Schneer Genius – RIP Charles H. Schneer, 1920-2009

A toast to Charles H. Schneer, who died on January 21st at the approximate age of 88 (nobody seems to know his precise birthday) in Boca Raton, Florida.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Schneer seems to have always been a film producer — or at least that’s the only role listed for him in the movie business. He’s the fellow in the dark suit in the middle of the photo to your left, standing next to Dr. Werner Von Braun as they discuss the finer points of his biopic, I Aim at the Stars (1960).

“Fantastic films” (a meta-genre name covering all manner of monster, special effect, space and/or sci-fi driven movies) dominate the career of Schneer, who is best known for being the producer of most of Ray Harryhausen’s amazing body of work, and thus what merits his mention here. Among Schneer’s output are some of my favourite (as well as some of the best) films of imagination, and Schneer managed to keep himself at the forefront of such films even as they moved from cheesy low-budget shockers (like his second feature, 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea ) to big-budget international epics like his final movie, 1981’s Clash of the Titans.

Schneer’s first picture, the 1953  McCarthy-era thriller The 49th Man , has become strangely re-relevant in light of the paranoia about foreigners, border security and portable “dirty” nuclear bombs. It was on his second picture, the aforementioned It Came From Beneath the Sea, that Schneer entered the “monster movie” trade and met up with Harryhausen, and the two forged a career-spanning bond.

The relationship was cemented with the stunning visual impact of their work on 1957’s Earth Versus the Flying Saucers  (a nostalgic favourite of mine), and from then on it was more common to see both men’s names together than not, though it should be mentioned that Schneer did produce some non-cult pictures such as Hellcats of the Navy  with Ronald and Nancy Reagan (1957) and a bunch of other war pictures, the film version of the musical Half a Sixpence  (1967) with good ol’ Tommy Steele, the Telly Savalas-George Maharis western Land Raiders  (1969) and the unfairly overlooked George Peppard spy thriller The Executioner  (1970).

All of the rest of the years between 1958 and 1977 were pretty much filled with Harryhausen films, including my (and Schneer’s) favourite of their collaborations and one of my all-time absolute favourite movies ever, 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts . To this day a magnificent picture that still holds the imagination of those who watch it. I was lucky enough to see it on a cinema screen a few years back and the memories of that still thrill me. It’s the perfect cross between the kind of (often biblical) sword-and-sandals type epic and a special-effects driven b-movie, and even features Hercules in a minor role — which just goes to show you how interesting the picture is, that they don’t need one of the cinema’s most legendary heroes to carry the film!

Along with another of my all-time “will watch it every time it’s on” picks, 1974’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad , Schneer wisely lets Harryhausen indulge his own rich imagination, resulting in iconic visual sequences such as the fighting skeletons of Jason and the thrilling Kali sequence in Golden Voyage, ideas stolen or paid homage to by many films since.

Schneer was also the money man behind such well-regarded movies as The Three Worlds of Gulliver  (1960), Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1961), HG Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1964) — a strangely overlooked part of Harryhausen’s canon — and 1969’s Valley of Gwangi , the best stop-motion-dinosaurs flick every made and featuring arguably Harryhausen’s highest-quality animation.

He also produced all the Sinbad movies, including the final one (and his penultimate picture), 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger . Perhaps someday when the US’s image of Persia improves, another good Sinbad movie can be made (this Sinbad didn’t do any, that’s for sure!).

The same year Eye of the Tiger came out, a pair of movies called Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars ushered in the era of high-quality, high-budget effects pictures, and men like Schneer and Harryhausen must have seen the writing on the wall. It must have been a bit like being a clerk in a Dickensian money-changer’s office as the Industrial Revolution began to unfold. True to their craft, Schneer and Harryhausen decided to die with the old ways.

Schneer’s final bow was one last (and probably most successful) collaboration with Harryhausen, 1981’s Clash of the Titans . With a decent budget and big-name actors, this re-telling of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda stayed faithful to the Harryhausen style and still managed to do very respectable business. Even the owl character of Bubo (an acknowledgement of creations like R2-D2) was lovingly hand-filmed rather than lazily computer-enhanced. In retrospect, Clash of the Titans seems more like Harryhausen reminding his students that although technology had passed him by, he was still the master who had made a lot of it possible.

Following Titans, Schneer retired from the movie business after almost 40 years and a record of mostly profitable and well-remembered pictures. Apart from a couple of appearances on Harryhausen retrospective specials, little is seen or remembered about the man, and yet he was part of a team that gave the world so much. Film Moi wishes Charles Schneer safe passage on his most fantastic voyage, and reminds him to watch out for the Harpies. 🙂

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Another episode of my award-winnable podcast, Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, is now available for download either via iTunes or straight from my website . To make up for the fact that I have, for the second time, failed to produce one of these for the month of December, I’m pursuing the notion of a special episode to appear later in the year.

In the meantime, enjoy this new one, which features a little arts chat as well as our usual mix of popular and obscure 80s tunes. It’s all free and easy to subscribe to so you never miss an episode.

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