Friday, May 17, 2013

The Story of Hansel and Gretel (1951)

WHO: Ray Harryhausen directed, produced and animated this short film by hand, and who died at age 92 last week.

WHAT: In Alex Pappademas's lovely obituary, he writes of the feature films that the master worked on:
They were all conceived as showcases for Harryhausen's effects, and he was supposedly heavily involved in every stage of their production, from script to art direction to principal photography, but they tend to fall down a deep well entertainmentwise whenever the puppets yield the screen to people. "I could kick myself when I think of how I didn't insist on more from the director or the studio," Harryhausen once said, admitting that some of his finished pictures made him "heartsick."
It's true that, although Harryhausen's effects have a timeless quality to them, the feature films they appear in work better as entertainments for young children than sophisticated adults. Clunky dialogue and frequently unimaginative camera placement weigh down, say, 20 Million Miles to Earth or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad when Harryhausen's monster creations are not on the screen, and perhaps can only really be appreciated by discerning, aesthetically attuned moviegoers when they are able to summon their inner-child sense of wonder.

The lesser-known short films Harryhausen directed before his feature-film career, however, do not suffer from the same lack of artistic sophistication, perhaps because they were don't involve the blending of live actors with the animated environments. The Story of Hansel and Gretel, for instance, utilizes some creative camera angles and compositions in telling a very familiar story. It's an apparent paradox, because this short film was intended expressly for children while the later science fiction and fantasy films were aimed at wider audiences. But if you can appreciate the enclosed artistry of a Disney Silly Symphony or a Frank Tashlin cartoon, you may find more complete fulfillment from this film than from a Harryhausen vehicle in which his artistry is not evident in every frame.

WHERE/WHEN: 8PM tonight only at Oddball Films. Seating is limited, so it's best to RSVP by e-mailing or calling ahead at (415) 558-8117.

WHY: Many commentators (most recently David Bordwell) have pointed to the increasing importance of film archives to allowing us access to our moving image heritage, in the waning days of 35mm as a mass distribution medium. Movie lovers now have so many convenient (if compromised) methods of seeing films on a whim, and the barriers to providing timely programming to cinema audiences seem to be increasing rather than decreasing as more and more screens go digital-only.

But archives, when they screen their own holdings, as Oddball does every Thursday and Friday evenings, can demonstrate a flexibility few other venues can have. I'm sure that upon Ray Harryhausen's death, programmers at the Castro and Rafael and perhaps other local venues with a history of connecting audiences with his film work, immediately began investigating the possibility of a tribute program. But though none have been announced yet, Oddball has already been able to tribute the stop-motion master twice, first with a film added to last week's Czechoslovakian animation program, and now tonight with The Story of Hansel and Gretel anchoring a program of tasty films that will also include a short featuring Woody Allen and the late Jonathan Winters, an excerpt from an I Love Lucy episode, and a rare showing of Ub Iwerks's 1934 cartoon Reducing Creme

Animation fans should also look forward to next week's Oddball screenings: a Devilish set including Betty Boop in Red Hot Mamma, and a Toy-fest that ranges from Gumby to Charles & Ray Eames.

The Bay Area's other big archive, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, has also just announced its entire summer programming slate. Though there's a lot to peruse and comment upon, the two series most relevant to this particular post are the Sunday-afternoon, 12-film focus on Japan's greatest animation studio Ghibli, and a selection of screenings of Eastern European films from the archive's own collection, donated by George Gund III, and presented as a memorial to his long life, which ended earlier this year.

HOW: Tonight's Oddball program, including The Story of Hansel and Gretel, will screen virtually entirely in 16mm.


  1. Don't forget to bring a fork, there's gonna be pie! Come early for a slice and watch a beautiful silent educational film about maple tapping.