He probably did more to make science fiction respectable in Hollywood than anyone else until George Lucas,* yet the legacy of George Pal is lost in the current disdain for older special effects. That's too bad, since he was the one producer to put out consistently successful high-budget SF films in the 50s and 60s. He is still considered a giant by those in the field, even if his films have tended to get lost in the shuffle.
Pal was born György Pál Marczincsak in Austria-Hungary. He started working in the film business in Budapest and developed into a successful animator, inventing what he called "Puppetoons," a different form of animation. It used three-dimensional puppets for the animation, but instead of moving the puppet's arms or legs from frame to frame, a new puppet would be swapped and shot in its place. It leant a unique look, and Pal eventually migrated to the US to work on a series of Puppetoons for Paramount.
In 1950, Pal started moving into producing live-action features. His first, The Great Rupert, featured a puppetoon-animated squirrel as its protagonist. It did well enough for Pal to move on to science fiction.
He was smart enough to do it right. He hired Robert A. Heinlein to help with the script and to act as technical advisor. Destination Moon became a success and is still a well-regarded early film of the era.
It did well enough for Pal to start moving to color. The films are a long list of 50s SF classics:
- When Worlds Collide. A movie that presaged the SF film Amrageddon, but without the happy ending: a planet is on its way to collide with Earth, and a spaceship is built to house what will be the human race.
- The War of the Worlds. The classic 50s version of the H.G. Wells classic, starring Gene Barry.
- Houdini. Tony Curtis as the famous magician.
- The Naked Jungle. Not strictly SF, it's based upon a short story "Leiningen Versus the Ants" and stars Charlton Heston as a man whose live and livelihood are threatened by a swarm of army ants**.
- The Conquest of Space. Essentially, Destination Mars, with a strong hard-SF bent.
- tom thumb. The fairy tale in live action (with some Puppetoons thrown in). Directed by Pal.
- The Time Machine. Another classic. Rod Taylor goes to the future to fight the Morlocks. The time traveling sequences still hold up brilliantly today. Directed by Pal.
- Atlantis the Lost Continent.
- The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. A biography of the brothers, with animated versions of their fairy tales.***
- The Seven Face of Dr. Lao. A well-regarded fantasy about a mysterious circus. Directed by Pal
- The Power. There are superhumans among us, and they are dangerous.
- Doc Savage, Man of Bronze.
No producer did more science fiction and fantasy,**** especially in a time when the genres weren't fashionable. Pal's films also were always the front runner for the Best Special Effects Oscar; Pal himself was given a special award for Puppetoons.
After 1975, Pal was not able to get his projects funded, though he continued to work on treatments until his death in 1980.
Pal influenced countless young filmmakers and is, in many was, the father of movie science fiction. He deserves to be remembered by everyone.
*Who actually made it profitable, not respectable.
**The ants are normal sized, but just the same.
***Well, not really theirs. William and Jacob Grimm did not write their tales. They collected folktales from around Germany and from other countries and then recounted them in a series of collections (and never claimed authorship). Jacob later specialized in language and developed Grimm's Law, an important principle of etymology which governs how sounds change over time.
****Though I suppose someone has possibly surpassed him by now.