I confess to some ignorance of what films are made for kids these days beyond a vague notion that they’re all made in 3D animation. I’m tempted to look back upon the 1960s and ’70s as a golden era of children’s films in all formats: live-action, traditional animation, stop-motion, effects-driven films, modest character studies, and heady mixtures of all.
These thoughts are inspired by two revelatory Blu-rays from Kino Lorber that constitute rescues of mishandled, little-seen films aimed at Saturday matinee denizens of the Sixties: Nathan Juran‘s Jack the Giant Killer (1962) and Jules Bass‘ The Daydreamer (1966). These aren’t nostalgia trips for me, as I hadn’t seen them before. That’s how obscure they’ve been.
Jack the Giant Killer (1962)
Director: Nathan Juran
If you were asked to name a fantasy film driven by wondrous stop-motion effects with Kerwin Mathews as the swashbuckling hero and Torin Thatcher as the magical villain, as directed by Nathan Juran–well, you’d name The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and rightly so. Driven by the effects of Ray Harryhausen, that blockbuster is a landmark in fantasy cinema.
According to critic Tim Lucas’ historical commentary for Jack the Giant Killer, Harryhausen later recalled that when he was shopping his idea, the prolific independent producer Edward Small at United Artists never took his calls. So the first delicious irony is that when Sinbad set the box office on fire, Small decided he wanted something just like that. He hired Juran, Matthews, and Thatcher to do more or less what they’d done before. But he didn’t invite Harryhausen.
If the resulting film remains a notch below its inspiration, that can be traced to Harryhausen’s absence. However, the fact that this knock-off is as good as it is, reveals how much the other men contributed to the Sinbad project, and also how Harryhausen’s influence became so positive and pervasive that others learned from his magic.
Set in never-never Cornwall, the film begins by establishing that an evil magician named Pendragon (Thatcher) bides his time in a black castle with hideous goblins and witches and whatnots while scheming to seize the throne. He also practices tossing back his cape until he’s got it perfect. Pendragon is the family name of King Arthur, but this is never discussed.
Pendragon shows up in disguise, looking sickly green, at the 18th birthday party of Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) and presents her with a charming-yet-sinister dancing mechanism in a music box. That night, the dancing thing grows to giant size and reveals its conceptual kinship with the horned giant in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
This growling beast creates a lot of bother while kidnapping the princess. He’s soon killed in a spectacular fight with a local farmer. That’s Jack, played by the splendid Mathews, who comes across as everything you want in a hero. But the film is far from over, so Elaine must be kidnapped again. Naturally this requires Jack’s quest with motley companions and lots more sturm und drang before the happy ending, which is no spoiler.
Though this story would seem predictable, the plot keeps tossing curveballs. One of its most intriguing ideas is giving Elaine something to do besides being a damsel in need of rescue. Pendragon uses the evil magic of Isis to convert women into witches in thrall to him. Their evil-beautiful natures are exposed in mirrors, which must be shattered to break the spell. This happens to Jack the Giant Killer‘s two women, Lady Constance (Anna Lee) and Elaine, and both look gorgeously strange in their mirrors. In fact, all of Pendragon’s company look passing strange, thanks to makeup and costume wizard Charles Gemora.
Elaine gets one of her best lines when she mocks Jack with “And what would you save me from, Prince Charming? My reflection?” Her implication is that in recognizing her dual nature, she may be ready to glory in more power and ambition than otherwise permitted. “Imagine a witch on the throne of England!” she cackles, and we start imagining. Maybe in another film. The mirror device is clever, associating one’s darker nature with vanity and self-regard.
Other characters include Pendragon’s gleeful minion Garna (Walter Burke), the tiny rhyming leprechaun called the Imp (Don Beddoe), friendly Viking Sigurd (Barry Kelley), King Mark (Dayton Lummis) and his grey-headed Chancellor (Tudor Owen), and little boy Peter (Roger Mobley), gratuitous to the action while serving as the audience’s stand-in. He gets a tearful closeup when his dad is killed but quickly gets over it in all the fuss.
The script is full of clever lines, as when Pendragon tells the king, “I detect a chill in your hospitality”. Aside from the obvious Sinbad inspiration, writers Orville H. Hampton and Juran weave in references to The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939), Cocteau‘s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946), and two Walt Disney films from 1959, Sleeping Beauty and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, while keeping all fresh and pacy.
Oscar-winning effects technician David S. Horsley is credited as director of photography in Technicolor, working with Howard A. Anderson’s photographic effects (calling itself “Fantascope”), the traditional animation of Lloyd L. Vaughan, and the stop-motion of Projects Unlimited, the company that had just won an Oscar for George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960).
Company owners Wah Chang, Gene Warren, and Tim Barr got credits, while their uncredited assistants include a young Jim Danforth, who handled the final monster battle. Art director Fernando Carrere, set decorator Edward G. Boyle, editor Grant Whytock, and composers Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter complete the most visible contributors.
Lucas gives background on production delays and United Artists studio politics, and he discusses the bizarre musical alternate version included as a head-spinning bonus. Sometime in the late ’70s, a decision was made to refashion the thing as a musical. This was done by layering songs over certain scenes (like intense battles!), sometimes gratuitously singing bits of re-dubbed dialogue, and re-editing footage with various distortions or rather distractions.
When this version began showing up on Showtime in the ’80s, Lucas was among early voices to sound the alarm in fear that the original, which had been mishandled into failure by United Artists, would never surface again. It’s the sort of unnecessary and irritating experiment that everyone should see once just as a precaution not to try this again.
The Daydreamer (1966)
Director: Jules Bass
The Rankin/Bass team of writer-producer Arthur Rankin Jr. and director Jules Bass are famous for their animated TV holiday specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969) and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970). They’ve also made films, including a three-picture deal with producer Joseph E. Levine. The most well-known of the trilogy is the last one, Mad Monster Party (1967).
The Daydreamer is first of the three, and it’s got so much going for it that its relative failure is surprising. In the commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt, who’s literally written the books on Rankin/Bass and this film, they speculate on possible reasons and discuss the dark, distressing nature of most of what’s going on.
The film’s premise is that young Chris (Paul O’Keefe of The Patty Duke Show), decked out in brand-spanking red overalls, is dreamy and lackadaisical about his studies in his early 19th Century Denmark village. Frankly, his shoemaker Papa (Jack Gilford) is no great role model, since he never gets around to repairing one shoe for his only badgering client (Margaret Hamilton), and she’s got a point. If you think Hamilton’s there to channel The Wizard of Oz, you’re right, especially since Ray Bolger’s also in the picture as the Pieman with no purpose but to dance all over the street.
When Papa says Chris must study if he wants to get anywhere, Chris asks why he has to study only dull stuff, and dad says the dull stuff is what makes the world go round today, unfortunately. When Chris asks why dad’s a shoemaker, he answers that it’s his trade, how he makes a living. “Then how come we haven’t got any money? Look at the way we live,” says Chris. Papa’s got no answer to that one. In other words, the bromides aren’t quite working, and that’s not a bad thing.
The plot consists of Chris running away (not very far) in search of the Garden of Paradise. He’s constantly falling asleep and dreaming himself into spectacular stop-motion fairy tales that tend to end inconclusively, or rather in an unhappy and neurotic manner. In other words, rather like those of Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote the most neurotic and depressing fairy tales ever.
Andersen’s the hook here, and the adaptions are admirable in their avoidance of reassurance. Although this incarnation of the Little Mermaid (voiced by Hayley Mills) isn’t the horror show written by Andersen, it refuses to end happily and prefers a harsher existential tone that doesn’t put Chris in a good light.
The same happens in his encounter with Thumbelina (Patty Duke) and his collusion in the scam of the Emperor’s New Clothes. (Funniest credit: Emperor’s Clothes by fashion designer Oleg Cassini.) Since the Emperor (Ed Wynn) is a puppet, the film gets away with letting him be naked instead of wearing longjohns.
The bit with an elegant if bad Rat (Boris Karloff) and Mole (Sessue Hayakawa) seems more inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), another work that Rankin/Bass would adapt, and the Garden parable is straight-up Bible mythology. Somehow these extras fit a riff on Andersen’s themes and tones, harking back to the classic Danny Kaye musical Hans Christian Andersen (1952, Charles Vidor) but even more melancholy and wistful.
The rather non-traditional casting of Hayakawa can be explained by the fact that Rankin/Bass’ output, including this film, often depended on Japanese co-production and animation made in Japan. Tadahito Mochinaga supervised and shot the drop-dead lovely animation. The water effects are especially beautiful, and the fact that the materials are obvious (like cellophane) only add to the wonder and charm. The animation was advertised as “Animagic”. Effects films of the era liked to invent such words, like Dynamation and Fantascope.
Also lending voices are Tallulah Bankhead as the Sea Witch (perfect), Burl Ives as Neptune, Terry-Thomas and Victor Borge as the con-artist tailors (unpunished), and Cyril Ritchard as the narrating Sandman, who’s presented as a light-crystal visual abstraction. Robert Goulet sings the title song, which is kind of channeling a Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer vibe.
Oh yes, now and then someone sings a song by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. I can’t call the songs instant classics, like for example, the songs in Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964,), which the commenters say is what Levine thought he was getting. Instead, he got a bit of a gentle, fragile, lovely downer that didn’t set box office records but comes across as a philosophical and personal film. Many thematic and stylistic links to other Rankin/Bass projects are discussed in the commentary.
I try to imagine what my undiscriminating childhood self would have made of these films. I’m sure Jack the Giant Killer would have had me jumping up and down in my seat, spilling my popcorn, and wanting to grow up to be Kerwin Mathews. (What if the matinee tykes parents had known he was gay?) The Daydreamer would probably have seen me sitting politely through the live-action until the next stop-motion dream, and I’d have overlooked any deeper message.
Seeing them for the first time nearer my dotage, I appreciate their physical beauty and clarity, especially on these colorful Kino Lorber Blu-ray transfers, and I pick up on elements that keep them from seeming like mindless escapism. Not that mindless escapism must be bad, but films for kids tended to have depth amid their gentleness and dazzle.
I’ll always remember how scary and disturbing was the run on the bank in Mary Poppins, and just thinking of the song “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)” brings a catch to my throat (there, I said it). What the dullards may think of as a “sweet” or saccharine film is showing the brutal unfairness of life and challenging you to do something about it. In that regard, Levine did get another Mary Poppins in The Daydreamer, only he couldn’t appreciate it. Rankin/Bass forgot the spoonful of sugar.