MOVIE MEMORIES: Examining dynamic double feature from director George Pal

Greeting once again film fans, my latest ‘Movie Memories’ article for Lanarkshire Live takes a look at some of the finest work created by outstanding filmmaker George Pal.

Like Walt Disney and Ray Harryhausen, George Pal was a magician of the movies who found fantasy more beautiful than reality.

I was first introduced to the genius of Pal at the age of 10 when, together with my mum, aunt Agnes and cousin Alistair Hackett, we went to the ABC Cinema in Coatbridge in 1959 to see Tom Thumb .

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It awed, thrilled and delighted me enough for me to be able to con my mum into letting me see it over and over again when it opened the following week at Airdrie’s New Cinema.

Also on the same programme was one of the MGM Andy Hardy movies, starring Hollywood legends Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and a fabulous Tom and Jerry cartoon, for an admission price of one shilling and sixpence; it didn’t get any better than that.

Under contract to Paramount Pictures and MGM, Pal had produced such screen classics as War of the Worlds (1953), Destination Moon (1949) and When Worlds Collide (1951).

A native of Hungary, Pal made a rapid exodus, emigrating to America to escape Nazi oppression when he found himself being investigated by the Gestapo because of his Hungarian birth.

His film career ascended when Paramount offered him a contract to produce puppet movies, featuring his Puppetoon creations. Pal pioneered the method of replacement stop motion animation.

The technique required intricate planning and sculpting of puppets prior to making the film. The puppets (or multiple parts of puppets) were made to represent each action desired.

For instance, to represent facial expressions and speech, the characters would have numerous heads which, when animated in the proper sequence, could speak anything or show any emotion. This technique also inspired brilliant animator Tim Burton to adapt it in movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

For several years Pal had tried to interest other Hollywood studios to get backing for his Puppetoon project Tom Thumb , with MGM turning down the project many times.

Then, in 1957, they finally gave the go-ahead with a shoestring budget of just under $1 million. The film would be shot at the MGM British studios in Borehamwood and talented American actor-dancer Russ Tamblyn would play Tom Thumb , supported by an excellent all British cast.

The story opens in an old forest as an aging woodcutter named Jonathan (Bernard Miles), is about to chop down a mighty oak tree. Suddenly, the Queen of the forest (June Thorburn) appears and asks him to spare the tree.

If he will, she will grant him three wishes. Jonathan agrees and runs home to tell his wife, Anna (Jessie Matthews), the good news. But they foolishly waste the wishes, and Anna is heartbroken.

She makes another wish for a son she would love even if he were no bigger than her thumb. Her wish comes true when late that night Tom , a tiny boy only six inches tall, arrives at their door and tells them he is their son.

As both producer and director of Tom Thumb , released by MGM in 1958, Pal managed to bring in the classic hit for just over $900,000. Fortunately, the meagre budget did not compromise the end result. The movie is a delightful, elaborate musical fantasy, with the quality evident in every department. Pal had succeeded in making “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.

American actor-dancer Russ Tamblyn impressed as ‘Tom Thumb’

Tamblyn had one of his best roles in this splendid MGM production. The film is colourful, has amazing, imaginatively designed, oversized sets. For many scenes involving little Tom , huge sets scaled one foot to the inch of beds, doors and chairs, and a table top – 35 feet high and 90 feet long – was constructed to make Tamblyn appear properly small.

The brilliant visual illusion in Tom Thumb was created by Gene Warren and Wah Chang, who were two of the most talented special effects men in the business.

Playing a couple of thieving rascals, Terry Thomas and Peter Sellers are likeable rogues and excellent throughout.

To Pal and MGM’s surprise, Tom Thumb turned out to be one of the most successful films of the year. Youngsters and adults alike were delighted with its fairy tale charm and freshness. It appealed to that lovely childhood innocence that we lose when we mature.

Pal cleverly infused the film with the same kind of sprightly fun that had characterised his wonderful Puppetoons – and they really stole the show.

The success of Tom Thumb had impressed the MGM executives sufficiently to offer George Pal a contract to produce more films.

The Time Machine is a classic work of literature, written by H.G. Wells and published in 1895.

Wells had always considered the story, his first published novel, among his favourite candidates for filming. Despite Wells’ interest in a cinematic adaptation of The Time Machine , no studio ever showed interest in it during his lifetime.

In 1953, after the release of War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells estate, impressed with Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of the Martian invasion of earth, contacted Pal and offered him an inexpensive option on any other Wells stories that he might be interested in.

William was “spellbound” for the full 103-minute running time of ‘The Time Machine’ when he saw it in Coatbridge back in 1959

Pal looked through all of the Wells books before deciding that The Time Machine had the best possibilities.

“The production department at MGM realised they had been wrong about their Tom Thumb budget,” Pal recalls, “and they accepted my figure of $850,000 for The Time Machine .”

The film opens at the turn of the century, on New Year’s Eve 1899 in England, at the home of an inventor George (Rod Taylor).

He announces to his four companions that he has created a machine capable of travelling through time, to the past or the future.

The others laugh at the idea, even when George produces a model of the machine, and successfully demonstrates it.

The group leave and George goes to his laboratory, where a full-scale machine sits. He puts it to the test there and then and travels to the future.

Of all Pal’s movies, The Time Machine presented the most production problems; no one had the vaguest idea how to film a trip through time.

This was resolved by using time-lapse photography, a process that shows events within seconds that would normally take a long time.

Another problem was the time machine itself – what should it look like? H. G. Wells description in the novel was very vague.

The design all started with a turn-of-the-century barber chair then art director Bill Ferrari came up with the idea of a sled-like creation with the controls at the front and the big, radar-like wheel to indicate movement.

The completed product is fabulous, imaginative and so convincing that the viewer believes the machine could travel through time.

Once again Pal approached Gene Warren and Wah Chang to design most of the film’s impressive special effects.

For the scene in which London is destroyed by a volcanic eruption, the crew built a detailed miniature of a London street and then proceeded to destroy it.

Rod Taylor plays inventor George in Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Well’s classic sci-fi novel ‘The Time Machine’

Warren and Chang also provided the numerous matte paintings used to show the changing of the seasons as Taylor journeyed into the future.

Another plus for the movie was that Pal was supplied with the services of veteran MGM make-up expert William Tuttle. Working from Pal’s sketches, Tuttle created the fantastic Morlock masks and costumes for the actors who were to portray the monsters.

Neither MGM nor Pal could have expected that The Time Machine would take off at the box office the way it did.

Supported by a well-handled promotional campaign, it became one of the studio’s top grossers of 1959, Pal’s most financially successful film and scooped a well-deserved Oscar for special effects.

The Time Machine was showcased at the cinema in Coatbridge located opposite where the Time Capsule now stands and played to full houses during the Christmas holidays.

If Tom Thumb thrilled me, this masterpiece captivated and held me spellbound for its 103-minute running time. The Time Machine caught the fancy of young audiences, particularly those interested in science fiction. It proved there was indeed an audience for good fantasy films.

George Pal was a genius, a showman, and an entrepreneur; the film industry could do with someone like him today.

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