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Nathan Juran, 95; Art Director, Filmmaker

November 01, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Nathan "Jerry" Juran, who won an Academy Award for art direction on John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley" and later tapped his strong visual sense as a director of science fiction and fantasy films in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 95.

Juran, who is best known as a director of the 1958 adventure-fantasy film "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," died of natural causes Oct. 23 at his home in Palos Verdes Estates.

As an art director, Juran's more than two dozen credits include Robert Rossen's "Body and Soul," starring John Garfield; Edmund Goulding's "The Razor's Edge," starring Tyrone Power; and Anthony Mann's "Winchester '73," starring James Stewart.

But his crowning achievement was "How Green Was My Valley," the 1941 best-picture Oscar winner about the decline of a Welsh coal mining village, for which he shared the Academy Award for black and white art direction with 20th Century Fox art department head Richard Day.

When the Welsh choir that the studio had brought to Hollywood to appear in the film first glimpsed the 19th century Welsh mining village that had been built at the Fox ranch in the Malibu hills, co-star Maureen O'Hara told The Times this week, they were impressed with its authenticity.

"I thought they were going to kiss the ground any minute, they were so thrilled," O'Hara said. "The set was absolutely stunning; it was magnificent. It was just so wonderful because everything was built out there. We never went to Wales. On top of one of the hills was the church, and there was a street with all the houses, and on top of the next hill was the top of the mine shaft."

As for Ford's reaction to the sprawling set that Juran had created, O'Hara said, "He thought it was wonderful. And he didn't praise anything very often."

Turning to directing in 1952, Juran is best remembered by fantasy and science fiction fans as the director of not only "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," but "20 Million Miles to Earth" and "First Men in the Moon," which all featured the work of special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen.

Rick Mitchell, a film historian and film editor who knew the director, said Juran, a trained architect, had an unusually strong visual sense that complemented that of Harryhausen.

"Nathan had a stronger visual background than a lot of directors, and you can see that even in his non-Harryhausen films," Mitchell said.

Unlike many directors in the '50s, Mitchell said, Juran didn't look down on the science fiction and fantasy film genre. And although Juran was primarily a director of B movies, Mitchell said, "He was able to pull off good stuff with no money and no time.

"That was a major hallmark of Nathan's work, which is best exemplified by two films he made that at the time he was too embarrassed to put his name on" -- "The Brain From Planet Arous" and "The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman," which he directed as Nathan Hertz.

The films were screened at an American Cinematheque tribute to Juran in Hollywood two years ago, Mitchell said, "and the audience came to laugh at them. But once they realized the conditions they were made under, they realized that these were actually triumphs of creativity over time and budget."

Juran's work as a director influenced a number of younger filmmakers, including directors John Landis and Joe Dante. "He was much more influential than he knew," Landis told The Times, recalling his own decision to become a movie director after seeing "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" in Westwood Village when he was 8.

Landis said Juran was remarkable not only for his collaborations with Harryhausen, "all of which are really quality pictures," but for his own work. "He was the consummate, no-nonsense craftsman," Landis said. "What I admire most about him is his complete lack of pretension. He approached it as a job of work."

As Juran said in a rare interview for the science fiction fan magazine Starlog in 1989:

"I approached the picture business as a business. I always did pictures for the money, and for the creative challenges. I wasn't a born director. I was just a technician who could transfer the script from the page to the stage and could get it shot on schedule and on budget. I never became caught up in the 'romance' of the movies."

Like "a lot of Hollywood work horses," Landis said, Juran went into TV in the '50s and '60s, directing episodes of "My Friend Flicka" and "Daniel Boone" -- as well as producer Irwin Allen's science fiction series "The Time Tunnel," "Lost in Space," "Land of the Giants" and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea."

The son of a shoemaker, Juran was born in an Austrian mountain village in 1907. When he was 6, he and his family moved to America and settled in Minneapolis, where they lived in the back of his father's shoe shop.

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