Blog Directory CineVerse: Your Pal and mine

Your Pal and mine

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part article on pioneering filmmaker/animator George Pal; part 1 published last Wednesday)

Now riding a comet tail of box‑office success to the top, Pal jumped aboard his next, and most ambitious, producing project with all the enthusiasm of a wide‑eyed kid in a candy shop. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds would be his sci‑fi adaptation extraordinaire, set not in late 19th century England, but in 1950s California, Pal’s home turf. Pal’s vision permeated throughout the 1953 film: instead of being faithful to the book and showing the Martians as 16‑tentacled squid‑like aliens, the creatures were portrayed as two‑legged, leathery black‑skinned mutants who fly sleek, colorful spaceships that spew crimson death rays. One of the film’s most convincing scenes depicts Los Angeles set entirely ablaze, which helped Pal and crew land its third straight special effects Oscar.

War of the Worlds proved to be yet another pioneering triumph for Pal: the first feature film that portrays a full‑scale invasion and destruction of America, a theme that would be revisited again decades later in post‑Pal productions like V, Red Dawn and Independence Day.

War of the Worlds also began a three‑film collaboration with Pal and director Byron Haskin, and gave audiences their first glimpse at Pal himself, with the producer standing in as the character described in the credits as bum #1 listening to the radio.

“War of the Worlds was always my favorite of George’s films,” said Forrest Ackerman, former publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, when I interviewed him years back. “I remember seeing a preview of it at Paramount and, by the end of the movie, remembering to breathe. Interestingly, George later said that he wished he would have left it as a period piece.”

Continuing his successful filmic theme of mass destruction to human society, Pal next produced the nature‑against‑man action/adventure flick Naked Jungle (1954), starring Charlton Heston as a plantation owner defending his family and his land from an omnipotent army of flesh‑eating ants.

By the mid‑1950s, the filmmaker was concentrating solely on features, but began encountering more headaches with a studio system that often didn’t let him call the shots. Pal’s next sci‑fi production, Conquest of Space (1955), was plagued by studio interference and, eventually, critical scorn. Conquest tells the story of a mission to Mars with a very tacked‑on Hollywood ending. Rumor has it that Pal was furious at Paramount for tinkering with the film. Perhaps his frustration following Conquest led Pal to push for a chance at directing a full‑length feature, which he realized with Tom Thumb (1958), a movie that combined live actors, animation and puppets. The film, a big box‑office success, netted Pal more Oscar gold for special effects.

H.G. Wells was again given the Pal treatment in 1960's The Time Machine. Brilliant time‑travel sequences and strikingly designed Morlock costumes and effects certainly helped producer/director Pal win his fifth Academy Award for FX. Yet, despite this rocketing success, Ackerman says that Pal stayed down to earth and focused on doing what he did best—making more movies.

“George was a very easygoing guy, not an Erich von Stroheim who enjoyed yelling and screaming on the set,” Ackerman recalled. “As a producer and director, he was actually a pretty quiet person. And a little ahead of his time, too. I remember being on the set for The Time Machine, during the scene where Yvette Mimieux is swimming in the pool. George wanted to film her swimming naked, which of course you couldn’t do then, though it would be nothing to do that today.”

With the onset of the 1960s, Pal’s box‑office magic was starting to lose its power over audiences. He would go on to produce/direct a pair of fantasy flops—Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1961), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)—before conjuring up what would become a bona fide cult classic, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), featuring the very unusual casting choice of Tony Randall as the multiple‑personality proprietor of a mystical circus. The final decade of Pal’s career was plagued by growing studio indifference to sci‑fi and fantasy fare. Pal produced two weak final offerings in 1968 and ‘75, The Power and Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze before his death from a heart attack in 1980.

“George had always wanted to remake Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, said Ackerman,” who was asked by Pal’s widow to deliver the eulogy at his friend’s wake. “That was his holy grail. But George’s problem was that the studios never really coughed up enough cash for him to do what he was capable of. Unfortunately, he was always on a tight string.”

Projects pulled from Pal, some yanked at the last moment, others due to lack of studio interest, included Logan’s Run, When the Sleeper Wakes and sequels to When Worlds Collide and The Time Machine.

Some critics argue that while Pal’s movies were packed with lasting, colorful cinematic images, scripts and acting in his films were usually neglected.

Ackerman is quick to dismiss these aspersions. Ask him if today’s sci‑fi film fare can hold a candle to the best of Pal’s work, and Ackerman will tell you it’s a case of the tail wagging the werewolf.

“Special effects are king now, but as far as storytelling, I’m still waiting [for science fiction/horror filmmakers] to get back to the first principles that make a film good,” said Ackerman. “George’s goal was to simply entertain, to tell a great science‑fiction story.”

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