Saturday, January 31, 2009

Charles H. Schneer (1920-2009): An Appreciation

Mention the name Charles H. Schneer and blank stares and head scratching will surely follow. But film buffs of a certain age will instantly recognize outlandish images of a strange creature called a Ymir, a giant octopus tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, a cloven-hoof Cyclops roasting men alive on a spit, or sword-wielding skeletons battling Jason and the Argonauts.

Schneer, who died Jan. 21 in Boca Raton, FL, produced many of the great fantasy films of the 1950s and enjoyed a career with Columbia Pictures that lasted three decades. He is best remembered for his collaborations with special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion animated creatures were a source of wonder for wide-eyed children at Saturday matinees during the height of the Cold War. That was a time when going to the movies meant more than an afternoon of entertainment; films were a great escape from troubled times at the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Indeed, the plots of Mr. Schneer’s films often hinged on nuclear mischief or science gone awry. This led often enough to radioactive monsters grown to gargantuan size. An early entry in this genre was Schneer's 1955 production of Harryhausen’s overgrown octopus epic, It Came From Beneath the Sea, featuring a beastie with only five tentacles, which were cheaper and faster to animate than the traditional eight appendages. A sage man with a production dollar, Schneer predicted correctly that no one would notice. With three fewer tentacles to animate, Harryhausen brought the picture in on time and under budget.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers appeared the following year with incredible scenes of destruction filmed in miniature. There's an almost gleeful recklessness on display as Harryahusen's flying saucers level the Washington Monument, crash into the Supreme Court and collide with the Capitol Dome (a scene that brought whooping cheers from the audience when I caught the film on a revival screening 20 years after its original release).

These early efforts launched a long and fruitful collaboration with Harryhausen, whose fascination with giant monsters had begun in 1933 when he saw King Kong on its original release. Together the men made a dozen fantasy pictures, including a trio of Sinbad adventures, the best of which has to be The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a film filled with non-stop wonders: the giant Cyclops, a fire-breathing dragon, the mythical roc (a bird the size of a jumbo-jet) and the pièce de résistance, Sinbad dueling with a skeleton. Bernard Hermann composed the lush soundtrack for strings and woodwinds.

Such was Schneer’s facility with frugal film production that he was able to shoot the Sinbad pictures in Spain and Malta, hire top talent like Hermann (who was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite composer) and shoot in expensive Technicolor, while Harryhausen would labor for a year or more in his small studio, bringing his puppet models to life one frame at a time. The laborious process of stop-motion animation often meant that Schneer could produce other films while Harryhausen completed his special effects. Perhaps the most notable of Schneer’s non-Harryhausen production credits was Hellcats of the Navy (1957), the only picture in which future president Ronald Reagan and his second wife Nancy Davis appear together.

An excerpt from the climactic battle in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad:

The final Schneer-Harryhausen production, Clash of the Titans (1980), enjoyed less than titanic box office, despite the presence of stars such as Laurence Olivier. Soon after, computer-generated special effects were capable of engineering photo-realistic monsters, rendering Harryhausen’s techniques all but obsolete and effectively forcing the duo’s retirement. Fans, myself included, would argue that stop-motion animation imparts a charm and sense of magic that CGI beasties can only approximate. The very artificiality of Harryhausen’s creations, blending almost seamlessly with live action, is what makes these films so effective even half a century later.

While Harryhausen’s name is most closely associated with these magical movies (the team’s mutual favorite was the 1963 production of Jason and the Argonauts), the films themselves might never have been made without Schneer’s sharp eye for affordable locations and his negotiating skills. In those pre-Star Wars days, studio executives did not always see the financial potential in fantasy flicks featuring mythical creatures and mostly unknown B-movie actors. Harryhausen needed an advocate and found a formidable ally in Schneer, whose business acumen and hands-on production style allowed the special effects wizard to work in peace. Their professional relationship was a true example of collaboration between artist and businessman, each drawing on the strengths of the other to produce a remarkable body of cinematic work.

Their films brought great joy and endless wonders to my childhood. And now, on DVD, their immortal pictures continue to invoke this magic for my children today.

Schneer was 88.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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