THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

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Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

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Leading Ladies: FAY WRAY

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Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in King Kong’s clutches in KING KONG (1933).

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at leading ladies in the movies, especially horror movies.  Up today, it’s Fay Wray, the woman who King Kong carried to the top of the Empire State Building in KING KONG (1933).

Fay Wray had a ton of credits.  She began her career as a teenager in silent movies, and so by the time she made KING KONG in 1933 at age 26, she had already amassed fifty four screen credits!

All together, Fay Wray had 123 screen credits, but none bigger than her role as Ann Darrow in KING KONG.

Here’s a partial list of Wray’s movie credits:

GASOLINE LOVE (1923) – Fay Wray’s first screen credit.

THE COAST PATROL (1925) – Beth Slocum- Wray’s first feature film role.

DOCTOR X (1932) – Joanne Xavier- horror movie with Lionel Atwill, famous for being shot in Technicolor.

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) – Eve Trowbridge – Thriller directed by KING KONG director Ernest B. Schoedsack and featuring Carl Denham himself, Robert Armstrong.

THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)- Ruth Bertin- classic horror movie featuring Lionel Atwill, Melvyn Douglas, and Dwight Frye.  Atwill is the mad scientist, Douglas the hero, Wray the heroine, and Frye is the creepy guy the villagers think is the vampire— but they’re wrong.  Very atmospheric creepy horror movie.

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) – Charlotte Duncan – Reunited with Lionel Atwill in yet another classic horror movie.  Like DOCTOR X, it was also shot in color and was believed to have been lost for decades before being re-discovered in the late 1960s.  Directed by Michael Curtiz, who also directed that little wartime movie, CASABLANCA (1942).

KING KONG (1933) – Ann Darrow – the film that made Fay Wray a star, and she spends most of it screaming, as she is abducted and chased by Kong throughout.  Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, with an outstanding music score by Max Steiner, and starring Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Wray, and of course King Kong.  Amazing special effects by Willis O’Brien.  This classic movie still holds up wonderfully today.  By the way, Wray was not blonde.  She wore a wig for her most famous role.  That is her real scream, though.

MASTER OF MEN (1933)- Kay Walling- The last of eleven movies Wray made in 1933!

BLACK MOON (1934) – Gail Hamilton – Horror movie about a voodoo curse, directed by Roy William Neill, the man who in addition to directing many of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies also directed FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

WOMAN IN THE DARK (1934) – Louise Loring – Crime movie starring Ralph Bellamy and Melvyn Douglas, based on a book by Dashiell Hammett.

THE CLAIRVOYANT (1934)- Rene – Effective mystery/horror movie with Claude Rains as a fake clairvoyant who suddenly finds himself with real predictive powers.

HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955) – Kay Stanley – Film-noir with Edward G. Robinson and Alan Ladd.

CRIME OF PASSION (1957) – Alice Pope- more film-noir, this time with Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, and Raymond Burr.

TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR (1957) – Mrs. Brent-  First of four “Tammy” movies, starring Debbie Reynolds, Leslie Nielsen, and Walter Brennan.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS – “Dip In The Pool” (1958) – Mrs. Renshaw/  “The Morning After” (1959) – Mrs. Nelson – two appearances on the ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS TV show.

PERRY MASON – “The Case of the Prodigal Parent” (1958) – Ethel Harrison/ “The Case of the Watery Witness” (1959)- Lorna Thomas/ “The Case of the Fatal Fetish” (1965) – Mignon Germaine – several appearances on the classic PERRY MASON TV show starring Raymond Burr.

GIDEON’S TRUMPET (1980) – Edna Curtis – Fay Wray’s final screen credit, in this TV movie starring Henry Fonda based on the true story of Clarence Earl Gideon.

Even though she never had a bigger role than Ann Darrow in KING KONG, Fay Wray enjoyed a long and successful movie career.  She passed away in 2004 at age 96.

Fay Wray – September 15, 1907- August 8, 2004.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of LEADING LADIES.  Join me again next time when we look at the career of another Leading Lady.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memorable Movie Quotes: KING KONG (1933)

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Kong sees Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) for the first time in KING KONG (1933).

Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at great quotes from great movies.  Up today, one of the true classics, the original KING KONG (1933).

When you think of KING KONG, the first thing that comes to mind are the awesome stop-motion effects of Willis O’Brien and his special effects team.  These amazing effects which brought Kong to life remain impressive today.

But the screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace is a strength in its own right. Rose also wrote the screenplay to the later Willis O’Brien giant ape hit, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), the film which introduced the world to the special effects of Ray Harryhausen, who worked on O’Brien’s team for YOUNG.

KING KONG contains lots of memorable lines of dialogue, including one of the most famous final lines in the history of the movies.

Let’s have a look:

Most of the memorable lines in KING KONG are spoken by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), the adventurous movie maker who sets out to make an unforgettable movie and then switches gears after seeing Kong, deciding that he’s going to capture the giant ape and bring him back to civilization.

The notable dialogue starts in the very first scene, where Denham argues with his casting agent Charles Weston (Sam Hardy) over whether it’s safe or not to bring a woman on this particular voyage.  Also present and taking part in the conversation are ship’s Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot).

Weston says the voyage is too dangerous for a woman, to which Denham scoffs that women face more danger in New York than they ever will with him, causing Driscoll to smirk and make this quip:

CARL DENHAM:  Listen, there are dozens of girls in this town tonight that are in more danger than they’ll ever see with me.

JACK DRISCOLL: Yeah, but they know that kind of danger.

 

Frustrated over Weston’s lack of cooperation, Denham decides to take matters into his own hands, saying as he prepares to leave the ship:

CARL DENHAM:  Listen – I’m going out and make the greatest picture in the world. Something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of. They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back.

 

Of course, Denham does find Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) on the streets of New York City, and he hires her to be in his new movie.  Later, on the ship, he has Ann dress in costume so he can photograph her.  Seeing that Denham is photographing her himself, she asks him:

ANN: Do you always take the pictures yourself?

DENHAM:  Ever since a trip I made to Africa. I’d have got a swell picture of a charging rhino, but the cameraman got scared. The darn fool, I was right there with a rifle! Seems he didn’t trust me to get the rhino before it got him. I haven’t fooled with a cameraman since; I do it myself.

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Denham (Robert Armstrong) filming Ann (Fay Wray) on the deck of the Venture.

And later, when Denham reveals to Englehorn and Driscoll his belief that there’s something monstrous living on the island, something named Kong, something that he intends to photograph, it leads to this captivating conversation:

CAPTAIN ENGLEHORN:  And you expect to photograph it?

DENHAM:  If it’s there, you bet I’ll photograph it!

JACK:  Suppose it doesn’t like having its picture taken?

DENHAM:  Well, now you know why I brought along those cases of gas bombs

 

Once Kong appears in the movie, the dialogue takes a back seat to the incredibly intense and rapid fire action scenes.  Kong has taken Ann, and Denham and his men follow in hot pursuit but have to deal not only with Kong but with man-eating dinosaurs.

Once Jack heroically rescues Ann from Kong’s clutches, and returns her to Denham and the remaining crew, safely behind the other side of the giant wall, it leads to this bit of dialogue, one of the most dramatic verbal sequences in the entire movie:

DENHAM:  Wait a minute, what about Kong?

JACK:  Well, what about him?

DENHAM:  We came here to get a moving picture, and we’ve found something worth more than all the movies in the world!

CAPTAIN ENGLEHORN:  What?

DENHAM:  We’ve got those gas bombs. If we can capture him alive…

JACK:  Why, you’re crazy. Besides that, he’s on a cliff where a whole army couldn’t get at him.

DENHAM:   Yeah, if he stays there…[looks at Ann]  but we’ve got something he wants.

JACK:  Yeah. Something he won’t get again.

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Jack (Bruce Cabot) rescues Ann (Fay Wray) but Denham (Robert Armstong) knows she isn’t quite safe yet:  Kong will want her back.

 

Once Denham has captured Kong, he boasts:

DENHAM:  Why, the whole world will pay to see this.

CAPTAIN ENGLEHORN:  No chains will ever hold that.

DENHAM:  We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear. We’re millionaires, boys. I’ll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it’ll be up in lights on Broadway: Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Yup, it’s the famous line which first mentions Kong as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” a phrase that has stuck with the movie and the Kong character through the decades.

This theme continues when Denham introduces Kong to his sold out audience in New York City:

DENHAM:  And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I’m going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive – a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

And of course KING KONG ends with one of the most memorable lines in movie history ever. After the epic conclusion atop the Empire State Building, we find Denham in the crowd on the ground looking at Kong, preparing to utter his immortal closing line:

POLICEMAN:  Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.

CARL DENHAM:  Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

Cue Max Steiner’s classic music score.

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“What?  I don’t get the final line in my own picture?” Kong laments.

KING KONG is a classic of adventure/horror movie cinema, filled with eye popping special effects and a superior script.  Ironically, the film’s biggest star other than Kong, Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, is most famous not for her lines of dialogue but for her nonstop screams of fright throughout the movie, which says a lot for Wray’s acting abilities, because she is a true star of this film, and unlike Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham and Bruce Cabot as Jack Driscoll, she makes her mark not with memorable lines of dialogue but with nonstop reaction shots, as she’s Kong’s prisoner for nearly the entire movie.

That being said, there are plenty of memorable lines of dialogue in KING KONG.  We looked at some of them in this column.  Hope you enjoyed them.

Thanks for joining me for this edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES.  Join me next time when we look at more fun quotes from other classic movies.

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

Print edition of IN THE SPOOKLIGHT now available!

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InTheSpooklight_NewTextI’m happy to announce that my horror movie review collection IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, previously available only as an EBook, is now available in a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.

So, for those of you who don’t do EBooks and prefer the printed page, or if you simply haven’t purchased an e-reader yet, now you too can own a copy of IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a good old-fashioned book you can hold in your hands (not that there’s anything wrong with electronic books, mind you.)

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT is a collection of 115 “In The Spooklight” columns, all originally published within the pages of the HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER.  It’s been a staple of the HWA NEWSLETTER since 2000, where it’s still published each month.

In this book, you’ll read about horror movies from the silent era up until today.  You’ll find articles on Lon Chaney’s silent classics, the Universal monster movies, Hammer Films (of course!), the horror films of the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and into the 21st century.  You’ll read about the greats, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Lon Chaney Sr., Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price.  You’ll read about the supporting players, people like Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye, and Lionel Atwill from the Universal movies, and from the Hammer years, Michael Ripper, Thorley Walters, Francis Matthews, and Andrew Keir.

You’ll read about the leading ladies, Fay Wray, Helen Chandler, Veronica Carlson, Barbara Shelley, Ingrid Pitt, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Sigourney Weaver.

You’ll read about the directors, James Whale, Tod Browning, Terence Fisher, John Carpenter, John Landis, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, and even Ingmar Bergman.

You’ll read about Ray Harryhausen, Rick Baker, George Pal, Willis O’Brien, Roddy McDowall, Claude Rains, John Carradine, Peter Lorre, Fredric March, Robert Armstrong, Steve McQueen, Harrison Ford, Gregory Peck, Simon Pegg, and Donald Pleasence.

You’ll meet your favorite monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Mr. Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Phibes, King Kong, Godzilla, the Ymir, the Blob, Michael Myers, the Alien, and Baron Frankenstein.

In addition to these columns, you’ll also be treated to introductions by both Judi Rohrig and the Gila Queen herself, Kathy Ptacek.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT puts your favorite horror movies in the spotlight and treats them the way they’re supposed to be treated, with reverence and respect.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t share a laugh or two, because we certainly do.

I think you’ll enjoy IN THE SPOOKLIGHT.  Thirteen years of satisfied HWA readers says you will.

—Michael