Thursday, 10 August 2017

Forgotten Gems of Visual Effects Part Four - THE NORTH STAR (1943) and DAYS OF GLORY (1944)




I've always enjoyed war pictures for as long as I can remember, with many an action packed double feature frequently occupying my afternoons back in the days of the now long gone Saturday matinee's at the various local movie houses in Auckland such as the old time Crystal Palace, the quite luxurious Mayfair or, when desperate, the ghastly Astor cinemas being my typical haunts for many years.  Shows like VON RYAN'S EXPRESS, OBJECTIVE BURMA, TOBRUK and THE DAMBUSTERS really made an impression.  Although the celluloid heroism depicted on screen was usually a far cry from the realities of actual warfare, we lapped up every moment of it and a group of us kids would band together after the fact to re-enact the events in the dense bush up the hill behind my house. My pals and I would often be up there from daylight till dark, whereby the "It's dinner time" call from my mother would put an end to the adventure.
Retitled recut re-issue of NORTH STAR
Sometimes my friends and I were 'specially trained' junior jungle fighters having landed on one of the many Pacific Islands inhabited by garrisons of imaginary Japanese troops - which in reality came very close to New Zealand being invaded for real at the height of WWII as my parents told me.  Other times we'd be on a special mission to sabotage some fictitious Nazi munitions factory. We'd improvise hand grenades out of old fireworks saved up from Guy Fawkes each November, with the classic and extremely dangerous old 'Thunderbolt' fire crackers - which could blow your fingers off and often did blow a glass pint milk bottle into a thousand pieces - and the reliable 'double happy' red crackers that would just about pierce one's ear drum when thoughtlessly hurled too near to one of us. My own now adult kids and their generation have no idea how much fun this 'wargames' stuff was, and in fact look at me with blank expressions when I regale them of such fun times.  To kids nowadays, if it ain't on a damned PS3 or some such thing, it can't possibly be fun.  Those were wonderful, carefree times, though you try telling that to a modern era kid where the mere thought of skinned knees, dirt encrusted fingernails and general rough and tumble is a completely alien concept!


Though the actual historical wartime events occurred somewhat before my time, I'm quite passionate about many of the motion pictures that were actually produced during the years of the Second World War for some reason.  Most often these films were made as morale boosters for the folks back home and were enthusiastically received as such.  My own Grandfather served in both World Wars as that was just what virtually every bloke did in those days, without hesitation.  As with many of those fellows though, he barely spoke of it.

For today's blog post I'm doing a special double feature retrospective, in keeping with the old time double bills I watched lots of these shows on.  Both of the films highlighted here are pretty much forgotten relics from the mid 1940's, though both are certainly excellent contenders in NZPete's ever vigilant cinematic eyes for worthy special visual effects tribute.
The two pictures discussed, Lewis Milestone's THE NORTH STAR (aka ARMOURED ATTACK) (1943) and Jacques Tourneur's DAYS OF GLORY (1944) have many similarities, despite each being the product of different studios - Samuel Goldwyn and RKO respectively - both films deal with the effects of German invasion and brutal occupation of Russian villages in WWII and the efforts therein of the local inhabitants to survive and put up as much resistance as possible.  High production standards and good performances shine in each movie, with both being nominated for best special effects Oscars for 1943 and 44.

THE NORTH STAR (1943) was apparently quite a successful picture at the time of it's initial release, with the Russian people depicted (rightly) as heroes persecuted by a seemingly insurmountable invading force, though oddly this film would itself be later sabotaged by industry censorship where some 25 minutes would be cut so as to "de-emphasise the good Russians" with the film repackaged as ARMOURED ATTACK, presumably as a result of the bizarre political climate of the time in the US where 'Russkies' were far from flavour of the month.  Having reviewed the disc again it is indeed apparent that the endless scenes of smiling, happy, singing and dancing - not to mention suspiciously well nourished, carefree Russian peasants frollicking in pastoral idyll are far from the truth of Stalin's repressive Russia depicted in the first half hour or so does get tedious in it's incredulity.  In it's early reels it all resembles a feel good MGM musical!
I understand that this all would prove rather embarrassing to mogul Sam Goldwyn once McCarthyism found it's insidious place in the movie industry, thus severe edits were ordered to extract any notion of the picture being potentially 'Red Friendly'.  You just can't make this stuff up(!)

Visual Effects Cinematographer Clarence W. Slifer
I'll discuss the RKO picture DAYS OF GLORY later in this post, so for now let us learn a little about THE NORTH STAR.   The film has some spectacular action set pieces with matte art, miniatures, cel animation and clever optical overlays utilised to excellent effect, sometimes all at once.  The special photographic effects were done by industry veterans Clarence W. Slifer and Ray O. Binger - both old hands when it came to trick work.  Clarence Slifer was one of the most creative visual effects cinematographers in the business, having entered the industry in 1927 as a camera assistant, with the move into special effects in 1932, firstly at RKO, on classics such as KING KONG and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and later at Selznick International as matte cinematographer for the great Jack Cosgrove on a number of monumental epics such as GONE WITH THE WIND and DUEL IN THE SUN among many others until Selznick reduced their production activities during the war where according to historian Rolf Giesen, Clarence would continue to operate the matte department as part of a special agreement for other movie companies, especially Goldwyn, from which THE NORTH STAR would be produced.  In later years Slifer would work at 20th Century Fox for several years from 1953 under Ray Kellogg and finally for MGM under Lee LeBlanc with Matt Yuricich from the late 1950's through to the late 60's, finally retiring in 1975.  Clarence was one of the best in his profession and continually developed better and improved means in which to shoot and composite matte shots and took the methodology to that of high end science.
The Selznick International matte department, circa 1946.  Far left; equipment machinist Oscar Jarosch; Back Row are matte painters Jack Shaw and Spencer Bagtatopolis with camera assistant Owen Marsh at right.  Front row from left is Director of Effects Photography Clarence Slifer (with arm on camera); effects camera operator Harold Grigg and at right veteran matte painter Hans Ledeboer.  During the war years the Selznick Studio wound down but the effects department  carried on operating providing mattes and effects for other studios such as Samuel Goldwyn.  I assume at least some of these matte artists worked on THE NORTH STAR.  *photo from The Invisible Art - The Legends of Matte painting.
I can't offer much info on co-effects supervisor Ray O. Binger (1888-1970) other than he was prolific in process cinematography through the 1940's through to the late 1950's, mainly at Samuel Goldwyn's studio as well as for United Artists, Walter Wanger and later did a bit at Universal.  Binger did some excellent work for Hitchcock in the terrific FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT and effects camera work with Clifford Stine on THE LAND UNKNOWN in the late fifties.

Canadian lobby cards from the much shortened down 82 minute re-release now titled ARMORED ATTACK where the ratio of Russians to Nazi's has been astonishingly re-jigged in what can only be seen as 'Red Scare' censorship.  
THE NORTH STAR (1943)

Special Photographic Effects:          Clarence W. Slifer & Ray O. Binger
Matte Painters (probable):               Jack Shaw,  Spencer Bagtatopolis & Hans Ledeboer
Effects Camera Operator:                Harold Grigg
Effects Camera Assistant:                Owen Marsh



Matte shot under the title cards complete with cel animated flock of birds flying across screen.

As the title sequence progresses the background gradually changes with more and more (painted) trees etc slowly dissolving in for a most poetic opening.  Probably multiple layers of glass art work.

Beautiful multi-plane matte art with shifting clouds and moon peaking through.  Slifer won an Academy Award a few years later for the similarly striking cloud effects on Selznick's PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.
Interesting trick shot with the entire right side of the dirt road and row of trees all matte painted.
Classic evocative sky matte painted shot which was very much iconic of the period.  If I didn't know better I'd think Jack Cosgrove might have painted this as it's 'Jack' all the way.

Erich von Stroheim's Nazi thugs en route.  Ray Binger Process shot with matte painted vista projected in.
Mostly matte art just above the motorcycle riders heads.
More invisible matte work with the left side being actual setting and the right side all painted.  A German fighter plane will be composited into the shot as well, making a strafing run on the truck..

More subtle artistic enhancement with the large tree branch painted and matted in for aesthetic effect.
Successive frames from a remarkably clever and complex photographic effects sequence.  The children settle down to sleep under the large tree and in what appears to be a single continuous camera move we crane upward through the branches to the very tree top, where birds sit chirping and fluttering their wings.  Sounds straightforward but it's quite amazing in fact.  First part of the camera crane up was done on a soundstage.  Partway up the shot seamlessly dissolves into a detailed matte painting of the evening sky framed behind a separate matted in element of painted branches and leaves and birds.  Now the clever bit, the birds are all ingenious cel animated 'cartoon' birds!  An amazing shot that must have taken an eternity to put together.  Bravo!
Closer view of the matte as we ascend the tree...
...and we settle upon those wonderful cel animated birds.  Brilliant.

Not sure here... possibly the real deal, though I'd not be surprised if the Selznick artists had augmented those clouds?
The Russian villagers stop in their tracks and look skyward .... Trouble is brewing.  Painted sky likely here.
German dive bombers at 12 O'clock.  Miniatures one and all.

One of the enemy peels off to make a strafing run...
Multi part composite shot.  Actual setting with miniature dive bomber optically superimposed in later, with this plate being rear projected behind the model foreground rooftop and sirens.
One of the incredibly well executed aerial attack sequences.  Much fine trick work here, with real train, matte painted tree line and sky, miniature German plane doubled in and the topper, the supremely well done shadow of the (model) plane as it dives low and fires upon the innocent villagers.  For years that shadow element has impressed me no end.  It was either an on set practical effect with some sort of 'shadow manipulation' in front of a big assed arc light (?) or more likely an entirely animated shadow introduced by Slifer on his aerial image optical printer.  Whatever it was, the effect is outstanding.
Closer look at one of the frames above.  Outdoor set and train, matte painted trees and sky (the smoke passes behind the matteline just at the base of the trees), a miniature dive bomber and that fantastic shadow of the wing passing fleetingly along the side of the wagons!
Exterior set with practical squibs etc.  The plane is a miniature flawlessly matted in later.
More strafing visual effects.  Model plane and background matted over setting.
More invisible optical trickery where the substantial foreground physical effects action and a carefully matted in model German dive bomber added in complete with animated muzzle flashes.
Multi element effects shot with live action exterior set and physical effects, painted sky and model airplane, plus matte painted trees and rooftops - as a separate element - for the plane to fly behind.

A closer look at the shot.

More similar combination FX.
Another striking scene with actual setting, matte painted 'top up', miniature planes and the bonus of cel animated tracer fire from the plane.
Note the tracers.  All very well assembled.  A subtle shadow from the airplane is also quickly seen on the background tower as it passes over.  Rotoscope work is a nice finishing touch here and in a few other shots.
One of those 'blink and you'd miss it' trick shots that I only caught when closely re-examining the BluRay.  The trees and sky are painted and matted in along with the smoke element.  The actress's hand partially moves into the matte line.

Another minor 'patch' job from the matte boys.  The very top of the roof, trees and smoke have been matted in, but who other than me actually looks for this sort of stuff?

The aftermath... matted in sky and fire elements.
Another of those marvellous 1940's painted sky mattes that I'm so fond of.

One of my favourite shots in the picture as Anne Baxter surveys the carnage from afar.  Entirely matte painted except for the horse and rider.

My second favourite shot in the film.... All painted with doubled in smoke plumes accomplished on Clarence Slifer's aerial image optical printer.  Slifer achieved similar shots for GONE WITH THE WIND among others.
Tanks! (You're welcome!) ... Full miniature set and hardware, expertly photographed with great depth of field which would suggest large models shot in daylight.  Note the muzzle flashes and tracer optical fx detail.
Those 3rd Reich bastards just won't give up!  Entirely miniature set up here.
Solid leading man of many a fine film, Dana Andrews, decides that enough is enough and something has to be done to at least try to stop the Nazi war machine in it's tracks...  Miniature tanks and setting process projected against airplane cockpit as it dives in.
Dana's plane demolishes Nazi machinery in a suicide bid.  All in miniature.
"Please remain seated until the aircraft has reached the terminal and refrain from using Marconi Radio devices."


Miniature pyrotechnics... I could watch 'em all day long.
The saboteurs make a getaway in this extensive matte shot.  The dirt cliff face and upper trees appear painted, possibly on glass with the live action possibly a process element projected in judging by the softness of the plate and contrast issues.
Mostly matte work here, with a soft blend curving around just above the actors heads and beneath the wagon wheels.  All else painted.



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DAYS OF GLORY (1944) - RKO Pictures

An exceedingly dull poster.
The second feature on our double bill is DAYS OF GLORY which storywise covers very similar ground as THE NORTH STAR - that being Russian peasants subjected to the madness of Hitler's army, for which the peasants unite and fight off the invaders using whatever means are at their disposal.  Aside from excellent action set pieces and visual effects, the film was notable in that it introduced a young Gregory Peck to the world.
The narrative is tight, the action is solid, the running time brief at just 85 minutes, and the somewhat gritty film doesn't get bogged down too much in rose tinted impressions of Lenin's 'dream' as did THE NORTH STAR.

DAYS OF GLORY has a couple of jaw dropping battle scenes executed with miniatures and very good process work to tie the elements together.  In fact, the model work is among the best I've seen of it's type and still stands up today.  As with THE NORTH STAR this film too was nominated for an Academy Award for it's special effects in 1944 - one of seven nominees in fact - though it lost out to the jaw droppingly superb effects work in MGM's big budget 30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO.

Vernon L. Walker was RKO's long time head of special effects, or 'camera effects' as that studio termed the craft.  Walker began his career as a straight cameraman on Mack Sennett comedies in the 1920's and went on to assist noted effects man Fred Jackman snr on the original THE LOST WORLD (1924) and would eventually go on to assist Lloyd Knechtel who was RKO's chief of photographic effects.  Walker would become head of department for all process and photo effects in 1933 just in time for the studio's biggest gamble, KING KONG.  Vernon would supervise the trick work and mattes on such films as CITIZEN KANE and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and would run the department until his untimely death in 1948.

Russell Cully (left) with Vern Walker
RKO's chief visual effects cinematographer was Russell Cully, who after ten years initially with stints at Paramount and later MGM on big projects such as SAN FRANCISCO and THE GOOD EARTH, Cully wound up at RKO, joining Walker's effects department in 1936.  Cully would be a key creative member of Walker's team and would work on more than 100 pictures such as GUNGA DIN and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.  Russell would take over the department in 1948 following Vernon's sudden death and continue with the same studio until 1952.  Cully passed away in 1990.

RKO's optical printer, circa 1945

As with Vern Walker, another KONG veteran would also work on DAYS OF GLORY, that being Marcel Delgado who would supervise the construction of the numerous miniature tanks, trains and terrain which would be vital in the climactic battle sequences.
Special Effects Cameraman Paul Eagler was one of the true old timers in trick work, having started in the trade in 1915 in Hollywood with pioneer Thomas Ince at what was known as Inceville.  Eagler went on to provide special photographic effects shots for Douglas Fairbanks' ROBIN HOOD in 1925 and many more films culminating in an Oscar for the effects work in Selznick's PORTRAIT OF JENNIE in 1948.

Linwood Dunn (left) & optical printer with Vernon Walker.
There are probably few technicians who have contributed as much to trick photography over successive decades as Linwood Dunn.  Having joined the Camera Effects Department at RKO in 1929 under Lloyd Knechtel and soon afterward under Vernon Walker's headship, Dunn would elevate the role and importance of the optical printer to that of a highly versatile precision instrument far beyond the rudimentary bench printers in use up until then.

Back projected process work can either make or break an otherwise decent film, with some shocking examples we've all seen over the decades.  The work in DAYS OF GLORY however is very good and among the best of it's kind from the period.  Harold Wellman was Process Cinematographer, with experience in all manner of effects camerawork going back as far as 1929 at Paramount followed by a long career over at RKO where he remained until 1957.  Wellman worked on such films as SON OF KONG, CITIZEN KANE and the 1976 Dino DeLaurentis reboot of KING KONG.

RKO's process projection set up in action.

A fascinating clipping from an ancient journal.

DAYS OF GLORY

Special Effects Supervisor:                       Vernon L. Walker
Visual Effects Cinematographers:            Paul Eagler & Russell Cully
Process Photography:                                 Harold Wellman
Miniatures:                                                  Marcel Delgado
Optical Cinematography:                          Linwood G. Dunn
Matte Artists (probable):                           Mario Larrinaga & Fitch Fulton


The main credits actually appear at the end of the film which was quite unusual for the time, though Welles did it on CITIZEN KANE and maybe another.  Matte paintings here behind the title cards.
DAYS OF GLORY doesn't waste as much time as did THE NORTH STAR on sugar-sweet depictions of peasant life in a Russian village, and has more of a harder, darker feel about it right from word go, and is all the better for it.
A slow pullback with painted night sky and miniature foreground foliage.

An extensive matte painted shot opens the film.

A matte shot with much painted and a small slot of live action on the roadway has been used as a process plate for the foreground action.

Not sure here...may be a painted backing but possibly a soft split with trees etc painted in later which was common.

An untitled RKO matte shot still that I obtained from effects man Jim Aupperle years ago looks very much like a shot dropped from DAYS OF GLORY.
Fine examples of some first rate visual effects design and execution.  A large miniature terrain and model railway has been flawlessly combined with the foreground actors via excellent process projection as the Russian underground set a trap for the Germans.
The miniature of the heavily armoured behemoth.

The trap succeeds and the Germans suffer some inconvenience at the hands of the underground.  Miniature action combined with actors via process work.  I've lightened this a bit as it all occurs at night and the DVD was a little dark.


A painted night sky with approaching aircraft added in.

A wider vista is completely painted with just the aircraft doubled in as in nears.

A superbly constructed and photographed miniature setting complete with a rapidly closing in convoy of German tanks. 

Outstanding miniature photography which would appear to have been shot out of doors in natural light (always a plus for credibility).  Excellent depth of field suggests quite large scale model tanks.  I'd love to see any behind the scenes photos of this work.  Along with MGM's COMRADE X this was probably as good as it gets until the mid 1960's with BATTLE OF THE BULGE's terrific miniature work.

The guerilla fighters lie in wait with whatever weapons they have in hand.  Possibly a painted cyclorama here but who knows ... may be a matte shot?

Full miniature set up.

Now these shots are pretty amazing.  The miniature background action has been flawlessly combined with Gregory Peck in the foreground through what might have been very good process projection or perhaps an extremely well done split screen done in optical.  The background plate looks too good and too large to be regular rear projection.  See below.  

Same sequence and it's possible a very well composited matte line may very well be visible around the upper part of the foreground wheel and continuing up around the gun.  I think the matte line might also extend across the snow.  I'd like to see a BluRay of this film as they are great to catch matte lines and such like that are otherwise hard to detect on DVD, and harder again on VHS or TV.

The enemy closes in...

Outstanding miniature work and live action process.

I love good wartime battle sequences created with miniatures, especially those made in the 1940's where the effects industry was at it's most creative me thinks.

Note the tracks blasted off the model tank.  Nice touch.




One of our heroes hurls a grenade at the enemy and makes a direct hit.

Regrettably our hero is dumbstruck by his quite splendid grenade hurling precision and finds himself flattened by a bloody big nasty Nazi tank.
Dynamic process combination of model pyro and live action.


These big iron beasts prove more of an adversary as they roll forward.

The film concludes on a somewhat depressing note.  As strong a resistance as the cinematic Russian underground in the film put up, the onslaught is apparently unstoppable - or so the abrupt ending tends to suggest. One must admire the fighting spirit of the actual WWII Russian populace who under no circumstances were about to surrender after a few bullets whistled past and put up one hell of a fight.




Coming up soon ...

Forgotten Gems of Visual Effects - WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH

Watch this space.


5 comments:

  1. Wonderful stuff Pete. Thank you so much for your dedication to great film making. I haven't come across anyone doing it better.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brilliant, love it. You should start a https://www.patreon.com/ page !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Richard

      What, pray tell, is a 'patreon' page?

      Pete

      Delete
  3. Pete - thanks again! You always bring us something that amazes and entertains!
    mg

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Guys,

      I appreciate your interest. I think we must still be kids at heart with our love for models, mattes and things that explode.

      Although I've not seen the new version of DUNKIRK, I'm delighted to learn that Nolan tried as much as possible to avoid CGI and utilise actual aircraft and ships. Like me, he finds the "physics" of CG just not believable for the most part - and don't get me started on the patently fake 'design' of most CG with idiotic camera moves and needless over the top clutter. No, my friends... you'll NOT catch NZPete sitting through a Marvel cerebral apocalypse!

      Pete

      Delete