Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ray Harryhausen Goes to Heaven

Selenite-blogging, essay 5 of 5 blog entries
on First Men in the Moon (1964)

Ray Harryhausen Goes to Heaven

Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) approaches the lunar staircase
in First Men in the Moon (1964).

“I had always intended the meeting with the Grand Lunar to be a spectacular scene and decided that a huge, almost never-ending staircase would give the scene a grandeur that would only be rivaled by A Matter of Life and Death (1946) in the history of film.”
Ray Harryhausen
An Animated Life

The celestial staircase in A Matter
of Life and Death
As the praise from Harryhausen would indicate, the production design of A Matter of Life and Death—particularly the celestial staircase—is sublime.  In A Matter of Life and Death, the moving staircase is the connecting link between the worlds of life and death.  It is a vast escalator in constant stately motion, lined by the statues of famous men.  In the film’s design, where the afterlife is black-and-white and the earthly scenes are in Technicolor, the stairs are black-and-white when ascending and color when descending.  Thus, this Jacob’s Ladder exists on the cusp of life and death.

Harryhausen’s challenge to himself was to create a lunar staircase for First Men in the Moon to rival the grand design that legendary producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger brought to A Matter of Life and Death.  The result is formidable—Harryhausen’s lunar staircase is not as ethereal as the Life and Death staircase but entirely appropriate for an alien monarchy.  Lined by impressive lunar crystals, the moons staircase proceeds upward in a series of four flights, cleverly combining miniatures and tricks of perspective to make the scale look enormous.

Lionel Jeffries as the brilliant Victorian scientist Joseph Cavor ascends the stairs alone, his character so delightfully delineated by the actor that he completely anchors the scene.  From beginning to end, Jeffries’ performance is witty and unpredictable.  His phrasing is deliciously staccato, swinging wildly between loveable insecurity and manic explosions.  And it’s not just a verbal performance but a physical one, too, that allows Jeffries to use the awkwardness of his gangly frame to eccentric advantage.

Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) inside the sphere in First Men in the Moon.

As the movie proceeds, it gradually becomes apparent that Cavor is our real hero.  He’s the heart and soul of the movie.

Above: Lionel Jeffries as
Joseph Cavor in First Men in the
.  Below: Ray Harryhausen.
So let’s look at him.  His bald head disguises his real age, which is surprisingly young—Jeffries was 38 in 1964, two years younger than Martha Hyer who was playing the heroine.  His smiles and guffaws are contagious, his delight expressed in unsuppressable childlike glee.  He radiates eccentric amiability, quirky and British to the core.

Did it occur to anyone during casting that this prematurely balding actor looks a bit like Ray Harryhausen?  They share the long forehead, the narrow face, and the intense gaze of the consummate professional practicing his craft.  And there’s something childlike about both of them, too, as if they’ve somehow managed to retain the enthusiasm of their youths.  Why, Jeffries is the British doppelganger of the beloved animator!

When Cavor ascends the staircase in First Men in the Moon, he is surrounded by one of the richest of Harryhausen’s dream landscapes, a Neverland of the artist’s imagination fueled by memories of the staircase to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death.  Now squint at the screen, look sideways, out of the corner of your eye, and discreetly replace Cavor with Harryhausen, ascending to sublimity surrounded by an awe-inspiring world of his imagination.

The look on Cavor’s face, dazzled and humbled and awestruck, reminds me of the recurring looks of wonderment in the movies of Steven Spielberg that filmmaker and critic Kevin B. Lee celebrated in his video essay The Spielberg Face.

In the video, the Spielberg Face is described as:

“Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder, in a moment where time stands still, but above all a childlike surrender in the act of watching, both theirs and ours.”
Kevin Lee
The Spielberg Face

When you’re climbing the staircase of unfettered imagination, it is the only appropriate face.  The Spielberg Face is the Cavor Face is the Harryhausen Face.

The moment exceeds every expectation.  Freeze frame on the Harryhausen Face.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and
Lionel Jeffries in First Men in the Moon.


Picture Ray on the grand staircase, ascending higher and higher, until he at last arrives at the celestial courtroom where he will be judged by a jury of his peers, among them Georges Melies, Wladyslaw Starewicz, John P. Fulton, Les Bowie, George Pal, Carlo Rambaldi, Stan Winston, Peter Ellenshaw, and Marcel Delgado.  As he enters, the deafening applause washes across heaven like waves as his friends and fans stand to welcome him.  Ray Bradbury smiles.  And his old friend and mentor Willis O’Brien, animator of King Kong, rushes forward to greet him.

The courtroom travels to earth via the celestial
staircase in A Matter of Life and Death.

Reference Sources
Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale by Andy Murray
Film Fantasy Scrapbook by Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

... and a special thank you to the hosts of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon: Ferdy on FilmsThis Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark.


© 2015 Lee Price


  1. That was beautiful, especially the image of Ray Harryhausen ascending the celestial staircase to meet a jury of his peers.

  2. Thank you so much! I was very busy with another project when Ray Harryhausen passed away and regretted that I had no time to dedicate toward a suitable tribute. So I leaped at this opportunity to belatedly pay my respects.