Blog Directory CineVerse: Our pal, King George

Our pal, King George

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

King of Classic Celluloid Sci-fi

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 1 of a 2-part article on George Pal; part 2 will publish next Wednesday)

Long before Lucas, sci‑fi cinema had a Pal in Hollywood. And, by George, coincidence be damned if they didn’t share the same first name.

Like Lucas, George Pal created futuristic film fantasies that defined their generation. And, like Lucas, Pal persisted in his quest to make quality escapist films despite critical barbs and studio naysayers. Indeed, as the man responsible for bringing to life big‑screen science‑fiction classics like The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, When Worlds Collide and The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, Pal was practically a one‑man sci‑fi film studio throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.

“His legacy leaves behind quite a body of work,” said Forrest J. Ackerman, the former editor/creator of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, of his longtime friend Pal, when I interviewed him years ago. “Someone like Fritz Lang, a genius in his own right, is only remembered for two science‑fiction films: Woman in the Moon and Metropolis. But Pal fans have a vast variety of films to pick from. They’ve stood the test of time quite well. His movies were always out of this world, but George was very down to earth in his depictions of the common man overcoming tremendous odds.”

Which could be a fitting description for Pal himself. The child of a theatrical family, he was born in Cegled, Hungary, in 1908. The young Pal attended the Budapest Academy with aspirations of becoming an architect, but legend has it that a clerical error landed him in illustration classes, where Pal’s true talents emerged. Pal ended up earning his architectural degree, but quickly found that Hungary offered very few jobs for architects. Luckily, Hunnia, a small Hungarian film studio was in need of animation illustrators, and Pal was hired.

His hopes for financial security were dashed, however, when he learned that the new job was an unpaid apprenticeship. Pal’s new bride Zsoka suggested that they migrate to Berlin to find paid work, which Pal did at the famous UFA studio, which produced films for German filmmaking legends like Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnaugh. After only two months, Pal was supervising all of UFA’s cartoon production. But by 1933, Hitler’s Gestapo began rounding up foreigners throughout Germany, and the Pals were quickly on the move again, this time, for Prague, Czechoslovakia.

There, Pal attempted to launch a one‑man animation studio, but couldn’t locate any of the special cameras he needed to realize his animation dreams. It was then that he decided to chuck the cartoon concept and to use puppets, instead. Pal’s puppets—which he called Puppetoons—were born, and the world of animation would never again be the same.

Though many historians credit John Sutherland with pioneering the technique, some say Pal invented the art of replacement animation (used prominently in films like The Nightmare Before Christmas) in which separate puppets or parts of puppets were crafted to represent each desired action, instead of using the same puppets with hinged or malleable parts. For example, instead of reshaping a pliable puppet head for each changing frame to depict facial expressions, a series of reusable heads would be fashioned, each with a slightly different expression.

Pal’s career as a movie puppetmaster began in Paris, where he and his wife relocated to create a stop‑motion cigarette commercial to be shown in theaters. Not content with the short‑lived success the ad achieved, the Pals picked up and moved yet again, this time to Einhover, Holland, where the animator founded his Dollywood studio, partially financed by an investor who commissioned Pal to make special Puppetoon ads for him. The shorts became so popular that theaters began billing them in the lobby and playing them pro bono.

By the mid 1930s, Pal’s animated shorts and entertainment films began to catch the eye of America, and soon he had secured lucrative deals with overseas clients. In 1939, the Pals, who were in the States giving a lecture at Columbia University, left their European roots behind forever upon hearing the news that Hitler had invaded Poland. The couple headed for the sunny climes of California, and Pal signed a long‑term contract with Paramount Pictures to produce dozens of non‑advertising Puppetoon shorts.

Soon Pal was collaborating with the best animators in the business, including Gene Warren, Bob Baker, Wah Chang and a burgeoning young talent named Ray Harryhausen, whom Pal hired in the early 1940s. Between 1943‑1944, Paramount’s Puppetoons series was in its full glory, and an average film called for the crafting of 9,000 puppets. Pal’s Puppetoon characters had become a sensation, and the filmmaker was turning into a hot Hollywood commodity.

It wasn’t long before Paramount entrusted Pal to produce a live‑action feature film. It was 1950's Destination Moon, widely considered to be the first sci‑fi movie of the red scare era, when futuristic films, created as a subtle reminder of the threat of global communism and nuclear annihilation and man’s ability to stave off these impending dooms through science and technology, were in full bloom. The film’s story details how a scientist, an engineer and a general persuade rich businessmen to help them defy the government and build a rocketship in a patriotic effort to beat the Russians to the moon. Pal’s successful movie was truly ahead of its time: not only did Destination Moon win an Academy Award for its special effects animation, but the film also anticipates America’s lunar landing by 20 years.

For his next trick, Pal made a catastrophic classic for the ages, When Worlds Collide (1951), which depicts the mayhem that ensues when a wayward planet is found to be on a collision course with Earth and a spaceship is created for a select group to escape in. It, too, landed Pal and his team an Oscar for special effects, thanks in particular to its Armageddon‑ish climax, in which New York is seen being struck by a tidal wave.

Next week: Part 2--War of the Worlds and more

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