A Cinema of Miracles: Remembering George Pal

George Pal

George Pal, ca. 1953

In 1949 the expressions “science fiction” and “blockbuster movies” were antithetical to each other. Science fiction was considered pure Flash Gordon/Saturday matinee stuff, unfit for adult consumption. Like the Moon itself, the genre was a vast, unexplored territory, with barely enough masterpieces in it to be counted on one hand. Unimaginative producers and executives wouldn’t entertain absurd notions like interplanetary travel, let alone gamble on filming or – heresy! – venerating them.

That is, until George Pal did.

With his “Destination Moon” (1950), Pal, then 42, ignited the science fiction film boom of the 1950s, oddly enough with a “science fact” movie – a “documentary of the near future,” as Pal described it. His exhaustively detailed, full-color portrayal of man’s first lunar voyage was a hit, proving that intelligent science fiction had a massive audience eager for more. The film’s closing title fittingly reads “The End of the Beginning.” The genre’s infancy was over.

Pal next upped the ante by destroying Earth in the cataclysmic “When Worlds Collide” (1951), and then trumped himself again by producing arguably the finest depiction of an alien invasion ever filmed in “The War of the Worlds” (1953). (Pal enthusiast Steven Spielberg went so far as to remake the latter in 2005.) Despite their tight budgets and relatively unknown talent, these movies weren’t haphazard poverty row quickies stocked with klutzy rubber monsters. They were crafted to exacting standards and overseen by some of the finest minds in astronomy and rocketry of their day, and they came alive with breathtaking (and Oscar®-winning) visual effects.

As Pal blazed a trail with these genre works, he endured the skepticism and ridicule that allowed those who followed him – filmmakers like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro and Henry Selick – to popularly legitimize science fiction and fantasy movies to an unprecedented extent. His films inspired a generation of astronomers, scientists, writers, special effects magicians and artists to persevere in their love of the awe-inspiring reaches of space and time, their infinite mysteries, and the shared dream of cracking them.

In 1960 Pal produced and directed his most popular work, “The Time Machine.” Like several of his earlier hits, it was disdained by its own studio and filmed for pocket change, only to score big at the box office and become a beloved perennial favorite. Several flops and near-misses followed, including “7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964), a charming and whimsical western fantasy whose makeup artist, William Tuttle, earned the Academy’s Honorary Award “for his outstanding makeup achievement” for the film. It was the first time in Academy history that a makeup artist was honored by the organization.

Pal passed away in 1980, and his reputation today rests primarily on his live-action science fiction and fantasy features. However, his (unjustly) neglected animated shorts remain some of his most sublime and enduring works. Filmed in Holland and Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s, Pal’s stop-motion Puppetoons/Madcap Models occupy a unique niche in the annals of animation. They were shot using the painstaking replacement-animation process that incorporated dozens of different hand-tooled model limbs, torsos and faces to create frequently seamless, elegant and graceful sequences, like the one featuring the marching soldiers in his “Rhythm in the Ranks.” Pal also had an exceptional ear for music and instinctively knew how to integrate it with film, nowhere more boldly than in the stylish musical numbers of the Puppetoons.

One of Pal’s finest Puppetoons is “John Henry and the Inky Poo,” a film that treats its folkloric black hero with far greater respect and dignity than 1940s Hollywood’s live-action fare seemed capable of. Beautifully animated, inventively staged and shot, and moving in its denouement, John Henry transcends the politics of race: it’s a paean to humanity’s indomitable spirit and its superiority to machines.

Therein is a major part of the longevity of Pal’s films: their very human artistry. Unlike many of today’s CGI spectacles and their retina-assaulting, headache-inducing onslaught of un-special effects, the visual effects in Pal’s work were art. They are aesthetically stunning, and even at their most gloriously imperfect, they bear the imprint of gifted artists’ hands. Props and models like the Time Machine, the Martian warships of “The War of the Worlds,” and the Luna rocket of “Destination Moon” still have the capacity to astonish.

But there remains much more to Pal’s legacy than special effects sleight of hand. His work is deeply optimistic and genuinely uplifting, easy to enjoy and delightfully unjaded. His oeuvre bespeaks a love of humanity and of the genre to which he devoted his life. This extraordinary cinematic visionary, his fabulous celluloid labors of love, and his joyful spirit may be best captured in the words of one of his protagonists, Dr. Lao: “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic.”

Justin Humphreys is the author of Names You Never Remember, With Faces You Never Forget. He recently completed his second book, George Pal: Man of Tomorrow. © 2008 Justin Humphreys

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