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Jack the Giant Killer

by Glenn Erickson Jun 02, 2018

 

“From the land beyond beyond…”  — oops, wrong movie. Kerwin Mathews battles Torin Thatcher once again, with Judi Meredith in a stunning double role as both a delicate heroine and her evil counterpart in a magician’s mirror. Plus more stop-motion monsters than one can throw a ten-league boot at! Boy, we’re coining phrases left and right here.


Jack the Giant Killer
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1962 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 94 + 91 min. / Street Date June 12, 2018 / Special Edition / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Torin Thatcher, Judi Meredith, Walter Burke, Don Beddoe, Barry Kelley, Dayton Lummis, Anna Lee, Roger Mobley, Tudor Owen.
Cinematography: David S. Horsley
Film Editor: Grant Whytock
Special Effects: Augie Lohman (practical), Howard A. Anderson (optical composites), Tim Baar, Wah Chang, Lloyd Vaughan, Gene Warren, Bill Brace, Jim Danforth, Tom Holland, Phil Kellison, David Pal (stop-motion animation).
Original Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Original Music Alternate musical version: musical process by Edwin Picker and Moose Charlap, original score Charlap and Sandy Stewart.
Written by Nathan Juran, Orville H. Hampton from his story
Produced by Edward Small
Directed by
Nathan Juran

 

Here’s a kiddie matinee favorite with a lot of baggage to unpack — plus a legendary alternate version most of us have only heard about. Kino’s two-version Special Edition is a little rough in some respects, due to the condition of the source elements. Most won’t notice and won’t care — the juvenile mass of noise, violent action and dense plotting that is Jack the Giant Killer remains a lively item of nostalgia — even if we have to hold our ears for some of those songs in the musical version. As a bonus, I’ve expended some time and effort trying to get to the bottom of a strange formatting issue with the film’s special effects scenes.

Savant missed out on Jack the Giant Killer theatrically, and since it wasn’t revived or shown on television anywhere near me, for years the only images from it that I saw were in Famous Monsters magazine and in sets of bubble gum cards that were very popular on grade school playgrounds. It wasn’t until years later that I saw part of a musical version on TV.

 

There’s no debate over the fact that this basic hero-saves-damsel fantasy is a repeat of ideas from the famed 1958 The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which is perhaps Ray Harryhausen’s greatest fantasy adventure. The evil magician Pendragon (Torin Thatcher, back again) seeks to conquer Cornwall. He uses magical monsters to kidnap Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith). After being rescued once by handy lad Jack (Kerwin Mathews, back again), Elaine is plucked from his boat by more of Pendragon’s demons. With a boy (Roger Mobley), a Viking (Barry Kelley) and a leprechaun-elf (Don Beddoe) at his side, Jack challenges both the sorcerer’s black magic and his terrifying monster minions. The story has perhaps way too much incident and too many characters, but it’s a safe bet that kids weren’t bored — something noisy, colorful, or violent busts out every ninety seconds or so. All of the principal roles are well played, with Judi Meredith a charming substitute for Kathryn Grant.

The enormous success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad motivated more than a few pictures, like Byron Haskin’s Captain Sindbad (1964) and Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword (1962). Giant monsters found their way into a few Italian sword ‘n’ sandal films, too. In producing this virtual knock-off, Edward Small rehired two of Harryhausen’s stars as well as his director, Nathan Juran. A multitude of plot details in the original story by Orville Hampton (a prolific writer of TV and B-pix) are taken from Ken Kolb’s 7th script, and many more are appropriated from other classics: Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (living candle holders), Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (a magical being imprisoned in a bottle; a helper turned into a dog) and Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty (a magician transforming into a dragon). That’s not to mention a Cheetah substitute from the Tarzan movies. If anything there are too many ideas poured into the picture, rather artlessly. Poor Kerwin Mathews must sprint down a beach with Meredith and a dog, while holding the hand of a chimpanzee.

 

The picture adds up to a lot of action and noise for small children, tacky in some production details but held together with committed peformances and energetic direction. Nathan Juran re-stages some of the same live action scenes he directed for Harryhausen, and puts together several very dynamic action set pieces. Kerwin Mathews is even more agile and expressive fighting monsters this time around, in battles so violent that some adults were surely offended. Jack hacks at the destructive monsters with scythes and swords — he chops away point-blank at the Cyclops-like Cormoran, in a shot as graphic as the stabbing in Psycho. Individual sword strikes cleave big gashes in the flying dragon that attacks Jack at the end. The show got a pass in America but less permissive censor boards elsewhere weren’t as forgiving.

As with producer Small’s other color efforts from the time, much of the film’s design work is weak, and some of the costumes have the moth-eaten feel of off-the shelf items. Flat high key lighting does the bad sets and wardrobe no favors. An exception are Pendragon’s various minion monsters (designed by Charles Gemora?), some of which resemble future Tim Burton critters. The pictures design that really comes together is the demonic version of Elaine — costume, makeup and performance. Ms. Meredith is really good when wicked. Her scary reptile eyes are provided by giant contact lenses, which attest to her obvious dedication — they must have been horribly uncomfortable.

 

Director Juran gives the picture an edge lacking in the work of other directors for Edward Small & Robert E. Kent. The acting is acceptable, with Torin Thatcher avoiding looking silly by sheer on-screen presence and authority. Walter Burke (The President’s Analyst) is amusingly wicked as Pendragon’s main henchman, and Anna Lee is okay as an involuntary spy in the castle. As I said, Judi Meredith’s second role as the evil, yellow-eyed witch is the highlight. Finally, Don Beddoe is rather good as the little Irish imp. His spirited performance overcomes the patchy optical effects (blue fringing, ahoy!) and the ugly rainbow artwork seen at the finish. At 59 years of age, Beddoe looks so fresh and youthful, it’s difficult to believe he’s the same actor from The Night of the Hunter and The Narrow Margin. When he tosses a magic coin in the air, he makes the same funny face as does his Walter Spoon in the Charles Laughton movie, when downing a swig of brandy.

Although Jack the Giant Killer probably has more effects shots than The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, they can’t compare for quality. The design of simple things like painted castles and magical mountains isn’t very imaginative, and the uneven color in these sections of the film betray most of the mattes and double exposures. Only small children are going to be impressed by the multi-colored cel animation effects that imitate fire, rays and other phenomena — they’re on a par with effects in Lucky Charms TV commercials of the day.

 

The movie has a strong fanbase among adults just turning sixty, but the animation effects are what motivate most of the fan enthusiasm now. We associate them with the crew from Project Unlimited and the cult Efx whiz Jim Danforth, even though he was one man in a team. Some of the stills published in Photon and Famous Monsters looked very interesting, especially a multi-tentacled sea monster. Although the models built for this show are poorly designed, to say the least, they’re at least animated to pop out of the screen at us; in a big movie house kids might have been scared by some of the gargoyle faces on view. The Cormoran monster is awkwardly proportioned. Its face has a frozen expression and its eyes a dead stare. When gigantic, its arms seem to bend at someplace other than the elbow. The two-headed monster on Pendragon’s island is even more anatomically unlikely. Its pronounced single backbone doesn’t support either of its two heads.

The final flying dragon has a dog-like face that looks like a toy. It is given excellent angles but is matted into many scenes in a less than satisfactory way, drifting to a monochrome, usually brown. The most interesting creature is the tentacled sea serpent conjured by the Leprechaun to defend Jack against the double-headed giant. The serpent might be a starfish-octopus-lizard combo. It’s unlikely design is genuinely startling, and those kids not frightened were surely given a big thrill. It’s clearly also the film’s most daunting animation challenge.

 

Is this the first feature to full-out imitate Ray Harryhausen’s rear-projection ‘Dynamation’ matting process?  UA’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain used miniature rear projection in CinemaScope, but Jack co-opts all of Ray’s tricks. The camera angles are well choreographed but the monster designs and much of the animation fall way short of Harryhausen’s standard. The show compensates by giving the kid audience a full measure of action and mayhem.

Some of the animation is marvelous. Jim Danforth did most of the animation for the sea serpent creature and the flying dragon with the dog-like face. They move with the smoothness and artistry we associate with the best of stop-motion animators. Stills exist of Jim Danforth animating the sea serpent; the full story of Jack the Giant Killer and Danforth’s entire career of effects projects is available in CD-Rom form on his Archive Editions website. It’s in two volumes and called Dinosaurs, Dragons, & Drama, The Odyssey of a Trickfilmmaker — An Illustrated Memoir by Jim Danforth. He needs to be encouraged to put volume one back in print again.

Most of the other ‘magical scenes’ use optical compositing to add strange color effects and plenty of animated pixie dust, flames and ‘magical’ rays. Some strangely colored ghost-like monsters on Jack’s ship are rendered in color negative, like the banshees in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Some shots are nicely composited and others not. Every so often a shot comes off brilliantly. An angle on the flying dragon dropping a giant rock on Jack’s boat makes effective use of a quick camera tilt-down.

 

The Musical Version

We learn from Tim Lucas that the second musical version was initiated in the 1970s and didn’t really show up anywhere until the 1980s, on cable TV where I caught up with it. It has the same title but is ‘produced’ by another entity. The screenwriters’ credits are retained but editor Grant Whytock’s name is missing. Added credits describe the musical-ization of the film as a ‘process’ by Edwin Picker and Moose Charlap, with the original score credited to Charlap and Sandy Stewart. A new voice track has been added with songs dubbed in where dialogue was spoken before, a bizarre mission if there ever was one. The old score is now called ‘underscore’ and the new songs dominate. The title sequence uses Kindergarten-like drawings behind an insipid storybook song that assures little kids that everything will be okay.

Besides the main title song, titles include ‘We Have Failed Master’ and ‘A Spectacle to See’, a jolly ditty that the villain and his henchman sing while Jack fights for his life. The sing happily even as Jack defeats the monster warriors they’ve set against him. Writing lyrics to fit the mouth movements of existing dialogue scenes is a real fool’s errand, as they say — the whole project is a bad idea, a misbegotten experiment. Shots are repeated as necessary for choruses and cutbacks — editorially it’s a real mess. We don’t expect any of this to be Stephen Sondheim quality. The fact that any of it works at all is a surprise.

In addition, all the leprechaun’s rhyming dialogue is now sung, erasing Don Beddoe’s terrific vocal performance. Torin Thatcher’s new singing voice is rather good and most of the time fits his mouth well. Readers who saw the musical re-do on cable television don’t remember it fondly, but it’s a must-see for those us interested in a picture turned into a grotesque editorial pretzel.


 

The KL Studio Classics Special Edition Blu-ray of Jack the Giant Killer is a definite keeper for the stop-motion animation faithful. Fans will like seeing the bigger, brighter HD image; most of the movie looks fine. The sharpness in some effects scenes is almost intimidating, even the green sea serpent’s Gumby-like Plasticene skin. Sawtell and Shefter’s soundtrack music mostly provides good stings and boiling-kettle busy-ness to accompany the constant barrage of transformations, magic spells and animated pixie dust, not to mention the surfeit of violent action.

But the presentation is a visual shambles whenever the effects scenes arrive. (Theory, now:) Perhaps the film stock for the effects faded unevenly, creating a nightmare for the colorists, especially if no vaulted Technicolor print was available for reference. Scenes are a patchwork of mismatches as colors turn radically warm or cool across cuts. The color design is on the garish side anyway, but sometimes we can’t tell if color effects are intentional — the entire shipboard ‘banshee’ scene surely once carried a color wash added by Technicolor, probably purple. Much of the duped optical footage has issues of one kind or another. The color and density of the flying dragon fluctuate wildly. The musical version looks about the same. It’s likely yet another generation or two down from the original negative.

I do NOT blame Kino for this, as it looks as if a thousand hours of research and work with expensive tools would be required to do a better job. In a perfect world, all movies with screwy restoration problems would be given the deluxe treatment afforded Singin’ in the Rain and Blade Runner. My favorites first, naturally.

Kino offers a stack of adventure & swashbuckling trailers (including Jack) and, on the original non-singing cut of the film, a new commentary by Tim Lucas. He remembers the picture fondly and rightly cuts it some slack for being a juvenile kiddie show. It’s even less adult than 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which of course wasn’t written by Eugene O’Neil either. Lucas’s opening remarks about the variety of fun, imaginative matinee fare available to us kids in the early ’60s gets the commentary off to an excellent start.

The rest of Tim’s commentary is just as good. He has researched some knowledgeable experts on the effects story for Jack and his descriptions sound accurate, right down to the depressing business/political decisions on how the effects would be done and who would do them. Most importantly, Tim offers plenty of info I didn’t know, even about the fairy tale story source. The monster I refer to as a flying dragon is more accurately a Griffin. Thanks to Tim I suddenly realized that the ‘Viking’ Barry Kelley was the same Barry Kelley with a great role in The Asphalt Jungle. Even better, Tim clears up the story behind the musical version. There never was a lawsuit by Schneer and Harryhausen, who of course would ask Nathan Juran to work with them again just a few years later.

Listening to Tim I became more appreciative of what the film achieves, rather than focusing on its drawbacks. In the spirit of the story he also comes up with his own Leprechaun- rhyming critical remarks, which add to the fun. I almost feel that Tim was laying a trap for me personally when he suggests that Princess was given the name ‘Elaine’ because health celebrity Jack ‘La Lanne’ was popular on TV at the time. Maybe Tim wanted to find out if I really listen to his tracks?   (Smiley emoji goes here.)


The Complicated Effects-formatting Controversy

Now we get to an issue many readers may want to skip — it’s for those more closely concerned with the mysterious details of film formatting.  (Extra Note, June 2: I’ve already seen a couple of frame grabs online that contradict some of what I say here, suggesting that the 1962 version of Jack survives only as a duplicate element that cannot be fully restored.)

 

One final controversy surrounding the movie surfaced with the DVD release. Years ago I followed up on internet forum posts by Jim Danforth, and learned from him that the framing of the effects scenes is incorrect on all video transfers of the film. After you know why, it makes sense. But it is complicated.

The enemy of re-photographed rear-projection is grain and softness, especially with the limited number of film stocks available in the 1960s. Some animators would later lessen the problem by doing their effects shots in a larger format, like VistaVision. When reduced in size to fit normal 35mm, the grain gets smaller too, resulting in a better match with the live-action footage.

It’s been explained that all of the animation effects shots in Jack were filmed at the ‘full silent aperture,’ using the 20% extra area normally used for the optical soundtrack and the fat frame lines seen in the 1:37 Academy format. Because Technicolor provided the finishing for the release prints for Jack, the effects scenes were never optically copied — the final Eastmancolor negative retained the Silent Aperture material. Technicolor worked directly from this camera negative, and selectively reduced and repositioned the effects shots as the matrices were made. United Artists was left with an original Eastmancolor negative that, for normal printing, had two incompatible formats, Academy Aperture for the normal live-action, and Silent Ap full frame for the animation effects.

When transferred like normal Academy footage, the animation scenes are way too tightly framed, with information trimmed from the top and the bottom and especially the left side, where the soundtrack goes. It should be possible to fix the problem in video post, but with extra work and expense. Every time an animation cut came along, the operator would just have to switch to ‘setting number 2,’ pulling back and showing more of the frame to the left. So far no film or video transfer has done this.

On the earlier DVD, the enlarged and cropped effects shots are grainer than they should be. Compositions are thrown off to the right, cropping doorways and crowding characters on the left. It isn’t as if nobody cared. Notes about this problem were long ago placed in MGM’s digital file for Jack.

The new Blu-ray disc — remastered by Kino — was an opportunity to correct everything, fixing the framing and restoring the original composition of the effects scenes. The expense of repositioning the show (across two versions of the movie!) apparently was impractical or too expensive, for what we have is a framing only a bit less constricted than than on the old 2004 DVD. Image-wise, it’s a definite improvement anyway: the old DVD was flat-letterboxed. For the new Blu-ray the cropping on the left, top and bottom are still too tight; details like the little doorway that the doll-sized Cormoran walks through are still pushed to the edge of the screen. One angle of Elaine dancing with the miniature Cormoran still partly crops her off-screen.


A Closer Study

 

This is a graphic from Jim Danforth’s book (used with permission). It’s an un-matted Academy Ratio frame from an original Technicolor print of Jack the Giant Killer. The original full Silent Aperture effects footage has been reduced in size and moved to the right, to make room for the big optical soundtrack on the left.

The blue line represents what a 1:66 scan of the picture should cover. In the Kino transfer, the left frame line is cropped all the way past the gray line — the house’s doorway  is now right up against the edge of the frame. The new scan has cropped off the extreme left of the image because, without a reduction in size, it is now ‘under’ the soundtrack area.

The new Kino scan is a little wider and taller than the old MGM scan, but not by much.

“Ah Glenn, nobody would notice this little difference.”  Tim Lucas did, even if he doesn’t know it. In his audio commentary, Tim notes a surprising jump cut that occurs when the king is looking at the dead Cormoran, in the foreground of the shot. Across a cut, the monster simply disappears — instant disorienting jump cut. One side of the cut is an effect and the other is not. In an original print with the effects shot properly reduced in size and repositioned, the two shots wouldn’t so closely match each other for size, and the inadvertent jump cut effect would either be less apparent, or wouldn’t happen at all. I’m guessing the latter.

In his book, Jim Danforth gives his reason for taking the trouble to graph out a film frame to explain this reformatting anomaly: “I am reproducing it here to support the reputations of several people: Nathan Juran, David S. Horsley, Phil Kellison, Grant Whytock, and I — all of whom were responsible for composing scenes for Jack the Giant Killer.”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Jack the Giant Killer
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +/- Plus or Minus
Video: As good as it can look, it seems
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers, Tim Lucas Commentary; includes both the original 94-minute cut and the re-envisioned 91-minute musical version
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 31, 2018
(5743jack)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.