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Ray Harryhausen

We Have Lost a Titan of Moviemaking

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By Ron Merk

News of the passing of Ray Harryhausen hit me very hard. As a kid I grew up watching this master craftsman’s work in so many films, and while I never knew much about him back in the 50s and 60s when I saw those great films on which he imprinted his style, I knew that they were all “of a piece” but never had any idea that they were all by the same person. I just assumed there was a studio someplace that did these scenes. That studio was Ray Harryhausen.

I had the great honor and pleasure to be friends with film director, Don Chaffey, who directed the film “Jason and the Argonauts.” I think most people would agree that the duel between Jason and his men with the skeletons is one of the great special effects sequences ever put on film. The co-ordination of the live-action portions of the scene, carefully and skillfully set up for the camera by Chaffey, and the animation of the skeletons, masterfully animated and matched to the live action by Harryhausen and his team is without equal. I saw the film recently on TCM, and it still had the ability to thrill me.

I spent many evenings with Don Chaffey at his home working on a project called “Dolls.. They’re Deadly,” a script I had written that Don wanted to direct. It involved a number of sequences which required stop-motion animation. Don said to me, “Don’t worry. Harryhausen is our man. There’s nobody better in the whole business. He’s not only a superb technician, but he’s an artist. His characters are as expressive as human actors.”

Coming from Don, this was high praise. Don was a no-nonsense kind of director, and he didn’t suffer fools (not for very long anyway). I won’t cite the long list of show biz people he thought were f—–g idiots (his words, not mine), but he just didn’t like to work with anyone who wasn’t a total professional.

My one regret is that the film didn’t get made. Don’s wife became terminally ill and he devoted himself to her care until the very end. Don had sent the script to Robert Urich (Don directed him in the TV series Vegas) and Bob loved it and was ready to start shooting any time Don yelled “action.” Don had also called his old pal, James Stewart, and told him about the project which had a great part for him, and Stewart was leaning toward doing the film, even though he would be playing a psychopathic (but sympathetic) character whose life is destroyed through the neglect and foolishness of others. Unfortunately, his family or agent or management (we never were told which it was) talked Stewart out of doing the film. “Not good for my image,” Stewart told Don, “but it’s one of the best darned scripts I’ve ever read.”

So, I missed a great opportunity to work with two Hollywood legends in one film, Stewart and Harryhausen. If only…

Harryhausen, like Stewart, occupied a truly hallowed place in the pantheon of Hollywood. His work was really a genre of its own. Nobody could touch him. Every time I see a film in which he provided the special effects, I see it more as a Harryhausen film than that of the actual director. His imprint on a project was immense, and unmistakably his own.

He has left large footprints to fill. Even Mighty Joe Young might have to stretch his big toes to fill them. As we have moved into the digital world of effects, with most of the kind of work formerly done in stop-motion now being done in the computer, I feel as if the wonder and the charm that was at the center of Harryhausen’s work are now gone, gone forever, like Ray. He and his creations will be missed. His life’s work was to portray great legends on film. Now Ray Harryhausen is a legend, too.