
H.G. Wells really hit his stride with his book First Men In the Moon. Of all his early science fiction work it's the most readable and fleshed-out. Told from Bedford's point of view, the narrative flows as a semi-surreal fever dream, with Bedford trying his best to accurately describe one incredible situation after another. Wells' description of zero gravity is hallucinatory, almost psychedelic.
Savant was just old enough to be critical about movies when this matinee favorite hit the theaters. You can bet I was the first kid in line. The book was one of my favorites (ditto the excellent Classics Illustrated comic). I was concerned to learn that the story had been changed to include a girl on the voyage.
There was nothing to fear. The film has a much lighter tone than the book. Martha Hyer's welcome stowaway does not interfere with the adventurous goings-on, if only because she remains locked in the sphere a good part of the time. The book's strange depiction of lunar weightlessness is missing, but from the moment the Englishmen encounter the spear-carrying Selenites on the underground cliffs, I knew the show was on the right track. The more literate will notice that little was retained of Wells' thesis about a biologically regimented society. The sociological messages in his The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau were mostly ignored as well.
Laurie Johnson's socko music score kicks off an arresting title sequence combining views of the moon with graphics of rippling water reflections. The drama begins in a 'quaint' period setting familiar from earlier Wells and Jules Verne adaptations like The Time Machine and Journey to the Center of the Earth. But as soon as Cavor's capsule launches skyward we enter a realm of nonstop special effects, an alien 'landscape plus music' fantasia that doesn't let up until the very end.
Although we see little of Harryhausen's standard animation techniques compared to his other pictures, his work is fully integrated into the story fabric -- this isn't a series of episodic creature vignettes. A rather disappointing caterpillar creature called the Moon Calf is the only standard monster. Harryhausen instead sells us on the existence of a horde of insectoid creatures that Wells called Selenites. Some are animated with stop-motion but the majority are people in rubber suits (midgets? children?). They work quite well, much better in fact than the children-as-aliens in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters made only thirteen years later. Harryhausen's self-mummifying intellectual ant leaders are fascinating animated creations... that also predate Spielberg by using electronic devices to communicate with Cavor and Kate. Our two-fisted hero Bedford shuns the idea of talking to bugs.
Although most of the moon's interior is excellent miniature work the show uses plenty of impressive full-sized sets. The colorful subterranean world is imaginatively designed, clearly by Ray himself, and perhaps influenced by the old Cooper-Schoedsack epic She (1935). Harryhausen's wavy-glass tricks with the Grand Lunar are mesmerising, as are his bottomless wells and deep galleries of caves. The fairly simple trick of enlarging rows of giant tubes of colored liquid is quite beautiful. The only weak illusion, a very minor point, is a row of stalactite crystals on the stairway to the Grand Lunar that are too clearly flat paintings. For some reason they stick out every time.
Yes, this is actually Ray's finest film overall. As a showcase for his animation it's not top-rank, but as a movie it's way out front. Kneale would seem a good collaborator with the earnest Harryhausen, who had of course been a science fiction fan since his childhood with Forrest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury. I hope that Harryhausen and Kneale got on well together, as the mental image of them sharing ideas is a pleasant one. Kneale rarely saw his work brought to life with such technical artistry: even the effects of Hammer's superior Quatermass and the Pit are barely adequate. But Kneale gave Ray an even greater gift, a shooting script that added up to much more than a string of monster encounters.
The film is billed as produced in Dynamation, but Harryhausen doesn't use his revolutionary rear-projection system much, if at all. The Panavision format made that too difficult. What we see is a lot of compositing done via traveling matte processes, sometimes with two levels of blue-screen matting employed. Harryhausen never worked in an anamorphic format before or since. Proportion and perspective look great in the widescreen shots that combine live action figures with miniature backgrounds. In Germany, First Men In the Moon was blown up to 70mm and marketed as a one-film Cinerama attraction, in stereophonic sound.
Martha Hyer is both sensible and sympathetic as the girl written into a boy's adventure. Edward Judd (excellent in The Day the Earth Caught Fire) makes for a thickly brash hero. Once on the moon, the irresponsible Bedford becomes a take-charge guy, making for a nice change of tone. Lionel Jeffries' Cavor begins as a silly twit but by the end is revealed as a courageous dreamer who carries the conscience of the human race. We associate Cavor's boyish fervor with a special brand of English hobbyists, that always seem to wear tweeds. Director Michael Powell was said to be this kind of impulsive, buoyant man. Cavor's character has a built-in nostalgia for another time. There may be a bit too much kiddy humor up front ("Madame, please leave the room!" "I hate chickens") but Lionel Jeffries is far too good an actor to throw away any serviceable dialogue line. A moment when he bids farewell to his gaggle of pet geese is very endearing.
Nigel Kneale and Jan Read's stroke of genius is the application of a wraparound flashback story structure. With the real space program making news every day, Columbia surely feared that Wells' turn-of-the-century story would seem terribly old-fashioned. Kneale cleverly frames his narrative in a flashback from a point in the near future, when a United Nations capsule lands on the moon. As filmed by Nathan Juran (by far Schneer and Harryhausen's best director) these scenes crackle with typical typical Kneale efficiency. The lunar landing is all but identical to the real one that occurred five years later. The script uses a shock cut from astronaut feet touching the lunar surface to a ticker tape parade back home, a cutting masterstroke copied for 1983's The Right Stuff. Columbia's advertising posters cleverly enlisted a real NASA spokesman to endorse the film: "It's out of this world!"
Of course, the stinger is that the astronauts discover a desiccated Union Jack on the moon. Someone named Callendar has beaten them to the moon. Once tracked down, the 90 years-plus Arnold Bedford is all too eager to tell his story, now that someone is willing to believe him. The effect is charming - the 'real' space story comes not from Cape Canaveral but an old folks' rest home. Kneale also makes room for a characteristic bit of irony. In his previous Quatermass adventures the alien species we encounter are always a biological mismatch, a deadly threat. In this instance, Kneale works a reversal of that idea, borrowing an idea from H.G. Wells biggest literary hit, The War of the Worlds.
First Men In the Moon does not quite fit in with the earlier vogue for family films based on Verne and Wells stories, a subgenre thoroughly cheapened by A.I.P and Irwin Allen. Classic '50s Sci-fi had flourished in its own slightly more innocent world of wonder, and by 1963 it was not only the space race that would make their ordinary escapism seem obsolete. The alarming wars and assassinations of the early '60s forced all genre fantasy to grow up to a degree. From then on, most serious Sci-fi pix would tend toward real threats and conspiracies, often with an ecological or political basis. The abstract, theoretical paranoia of the earlier films became a given state of affairs. First Men In the Moon is all the more successful for being so endearingly retro.
Since everyone else points it out, Savant will too: the unctuous bailiff who serves a writ on Martha Hyer is none other than actor Peter Finch, doing a favor for his pal Lionel Jeffries. Jeffries may have had more creative input than just acting; several years later he made his directorial debut with the rarely seen minor classic The Railway Children.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of First Men in the Moon is just great. Sony's restoration and transfer of this problematic film -- so much of it is dupe material from optical printers -- looks better than ever before. Wilkie Cooper's lighting adds color highlights to the live action scenes -- nice little rim lights of yellow and purple -- that are also used for the large miniatures of underground grottoes. Both the color and contrast in the wide underground vista matte shots, are rejuvenated. Everything's sharper and more three-dimensional than before.
Laurie Johnson's dynamic score sounds better than ever as well. The 5.1 mix is adapted from real stereophonic elements. Back in the 1990s Columbia believed that the film existed only with mono sound, until a real 4-track stereo audio mix in English was found (by a friend of Savant, I'm proud to say). It was in such poor condition (vinegar syndrome) that Chace Audio had to 'rescue' the audio from it, which they did: instant original stereo mix, first heard on the 2002 DVD.
Two additional extras will be musts for Harryhausen fans. Animator, actor and director Randall William Cook provides a heartfelt and respectful video introduction, taped I believe in his home study. Several years back Randy and author Tony Dalton recorded an audio commentary with Ray, which turns out to be a good listen. We learn quite a bit about the shooting, and Ray comes forward with some nice nuggets of personal memory. Because he rarely visited the live-action set, he missed meeting most of the actors, including Miles Malleson, an actor in and writer of the 1940 The Thief of Baghdad, Harryhausen's fave fantasy. Tony Dalton uses a British term for 'flashback' that I hadn't heard before, "Tops and Tails", or something like that.
Nobody brings up a subject that I always wonder about: Arnold and Kate's engaged but unmarried sweethearts are co-habiting in a fairly isolated rented cottage... wouldn't the Production Code have noticed? It's a kiddy film, for crying out loud. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
There's only one moment where the movie drew unintended laughter, both back in 1964 and in every subsequent group viewing I've seen. After smiling indulgently at Cavor's barely space-worthy capsule, the mission's frighteningly limited oxygen supply, the leaky deep sea diving suits, etcetera, we're treated to the spectacle of the iron sphere striking the surface of the moon at what must be at least 100 miles an hour, with the astronauts inside basically unprotected. The railroad-issue shock absorbers don't fool anyone. Most audiences laugh reflexively: the impact is so violent that we expect Hyer, Jeffries and Judd to be emulsified into Lunar Jelly. It's all part of the fun.
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T'was Ever Thus.