This wasn’t just for effect
Baby boomers have a soft spot in their hearts for filmmaker and special-effects pioneer George Pal.
Long before impersonal computers began creating special effects, Pal brought science fiction and fantasy films to the big screen with his personal vision to create the magical otherworldly experiences in such films as “The War of the Worlds,” “The Time Machine,” “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm,” “Tom Thumb” and “7 Faces of Dr. Lao.”
“His movies are so humanistic in a genre that frequently passes by that element,” noted director Joe Dante (“The Howling,” “Gremlins”).
Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is throwing a centennial celebration, “George Pal: Discovering the Fantastic,” at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Dante hosts the event, which features a panel discussion with some of Pal’s collaborators, including puppeteer Bob Baker and actors Barbara Eden, Ann Robinson, Russ Tamblyn and Alan Young.
The tribute will also include new prints of Pal’s “Puppetoons” -- live-action shorts that featured stop-motion-animated puppets in fairy-tale situations -- 1941’s “Rhythm in the Ranks” and 1946’s “John Henry and Inky Poo,” as well as Pal’s 1953 production of “The War of the Worlds” with Robinson and Gene Barry, which won an Oscar for best special effects.
“There wasn’t a lot of darkness in George Pal,” said Dante, who became acquainted with the filmmaker watching the old “Puppetoons” on TV as a child. “All of his movies became kind of funny and bright. Even mistakes like ‘Atlantis: The Lost Continent,’ which is sort of an Italian movie that isn’t an Italian movie and is really a pretty silly picture, there is a geniality to his movies. He stamped his personality on them whether he directed them or not.”
Dante singled out 1960’s “The Time Machine” as his favorite Pal film. “There is wistfulness about it that’s really absent from most science-fiction films,” he explained. “It’s a moving film on a level that most movies of that type didn’t even try to reach.”
Born in Cegled, Hungary, in 1908, Pal began making movies for Hunnia Films in Budapest in 1928. He moved to Berlin in 1931, but when the Nazis came to power he left Germany and began working at Paramount. He won an honorary Oscar in 1944 for “the development and novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as ‘Puppetoons.’ ” Six years later, he made his first foray into live-action filmmaking with “The Great Rupert.”
Baker, of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in downtown Los Angeles, was just a teenager when he began working for Pal’s studio on the “Puppetoons.”
“He was wonderful,” recalled Baker. “He was very European . . . you enjoyed him for that reason. Consequently some of his stories got a very European twist, which, as I look back on it, was a different way of storytelling.”
“He was just perfect,” echoed Young, who worked with Pal on 1958’s “Tom Thumb” and 1960’s “The Time Machine.” “He was the gentlest, nicest man outside of directing, and when he was directing he was the same way.”
“George had a twinkle in his brain,” added Tamblyn, who played the title role in “Tom Thumb” and had a role in Pal’s 1962 production of “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.” “When he would shoot, he would come up with this smirk on his face and say, ‘I think it would be cute if you would do . . . . He was very playful.”
Eden worked with Pal on “Brothers Grimm,” which was directed by Henry Levin, and 1964’s “7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” which Pal directed and featured Tony Randall in the lead role.
“He had a great sense of humor,” recalled Eden, who added that Pal would often get flummoxed by Randall’s antics, especially when the actor started chasing Eden around the set.
“I think he threatened me with something unspeakable,” Eden said, laughing. “I believe we ran around the cameras and George was saying, ‘Wait a minute! Stop.’ But we couldn’t stop, we were laughing so hard. Tony would always do some sort of escapade that would take George back a bit.”
“Dr. Lao,” which won an Oscar for makeup for William Tuttle, was Pal’s last hurrah. The swinging ‘60s didn’t really mesh with the filmmaker’s fantasy universe. “He wanted me to do a TV series based on the ‘7 Faces of Dr. Lao,’ ” said Young. “I was flattered, but he couldn’t get it off the ground.”
Pal died of a heart attack in 1980 at age 72. That same year, the academy created the “George Pal Lecture on Fantasy in Film” series in his memory.
‘George Pal: Discovering the Fantastic’
Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Contact: (310) 247-3600 or www.oscars.org