Today is the day to celebrate #Harryhausen100.
While we’re at it, let’s celebrate the lives of two people: a special effects legend and an Oklahoma cowboy who are connected by one movie at the dawn of their careers.
Ray Harryhausen was the genius behind a form of stop-motion animation that brought all kinds of beasties to life in movies like “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “One Million Years B.C.,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” “Clash of the Titans” and a series of Sinbad flicks.
If you were blown away by the scene in “Jason and the Argonauts” where skeletons become sword-fight participants, you have Harryhausen to thank. How, in the days before computer-generated effects, did he accomplish that?
“Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry,” George Lucas said after Harryhausen’s death. “The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much. ... Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.”
Harryhausen died in 2013. He would’ve turned 100 on June 29, 2020. The #Harryhausen100 hashtag was created to commemorate the occasion.
One of Harryhausen’s big breaks came when he was hired as assistant animator for the 1949 film “Mighty Joe Young.” Like “King Kong,” “Mighty Joe Young” was the story of a gorilla taken from its natural habitat to be an attraction in the U.S. What could go wrong?
Harryhausen saw “King Kong” when he was a kid, and the movie made such a big impression on him that he took steps to get into monkey business. He cold-called “King Kong” animator Willis O’Brien, learned the craft and eventually was hired as O’Brien’s helper on “Mighty Joe Young.” It was Harryhausen’s first major film, and he said in a 2007 interview with Bright Lights Film Journal that he perhaps handled 90% of the movie’s actual animation work.
“Mighty Joe Young” won an Academy Award for best visual effects. The only other movie nominated in the category that year was (maybe you’ve heard of this place?) “Tulsa.”
Here’s a bigger and more legit Oklahoma connection: Ben Johnson.
Johnson was born in Foraker. A cowboy, he accompanied a group of horses to Hollywood in 1939 because Howard Hughes needed them for the movie “The Outlaw.” Johnson found work as a wrangler and stunt man.
Johnson was hired to double for Henry Fonda during the filming of 1948’s “Fort Apache.” Fortunately, he was horseback when an emergency situation arose. Horses were pulling a wagon carrying three actors. The horses got spooked, and the runaway wagon put the actors in peril. Johnson rode to the rescue.
John Ford, legendary movie director, told Johnson he would be rewarded. Johnson took that to “only” mean he would get more stunt work in Ford’s next movie. A few days later, Ford invited Johnson to his office and offered a personal services contract with Argosy Pictures for $5,000 a week. He signed it immediately.
Ford gave Johnson his first credited role in the movie “3 Godfathers.” A producer on “Mighty Joe Young,” Ford suggested Johnson for that film, and it was the Oklahoman’s first starring role.
Said a New York Times review: “The wonder of ‘Mighty Joe Young’ is the mobility of the mechanical star, but even that novelty wears thin after a while. The human actors are, considering the circumstances, quite adept. Terry Moore is the girl; Robert Armstrong the nightclub owner and Ben Johnson, the cowboy. Johnson is a personable newcomer with a heavy Oklahoma drawl.”
Johnson wasn’t the kind of guy to take guff from anyone, even Ford, who had a reputation for being abusive. A dinnertime confrontation during the making of “Rio Grande” caused Johnson to stop working for Ford for a period of 13 years, according to Scott Eyman’s John Ford biography.
The Ford biography also delved into how Johnson was cast in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show.” Johnson declined to be in the movie because of nudity and language in the script. Director Peter Bogdanovich asked Ford to intervene.
“John Ford called me in Houston and asked if I’d do him a favor,” Johnson said in the book. “And I said ‘yes sir.’ I didn’t even ask what it was.”
The favor: Will you be in Bogdanovich’s movie? For added incentive, Ford asked Johnson, who had been in many films with John Wayne, if he wanted to be the Duke’s sidekick all his life.
“So I called my agent and told him to call the studio and tell them that Ben Johnson wanted twice his salary to do the movie,” Johnson said in the book. “I knew nobody would pay that much money.”
The studio agreed to Johnson’s request. He won an Oscar (best supporting actor) for his work in “The Last Picture Show.” He said in interviews that it was an honor to win an Academy Award because there had never been a cowboy to win one.
Johnson died in 1996. You can revisit his career at the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum in Pawhuska. The museum opened in June 2019.
Harryhausen’s career has been on display in Oklahoma, too. In July 2017, an exhibition of almost 150 original Harryhausen models, prototypes, bronzes, sketches and storyboards debuted at the Science Museum Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. It was billed as the first U.S. exhibition of his work in “many years.” The exhibition ended Dec. 3, 2017.
For #Harryhausen100, the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation is inviting friends and fans from around the world to celebrate the effects wizard’s life by watching “Jason and the Argonauts” together at 7:30 p.m. UK time.
Said the foundation: “Grab your BluRay, DVD, VHS or whichever format suits you best as we watch this most classic of Harryhausen films together. We’ll be posting behind the scenes facts and images throughout the film on our Twitter and Instagram accounts and sharing your memories of Ray and his work.”