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For all the buzz generated in the horror/sci-fi community by its promising title, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009) failed to satisfy the hunger for the return of believable big box monsters that has been gnawing in the bellies of moviegoers worldwide since the retirement of Ray Harryhausen nearly thirty years ago. Born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1920, the only son of a freelance machinist who worked for a time at RKO Studios, Harryhausen has often said in interviews that his course in life was set at the tender age of 13 when he was taken to see a matinee of the original King Kong (1933) at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where the feature was accompanied by a seventeen-act live stage show. (Harryhausen's father would later drive him out to Path Studios in Culver City to see the still-standing "Skull Island" wall and gate before the set pieces were repurposed by MGM and burned during the shooting of Gone with the Wind .) Desiring to know everything about the special effects process known as "stop-motion," Harryhausen went so far as to visit Willis O'Brien, King Kong's principal animator, on the lot at MGM. While "Obie" was complementary (but not uncritical) of Harryhausen's first steps as a monster modeler, it was George Pal who held the door for him in Hollywood. At Paramount, Harryhausen began paying his industry dues with Pal's "Puppetoons," ten-minute shorts peopled by hand-carved wooden puppets which perambulated via "replacement animation" rather than stop-motion.
After his military service in World War II (in which he had trained as a field cameraman and served under both Ted "Dr. Seuss" Geisel and Frank Capra), Harryhausen was hired by Willis O'Brien as an animator on the troubled Mighty Joe Young (1949), when the project was still known as Mr. Joseph Young of Africa. Although the King Kong sets were long gone, Harryhausen was delighted to be working with many members of the original Kong crew, notably O'Brien, director Ernest B. Schoedsack (who was by this time partially blind), Schoedsack's scenarist wife Ruth Rose and model makers Marcel and Victor Delgado. Unfortunately, monster-making remained for Harryhausen more of an avocation than a career. He filled the downtime developing his own dinosaur project, Valley of Mist, as well as an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, but was unable to attract interest in either title. His luck changed when he heard about a film producer, Jack Dietz, who was casting about for ways to animate the title creature of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the first of what would prove to be a new cycle of monster-on-the-loose films. Selling Dietz on stop-motion, Harryhausen sweetened the pot with his own "Dynamation" process, in which he employed split screen and rear projection processes to put the Beast in the same frame as the live actors. Box office returns were substantial and The New York Times singled out Harryhausen's dinosaur design as "an awesome apparition, seemingly the size of the Paramount Building, as destructive as a hydrogen bomb."
Although job offers were still slow in coming, Columbia Pictures reached out to Harryhausen in the person of producer Charles Schneer. During the war, Schneer had worked in the same unit as Harryhausen at Astoria Studios in New York but the future business partners' paths had never crossed. Schneer was suitably impressed with the stop-motion work in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to pitch to Harryhausen a an idea for a follow-up about a giant octopus laying siege to San Francisco. Originally bearing the title Monster from the Deep, It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) marked the maiden voyage of the long-running partnership of Harryhausen and Schneer. Harryhausen began by making a study of cephalopod mollusks at the Hermosa Beach Aquarium while Schneer met with executive producer Sam Katzman to lock down a budget. Writer George Worthing Yates (fresh from the job of writing the giant ant movie Them!  for Warner Brothers) fleshed out Steve Fisher's step outline, changing the title to Monster Beneath the Sea. The final shooting script bearing that title was delivered in September 1954, with the name-change occurring two months later. Harryhausen had begun filming his effects sequences in August. Pressure from the front office to curtail costs resulted in an effects compromise that has largely gone unnoticed, except by marine biologists and trainspotters: the eponymous octopod has only six tentacles. Harryhausen diverted attention from this deficiency by keeping the Beast below the waterline with at least one limb moving at all times, having anticipated that moviegoers would rather watch the one tentacle in motion than five at rest.
Cast as the two-fisted hero of It Came from Beneath the Sea was Kenneth Tobey, star of both The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. A native of Oakland, California, Tobey had been a classmate of Gregory Peck and Eli Wallach at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, and made an impression in an uncredited bit in the service comedy I Was a Male War Bride (1949) with Cary Grant. Paired with Tobey as a female scientist was Faith Domergue, a discovery of Howard Hughes, who bought the New Orleans-born actress' Warners contract with the intention of molding her to be the next Jane Russell. (That same year, Domergue starred in the future cult favorites This Island Earth and Cult of the Cobra).
To keep shooting costs low, director Robert Gordon shot inside an actual submarine, both above and under water, using handheld cameras. For a scene that takes place on a stretch of Pacific coastline, Gordon and his crew dumped several truckloads of sand onto a soundstage at Columbia, which they backed with a rear screen projection. During their scene together, Tobey found himself sinking through the sand to the point of appearing shorter than Domergue on camera, forcing him to dig himself out of the hole between every take. A more extensive love scene had been written for the characters but was literally torn out of the shooting script by Sam Katzman, to keep principal photography from going over schedule.
The price tag on It Came from Beneath the Sea was a miserly $150,000, approximately $26,000 of which paid for Harryhausen's special effects. The first Harryhausen-Schneer production was a bona fide success at the time of its release in mid 1955 and established a distinctive template for terror married to spectacle. Harryhausen-Schneer followed this with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), heaping destruction this time on Washington, D.C.
Growing dissatisfied with his relationship with Sam Katzman, Schneer founded his own company, Morningside Productions, to ensure greater creative control. Columbia remained the distributor for the company's subsequent ventures, from the monster-on-the-loose (in Rome) variant 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) to the lively Jules Verne adaptations Mysterious Island (1961) and First Men in the Moon (1964) and the myth-based The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Due to the meticulous, time-consuming nature of Harryhausen's effects work, Schneer often produced films on his own (Hellcats of the Navy , The Case Against Brooklyn , Good Day for a Hanging ), none of which are remembered with as much affection or respect as his dozen with Harryhausen.
The partnership disbanded after the box office disappointment of Clash of the Titans (1981), at which time Ray Harryhausen retired. "I got tired of being in a dark room making one film while everybody else goes and makes three," he said in an interview in 2001. "People seem to want something of the future rather than the past. Elements of an explosion every five minutes didn't appeal to me like Greek mythology." While making a personal appearance at the Famous Monsters of Filmland convention in Arlington, Virginia in May 1993, the 72 year-old Harryhausen was asked by one of the 7,000 attendees if he would consider coming out of retirement. The answer was a jovial but firm no: "I'm having too much fun being a playboy."
Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Director: Robert Gordon
Screenplay: George Worthing Yates, Hal Smith; George Worthing Yates (story)
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Kenneth Tobey (Cmdr. Pete Mathews), Faith Domergue (Prof. Lesley Joyce), Donald Curtis (Dr. John Carter), Ian Keith (Adm. Burns), Dean Maddox, Jr. (Adm. Norman), Chuck Griffiths (Lt. Griff, USN), Harry Lauter (Deputy Bill Nash), Richard W. Peterson (Capt. Stacy).
by Richard Harland Smith
Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
Kenneth Tobey interview by Tom Weaver, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers
Ray Harryhausen interview by Ruth and Roger Whiter, Animation World Magazine, Issue 4, Volume 11, February 2000
Ray Harryhausen interview by Marty Mapes, MovieHabit.com, 2001
Ray Harryhausen interview by Damien Love, Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 58, November 2007
Charles Schneer: Another Look at a Shadowed Icon by John Stanhope, CinefantastiqueOnline.com