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STOP-MOTION MOVIE UNDERDOGS, Part I

If you think of stop-motion animation in classic fantasy films, you immediately think of Ray Harryhausen.

Even folks who know the name “Harryhausen” only from that restaurant in Monsters Inc. know the films themselves: Jason and the Argonauts, 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the rest.

But though the late great Harryhausen was a force unto himself, several other stop-motion animators had numerous little triumphs of their own.

Let’s take a look at these unsung triumphs.  We’ll stay in the Harryhausen era (roughly 1950-1980), but we’ll only list stop-motion creations from this era not created by Harryhausen himself.

I’ll attempt to list all sci-fi and fantasy films from this era that make significant use of stop-motion.

Part I of our three-part article will list the films through the 1950s.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

Let’s start here, skipping pre-Harryhausen films like The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), or The Mascot (1934).  Actually the young Harryhausen (age 28) assisted his mentor Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young‘s effects.

As in King Kong, O’Brien animates a gorilla, though this time a life-sized rather than a giant one.  Joe is smoother than Kong, very expressive and sympathetic in his features.  Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, you can’t believe he’s not real and alive.

The film seems aimed at kids but is actually emotionally intense and dramatic.

LOST CONTINENT (1951)

From B-movie specialist Sam Newfield comes Lost Continent, the picture with the worst stop-motion animation on our list.

For a few minutes, in the distance, you can see some shakily animated triceratopses and brontosauruses (i.e. apatosauruses).  Why so shaky?  Because it was animated two frames at a time rather than the usual one.

Sometimes it’s worth watching poor-quality stop-motion like this just to appreciate the virtues of the good stuff.   Edward Nassour, perhaps the least distinguished stop-motion animator on our list, later worked on Beast of Hollow Mountain.

The movie’s hero is played by Cesar Romero, later famous as the Joker from TV’s Batman.

JOURNEY TO THE BEGINNING OF TIME  (1955/1960)

Perhaps the least famous movie on our list, this Czech children’s movie depicts a group of boys on a boat ride down a river that takes them ever backwards in time.  They meet animated prehistoric mammals and dinosaurs on their way backward towards creation.

While never excellent, the animated creatures are good fun.  Two dinosaurs have a fight probably inspired by King Kong’s famous battle with the T-rex.

Even in its American translation, the movie has a wistful and nostalgic mood.  The director is most famous for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956)

Bad movie, good T-rex.  It’s basically a conventional Western set in Mexico, but inside a certain Mexican mountain lurks a live T-rex who attacks our hero at the conclusion.  The dino is on screen for about 10 minutes.

Why does the T-rex look so amazing?  First, it’s in color, which is rare for B-movies made in the 50s.  But second, it’s only partly stop-motion and mostly “replacement” animation.

Instead of a single model that is manipulated ever so slightly from shot to shot, an entirely separate model is used from shot to shot, which extends prep time but which allows precise detail.  This means they made hundreds of models!  Henry Lyon, the model maker, did virtually nothing else.

THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) 

Lots of excellent stop-motion action here.  It’s dozens of giant scary scorpions attacking a Mexican town, as the handsome Richard Denning and gorgeous Mara Corday struggle for survival.

It’s probably the most underrated of the giant insect films of the 50s.  Stop-motion effects run throughout the film.  If you watch just one film from this list, watch this one.

Historically, The Black Scorpion is notable for being Willis O’Brien’s last credited work.

MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1958)

Compared to the giant scorpions of The Black Scorpion, the giant beetles of Green Hell are mightily disappointing.

They look OK here and there, but they get surprisingly little screen time.  Mostly, their wings flap back and forth (very quickly) while the beetles chase herd animals over hillsides in Africa.

A huge percentage of the movie is stock footage of animals or people wandering around African countrysides.

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958) 

Perhaps the most bizarre stop-motion creatures on our list are the flying brains from Fiend Without a Face.

This British movie keeps you waiting a long time, but then it rewards you with an incredible extended battle between the brains and the heroes.  Gore is surprisingly explicit.

If I had to vote for best stop-motion animation of the 50s, I’d vote for this one.  German co-animators Florenz Von Nordoff and Karl-Ludwig Ruppel did the effects; they have only a few other film credits between them.

TOM THUMB (1958)

We’re talking toys rather than beasts here, but in two standout musical sequences that total about 20 minutes, little Tom plays and dances with a box of kooky constructs come to life.

As in Beast of Hollow Mountain, it’s partly stop-motion and partly “replacement” animation, as separate models are used in nearly every shot.   Wah Chang (who later worked on Dinosaurus!) was the main animator, under George Pal’s supervision.

You’ll notice a slight rippling effect from the replacements, but also greater detail.  The most famous sequence features the catchy theme music.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959)

Pete Peterson, the animator, had worked with Willis O’Brien on The Black Scorpion.  Here, he creates a giant sea dinosaur obviously inspired by the “rhedosaurus” from Harryhausen’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  It’s sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion.

All the pieces for a great B-movie seem to be in place, but the behemoth lacks personality.  Compare it to Harryhausen’s movies, or to O’Brien’s before him, and you’ll see how some animators manage to impart emotions to their creations while others cannot.

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