St. Louisan Todd Armstrong Starred in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS in 1963
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 27th successful year! Steve and I collaborated in 2011 on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and I have been writing a regular monthly movie-related column since. Our working alliance is simple: Steve tells me a year and I pick a movie from that year and write about it. Last month Steve threw me the year 1963. Since I was hosting a Ray Harryhausen tribute event at the St. Louis International Film Festival and was eager to write about the special effects wizard who died this past May, I chose JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS as my subject for this month. The Globe-Democrat is a St. Louis paper and we try to have as many local ties to stories as possible. I was aware that the star of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, Todd Armstrong who played Jason, was originally from our town. I decided to do asome research on him and his background. It wasn’t easy since he had almost no career beyond JASON, but I did discover that his father Harris Armstrong was a famous and highly-regarded architect here and had designed many buildings that I have admired over the years. My article morphed from a story about one of my favorite movies into one about a father and son, one who had a lifetime of wealth and success while the other had but a brief shining moment. But while Harris Armstrong may have been the ‘dean’ of modern architects, he never battled an army of sword-wielding skeletons.
Harris Armstrong, the dean of St. Louis modernist architects, has a new masterpiece to be proud of. It’s his son, John Harris Armstrong, who has landed the starring role in the new fantasy film JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. 26-year old John, who has changed his name to Todd Armstrong, plays Jason, the ancient Greek mythological hero famous for his role as the leader of the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. The new movie is a thrilling adventure, highlighted by Jason’s battles with a succession of fantastic monsters culminating in a battle with seven sword fighting skeletons that has to be seen to be believed. For sheer old-fashioned, childhood-rekindling adventure, it doesn’t get any better than JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and it’s wonderful to see a home-town boy in the title role.
Harris Armstrong, born here in 1899, is a well-read and largely self-taught modern architect who is revered in St. Louis for his masterful designs of colorful, innovative, and spacious structures. After serving in WWI, Armstrong studied architecture at Washington University, though he never graduated. After working in the Boston office of Raymond Hood in the 1930s, Armstrong returned to St. Louis, settling in Kirkwood with his wife Louise McClelland Armstrong, and has designed many local civic landmarks. Many of Harris Armstrong’s designs are inspired by the Asian style of economic resourcefulness of material and elegant simplicity of form. One of his first triumphs was The Shanley Building at 7800 Maryland Avenue in Clayton, commissioned by orthodontist Dr. Leo M. Shanley. Its design won Armstrong a silver medal at the Paris Exposition of 1937, and is a building admired by many architects. Another Armstrong jewel is the Magic Chef building on South Kingshighway. Designed in 1946 for The American Stove Company as their national headquarters, the building featured the first glass block curtain wall in St. Louis. Just last year, Armstrong designed the Ethical Society, a striking, spacious building on Clayton Road. Armstrong composed the skyward thrust of the building’s pointed roof to symbolize the Ethical Society’s aims to bring out the best in the human spirit.
Harris and Todd Armstrong in a photo taken in 1946
Harris and Louise Armstrong’s son John was born in 1937 and grew up in Kirkwood with his two older sisters Joan and Jeffrey. The family spent much of their summers at a cabin in Jefferson County that Harris had designed and named “The Rockpile”. John graduated from Ladue High School in 1956 where one of his classmates was Auggie Busch, the great-grandson of Anheuser-Busch brewery founder Adolphus Busch. John moved to California to study acting, enrolling in the Pasadena Playhouse where he changed his first name to Todd. He graduated from the prestigious acting school in 1958 with classmates including Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. Todd’s wealthy parents set him up with a trust fund but after a couple of frustrating years with no success landing acting roles, he took part time work as a landscaper. One of his clients was actress Gloria Henry. Ms Henry had played Charles Bronson’s doomed wife in the 1958 gangland thriller GANG WAR and in 1961 was in her second year playing Alice Mitchell, the mother of the title character on the hit CBS TV series Dennis the Menace. She was impressed enough with Todd’s good looks to arrange for him to get a screen test at Columbia Pictures, where she was under contract. Todd landed a recurring role in the third season of the popular TV show Manhunt, which starred Victor Jory as a hard-nosed policeman with the San Diego, California Police Department. Armstrong played Det. Carl Spencer in 13 episodes in the 1961 season. In 1962 Armstrong briefly changed his name again to Todd Anderson and made his big-screen debut with a small role in director Edward Dmytryk’s drama WALK ON THE WILD SIDE starring Laurence Harvey and Jane Fonda. Todd changed his name back to Armstrong for his second film, the Daniel Mann-directed drama FIVE FINGER EXERCISE starring Rosalind Russell last year.
Todd Armstrong has landed his first lead role with JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. The new film is derived from the Greek legend of Jason and his voyage at the helm of the ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. The $3 million film has been directed resourcefully and spiritedly by Don Chaffey, under whose leadership a colorful cast, led by Todd Armstrong, performs with gusto. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is exhilarating stuff, and successful in that it takes its fantasy so seriously, treating the Gods of Ancient Greece as living, breathing beings who may be haughty and cruel when it suits them, yet are aware their days are numbered when they can be bettered by brave mortals such as Jason. Bernard Herrmann’s majestic score does a tremendous job of fleshing out the characters and setting the mood and pace. Todd Armstrong makes for a solid action hero as Jason, but his voice has been dubbed by British actor Tim Turner best known for providing the voice of the title character in the TV series The Invisible Man (1958–59). Todd has a fine voice, but since most of the rest of the cast were Brits, the producers thought his Yank accent would be inappropriately distracting. American actress Nancy Kovak, who plays Medea in the film, is also dubbed.
The real star of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is special effects artist Ray Harryhausen and his stop-motion animation creatures. Stop-motion uses a small model of, say, a skeleton where one single film frame is photographed, then the model is moved slightly and another frame is photographed. When the film is run through the projector, the skeleton will appear to move. Harryhausen’s work has been showcased in previous films such as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Among the spectacular creatures brought to life through this process in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS are the colossal bronze god Talos, fluttery bat-winged Harpies, a menacing seven-headed Hydra, and a squadron of menacing skeletons who materialize out of the Hydra’s teeth. Armstrong and the rest of the cast travelled to the Italian town of Palinuto to film the exteriors. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is terrific entertainment and transcends the other sword and sandal product that has flooded theaters since HERCULES proved such an international success five years ago. It’s a great first starring role for St. Louisan Todd Armstrong who should have a long and successful career ahead of him.
Stardom was to elude Todd Armstrong and his career fizzled after JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Columbia Picture’s publicity machine couldn’t distinguish it in the movie marketplace from the plethora of Italian Hercules-inspired fantasy product in 1963, and the film failed initially to find an audience. Armstrong co-starred with George Segal and Tom Courtenay in the 1965 WWII drama KING RAT but after that, movie and TV roles for the actor were few and far between. Little has been written about his later years, though it’s rumored that he married a pianist who helped support him. After battling alcoholism and contracting AIDS, Armstrong shot himself in 1990 at his home in Butte, California. He was 55 years old.
Harris Armstrong was one of five finalists, and the only St. Louisan, in the design competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. He received an honorable mention while Finnish architect Eero Saarinen won the competition with his design of the Gateway Arch. Harris Armstrong retired in 1969 and died in 1973 but his beautifully-designed St. Louis structures remain. His Magic Chef building is now a U-Haul storage facility.
Though JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS was initially a box-office disappointment, it is usually cited as the high-water mark of Ray Harryhausen’s career and there is so much to justify that call. The climactic skeleton battle is the most celebrated sequence, but for sheer awe, there’s nothing like the encounter with the 200-foot-tall bronze colossus Talos. After landing on the island of Bronze, the goddess Hera, in masthead form, instructs Jason to have his men collect food and water and nothing else. When they take one souvenir from a giant trove of gold treasures, they wake the colossal bronze statue who’s been perched on his pedestal for thousands of years guarding it. From the dramatic moment it slowly turns to look down at Hercules to Jason’s discovery of its literal Achilles’ heel, the battle with the titan Talos is one of Harryhausen’s finest moments. His facial expression barely changes but his cold blank stare is chilling and he walks with a rusty, arthritic gait that highlights Harryhausen’s amazing ability to instill in all his animated creations a sense of personality that is lacking in much of today’s computer-generated sludge. Clearly inspired by the legendary ‘Colossus of Rhodes’, Talos truly feels like one of the Seven Wonders of the World come to life. Of all of Ray Harryhausen’s movies, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is closest to his personal interests. He found mythological fantasies more exciting than science fiction monsters, and wanted very much to tell the story of the Golden Fleece in classic terms. When Tom Hanks awarded Ray Harryhausen a special Oscar in 19922, he remarked, “Some people say CASABLANCA or CITIZEN KANE. I say JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is the greatest film ever made.”