Unmade Cine-Magic (Part 1) – By Philip Smolen

 

In life it always seems like the things we can’t have are always more desirable to us than the things we can. That’s just human nature. Whether it’s a new car, home or even a relationship with another person; we always seem to want what’s just out of our reach. It remains tantalizingly close but ultimately, never attainable.

This axiom is also true for movie lovers. Since film began, fans have always read about studios that are beginning production on some new feature that sounds fantastic only to read a year or so later that the production has been cancelled for dubious reasons. Whether it was Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon”, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” or Tim Burton’s “Superman”, these films promised to show the movie goer worlds they never could have imagined. And once these projects were cancelled, cinema-maniacs were forever denied the chance to see these celluloid endeavors.

For me, it was always difficult to read about cancelled film projects that would have featured stop motion animation. I was fascinated with the process as a young boy and I was always mesmerized by movies that used it. From “Mighty Joe Young” (1949) to “Clash of the Titans” (1981) I always made sure to watch any movie that featured stop motion effects. Heck, I was so infatuated with the technique that I even watched “Davy and Goliath” as a kid. I hated the religious aspects of that show, but I put up with it in order to enjoy the movements of the puppets. And even though stop motion has mostly been replaced by CGI, the technique still remains alive and vibrant (see the accolades heaped on “Kubo and the Two Strings” [2016]).

So this month we’re going to celebrate stop motion movies by looking at several cancelled film projects. First, we’ll take a look at two abandoned Willis O’Brien films and we’ll follow that up with two Ray Harryhausen projects that never made it off the ground. Then next month we’ll finish up this topic with some other uncompleted stop motion films.

 

Unmade Willis O’Brien Film Projects:

If there ever was someone who personified perseverance and determination, then it was the great Willis O’Brien (1884-1962). Even though he enthralled audiences with the one and only “King Kong” (1933), Obie was never properly utilized by Hollywood producers. When he had a strong producer working with him (such as Merrian C. Cooper), Obie produced the best work of his career and even won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects in 1949 for “Mighty Joe Young” (with the help of a young Ray Harryhausen). But without someone looking out for him, Obie could be strung along on a project only to find out that it was cancelled after he had put his heart and soul into it. However, that never stopped Obie and throughout his life he continued to write scripts and sketch projects in an attempt to interest movie producers. So here are two Willis O’Brien film projects that look amazing on paper and would have provided millions of thrills for stop motion fans the world over.

 

1. WAR EAGLES (1940) – Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

“War Eagles” tells the story of a Professor Hiram P. Cobb who travels to the Arctic in order to prove that Vikings once settled there. Once there, he and his assistant Jimmy Matthews travel through a misty valley and meet a group of Viking descendants who train and ride giant Eagles. Cobb and Matthews befriend the group and teach them about modern life. However, when the group intercepts a radio transmission stating that America is under attack, Cobb and Matthews convince the Vikings to join them and attack the enemy. Just as enemy bombers (later Nazi bombers) are approaching New York, Cobb and his new friends arrive and save the day. The Eagles and their riders decimate the enemy force and make America safe for democracy.

As silly and jingoistic as this synopsis sounds, “War Eagles” would have been a spectacular feast for the eyes. Just imagine; stop motion eagles attacking fighter bombers and dirigibles over the backdrop of New York City! There also were going to be dinosaurs in the Arctic valley which would have added immeasurably to the film’s awesomeness. However, MGM was never enthusiastic about “War Eagles”, even though it was to be produced by Merrian C. Cooper and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack (of King Kong fame). MGM personnel wouldn’t even let O’Brien do his effects tests at the studio and instead forced him to do his work in a hastily set up tent on the lot! Almost a year of prep work was done on “War Eagles”, including creating stop motion models, painting glass mattes and sketching hundreds of continuity drawings. Even a small test reel of special effects footage was completed. However, In 1940 Merrian C. Cooper left MGM in order to help organize the “Flying Tigers” in China and once he did, MGM quickly shut down the “War Eagles” project. Once again, Willis O’Brien found himself at the mercy of a fickle studio that couldn’t see the value of his amazing stop motion photography. Years later, Ray Harryhausen unsuccessfully tried to interest studios in reviving “War Eagles”, but nothing ever came out of these attempts. However in 2008, Ray did manage to revive it as a graphic novel which was written by Carl Macek and Debbie Bishop. The book is a great read and it is also a sad reminder of what an amazing film project this could have been.

 

2. KING KONG VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1961) – NO DIRECTOR

Deep in the African jungle, a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein has successfully created a new monstrosity that is nearly 20 feet tall. However, once he is brought to life, the creature goes on a rampage and destroys several local villages. Meanwhile, a new expedition to Kong Island succeeds in capturing Kong. Some shrewd promoters hear about the rampage of the Frankenstein monster as well as the capture of the mighty ape. The promoters hire an expedition to capture Frankenstein and bring him to San Francisco where he’ll be displayed in an outdoor stadium right next to Kong. But the two creatures become immediate rivals and burst out of their cages and attack one another with primal fury. They battle throughout San Francisco to the death all while destroying the City by the Bay.

By the early 1960s, Obie had hit hard times. His last job was drawing illustrations for Irwin Allen’s dreadful remake of “The Lost World” (1960), which used live lizards instead of stop motion dinosaurs (as did his 1925 silent version). Obie, resourceful as always, continued to develop ideas for future films and came up with a beauty of a thought. What if the two greatest monsters in all of cinematic history met in a battle to the death? “King Kong vs. Frankenstein” was born and Obie worked diligently drafting a story outline and sketching dozens of continuity drawings. When he finished, Obie bought the package to RKO Pictures, since they owned the rights to King Kong (and “Frankenstein” was in the public domain). RKO suggested that Obie bring the project to a producer named John Beck, which Obie dutifully did. Beck agreed to take on the project and told Obie he would keep him apprised of its status. But behind Obie’s back, Beck flew to Japan and negotiated a deal with Toho studios to make “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962). When Obie found out what happened, he was heartbroken and he never recovered from the offense. He died a few months later of a heart attack. And though “King Kong vs. Frankenstein” probably would have been a schlocky B movie at best, it most certainly would have had some great stop motion action. The climax of the film was to have taken place in San Francisco with Kong and Frankenstein fighting on top of a moving street car! What a shame that this wild idea of a movie never made it into cinemas.

 

Unmade Ray Harryhausen Film Projects:

Ray Harryhausen will go down as the greatest stop motion animator ever. He will also go down as one of the greatest influences of sci-fi and fantastic cinema. It is simply impossible to calculate the number of film directors, writers and special effects artists that joined the cinematic world because of Ray’s films. Over his 30 plus year career, Ray completed 16 films, many of which are now considered stop motion classics. But even Ray had movies that were cancelled throughout his career. So here are two of Ray’s projects that never made it into production, but would have added immeasurably to the stop motion cinematic landscape.

 

1. WHEN THE EARTH CRACKED OPEN (1971) – NO DIRECTOR

Rabbala is the leader of the River people, a civilized primitive human tribe that existed in Earth’s past. One day, the Fire Warriors attack the River people’s camp and carry off their women. Rabbala and his men (who were hunting when the Fire Warriors attacked), go after them and must face the terrors of the Poison Swamp (which includes a tentacled swamp creature and a giant toad). They must also pass through a dense jungle that is teeming with giant soldier ants. When Rabbala and his followers catch up with the fire Warriors, a convenient volcano erupts and destroys the evil clan and the River people are reunited with their women.

After the world-wide triumph of “One Million Years BC” (1966), Hammer Films wanted to continue working with Ray Harryhausen. While Ray wasn’t able to do the effects for “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” (1970) due to his commitment to “The Valley of Gwangi” (1969), Hammer continued to talk to Ray and try to develop another project together. “When the World Cracked Open” was one project that came close to seeing production. Admittedly, the story synopsis sounds hokey at best, but since a screenplay was never written for the film, the story’s more ridiculous aspects were never properly solved. What can be said is that the film would have allowed Ray to design and animate some wonderful creations. These included a large tentacled swamp monster, a giant stag beetle, a dinosaur-like lizard and the army of soldier ants. While the film itself seems to be merely a Hammer prehistoric soap opera, the rich color film stock that Hammer used during this time period would have helped make Ray’s creatures pop off the screen even more than usual. Unfortunately, “When the Earth Cracked Open” was cancelled in 1971 when Hammer failed to find proper backers.

 

2. PEOPLE OF THE MIST (1983) – DIRECTOR: MICHAEL WINNER

Two brothers who have lost their fortune travel to Africa in hopes of striking it rich. One brother is killed saving a woman from a lion. The grateful woman leads the other brother to the Valley of the Mist where her people live on a plateau, cut off from the rest of the world. The man sees many strange sights on the plateau, including several types of dinosaurs. After a short time, the brother is accused by the high priests of desecrating their temple and he is thrown from the top of a huge statue. The man survives the fall (while avoiding a hungry plesiosaur) and enters a special chamber where he discovers an alien race that controls the people of the plateau. The man escapes the aliens and tells the people how they are being directed by the aliens. He leads them in revolt and they are able to overthrow the alien’s control. Unfortunately, their revolution has also woken up their dormant volcano which destroys everything in its path. The man returns home, unable to convince anyone about his fantastic adventures.

“Clash of the Titans” was the 11th highest grossing movie of 1981 and a great success for Ray and his producer Charles H. Schneer. While basking in this achievement and developing other film ideas, Ray was contacted by British director Michael Winner who asked Ray to work with him and develop the book “People of the Mist” by Sir H. Rider Haggard into a film. Intrigued by the idea, Winner went about developing a screenplay, while Ray started sketching potential creatures that might live on the lost plateau. These include a man-eating plant (Ray always wanted to use this type of creature), a Stegosaurus, several vicious dryptosauruses (think four-legged velociraptors) and a lake living plesiosaur. The aliens also had to be recreated, but there is no way of knowing if they were going to be animated (like the moon men from “First Men in the Moon” (1964) or played by men in suits (like in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” [1956]). The point became moot in 1983 when test audiences rejected the idea of the ‘lost world’ movie. But to me, this project could have been worthwhile. Michael Winner was a well-known and tough director and it’s quite possible that he could have pushed Ray out of his traditional comfort zone with the effects. It’s also possible that Winner could have attracted a higher caliber cast of actors than what Ray usually had to work with. Who knows; would Winner have wanted to direct all of the effects scenes even though Ray usually did this on his films? One can only imagine…

So there you have it, four unmade movies that would have featured effects work from two stop motion masters (see below for a more complete list). And while I’m disappointed that these movies were never made, all I have to do is watch “King Kong” (1933) or “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) to get my Obie or Harryhausen stop motion fix!

 

Additional Unmade Willis O’Brien Film Projects:

1. Creation (1931) – cancelled dino project which led to “King Kong” (1933)
2. Gwangi (1942) – another major project that Obie really wanted to make
3. The Valley of the Mist (1950) – “lost world” movie that Ray would assist Obie on
4. The Leviathan (1950) – Oil Company find dangerous beasts instead of oil!
5. Food of the Gods (1950) – Adaptation of H.G. Wells classic produced by Cooper
6. The Last of the Oso-Si-Papu – tale about an ancient and gigantic Indian bear creature

 

Additional Unmade Ray Harryhausen Film Projects:

1. Baron Munchausen (1949/500 – Ray filmed test scenes of the Baron talking with a moon giant
2. Food of the Gods (1961) – Ray constantly tried to get Charles Schneer interested in this project, but never succeeded
3. Sinbad Goes to Mars (1978) – Ray’s fourth Sinbad adventure would have combined sword and sorcery with spaceships and laser beams. Yikes!
4. Sinbad and the Seven Wonders of the World (1981) – Sinbad goes on a world-wide adventure!
5. Force of the Trojans (1984) – Sequel to “Clash of the Titans” (1981) that would have featured some cool creatures such as the scorpion-like Scylla and the octopus-like Charybdis. (The title still makes me laugh however!)

 

Selected References:

Archer, Steven. Willis O’Brien: Special Effects Genius. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1993.

Hankin, Mike. Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks (Volume 1). Los Angeles, California: Archive Editions, LLC. 2013.

Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony. An Animated Life. New York, New York: Billboard Books. 2003.

Kinnard, Roy. Beasts and Behemoths: Prehistoric Creatures in the Movies. Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1988.

Rovin, Jeff. From the land Beyond Beyond: The films of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. New York, New York: Berkley Windhover Books. 1977