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It's very possible that in a few years the culture will remember The Lost World as a Steven Spielberg movie and forget about this grandaddy of all special effect dinosaur movies. It has a production history every bit as exciting as today's CGI dazzlers. This second DVD release of The Lost World is going to cause a lot of fans to buy the title again, because it is a painstaking reconstruction that restores almost thirty minutes to what was thought to be a lost film, bringing it almost all the way back to its original running time.
Hotheaded paleontologist Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) attacks newsmen when they scoff at his claims of a plateau in the upper Amazon, his 'Lost World' where prehistoric monsters roam. He must return there to prove his findings, and going with him are four intrepid types. Paula White (Bessie Love) is the daughter of Maple White, the Professor's partner who disappeared on the first trip. Famous big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) is smitten with for Paula, although she's young enough to be his daugher. Professor Summerlee wants to catalog bugs along the way and Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes) needs to prove himself a man, so as to impress a girlfriend back in London. The expedition encounters one amazing incident after another, eventually becoming trapped atop the plateau with hundreds of fearsome dinosaurs and a menacing ape man.
The Lost World was a victim of its own popularity and the death of silent films. According to Michael Yakaitis, early in the 1930s when 16mm was introduced, digest versions were made of some popular silent films, and The Lost World was one of the first. Assuming the original full length 35mm was never going to be exhibited again, its negative went the way of 80% of silent films and became a lost movie. Since then it has been seen only as a 32 minute short subject.
The Professor Challenger character became Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's personal favorite in his later years. Modeling the character after himself (note the resemblance in the movie's prologue) Doyle wrote sequels to the original 1912 book, continuing to strongly identify with the hotheaded, blustery adventurer. When First National made the movie version, based solely on the remarkable special effects abilities of an ex-boxer turned trick filmmaker named Willis O'Brien, Doyle is said to have taken test reels of dinosaur footage to speaking engagements, feigning that they were the real thing. The 1925 release was a smash success that popularized dinosaurs but didn't start a wave of copycat movies. O'Brien's groundbreaking techniques (combining stop-motion photography with split screen, mattes, and multiple exposures) were both too advanced and too expensive. The Lost World is of course a direct precursor to King Kong and shares with it a number of concepts and incidents: 'Human interest' is said to be essential to hook the public on a story; the ape pulls up the rope ladder on which the humans escape.
As a 1925 production The Lost World is first-class. The leading roles are played by well-known stars and the jungle ambiance is a rich mix of backlot greenery and O'Brien glass mattes. Although the art direction lacks the classical, Doré- inspired look of Kong there are any number of unforgettable images, such as the dinosaur pushing the log from the top of the plateau, or the stampede of giant reptiles from an exploding volcano. The story seems oversimplified and the romance dated, but trying to imagine the effect the fairly realistic dinosaurs had on 1925 audiences is even more difficult. Kong's audience was knocked out of their seats, and many thought they were watching a real gorilla. Many viewers of this picture may have taken its dinosaurs as real!1
Today's fans are going to need an appreciation of The Lost World's place in special effects history to understand the glory of O'Brien's work. Marcel Delgado's monsters have the correct shape of the dinosaurs in paintings in Chicago museums, with realistic skins and claws, but many of them are oddly proportioned and under-articulated. A giant ceratosaurus and styracosaurus are not only better detailed than most of the rest, but are also much better animated. Were they perhaps given more of O'Brien's personal attention? His previous comedy short subjects had made little attempt at naturalism. Here the beautiful matte paintings and impressive split screens put live-action people together with the monsters, and give life and motion to giant dioramas by adding running rivers and smoke to animated scenes.
Some of the less anatomically convincing dinos wiggle little flipper forearms and have a crude, clay-like appearance. Unintentional humor results when several of them are made to snarl by curling their lips like sneering cartoon characters. But for every anthropomorphism (one dino does a double-take after pushing a brontosaurus off a cliff) there is something startling. A shot in which an animated carnivore looms out of the dark with glowing, blinking eyes is both ingenious and frightening!
Thanks to Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters magazine, we knew all about Willis O'Brien by the early 1960s. The Irwin Allen remake was a kiddie favorite for us, but we didn't know that O'Brien's later years had been cursed with unmade movie projects and unfaithful producers. An old-fashioned studio hand, O'Brien really didn't work much after the expensive flop Mighty Joe Young, and although his Oscar was proudly deserved, O'Brien's acolyte Ray Harryhausen took up the torch and ran with it. Whereas Harryhausen linked up with a loyal producer, O'Brien found himself cheated again and again. Typically, he'd be hired by producers (or simply present ideas on spec to them) who would sneak behind his back to make the movie elsewhere. His screen story El Toro Estrella was ripped off by the King Brothers, who made half of it as The Brave One (winning an Oscar for best screenplay) and sold the other half, which became the inferior The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Rather than get better, non-Harryhausen stop-motion movies of the '50s tended to reinvent the wheel and make the same mistakes. Even O'Brien's output didn't evolve due to lack of opportunity. Just to keep active, he and his faithful associate Pete Peterson literally worked in their garages on things like The Giant Behemoth, a belated imitation of a Harryhausen film. The 'producer' of O'Brien's King Kong vs. Frankenstein project ran away with it to Japan, where it became King Kong vs. Godzilla. As with the 1960 Irwin Allen lizards-in-latex version of The Lost World, O'Brien only discovered that his name and ideas had been stolen when he read about it in the trades.
This restoration of the original The Lost World looks to be almost definitive. In a separate effort from the Eastman House's earlier work, David Shepard combined parts of 8 prints from around the world and put back in practically all of the missing material, including many scenes glimpsed only as stills on the earlier DVD. The quality and condition of the pieces vary but the show plays well and smoothly. There's still the question of how the black porter (blackface, actually) injured his arm, but maybe that detail wasn't in the original cut. There are only a few more dinosaur shots, but a lot more of Bull Montana's impressive ape-man monster. The original story had entire tribes of savage natives to contend with. With their simian substitution the producers saved themselves expense and attracted some collateral interest via the then-current Scopes "Inherit the Wind" Evolution trial. But the crowd scenes in the London finale show no signs of economizing -- these 'running mob' scenes are still impressive, and not matched for impact in a dinosaur movie until 1961's Gorgo. This was the first time a prehistoric monster ran wild in the streets of a modern city, a concept not in the original book. There, Challenger stood proudly as a Pterodactyl he brought back from South America flew around the Explorer's hall.2 All the familiar 'monster on the loose' gags are here, including the drunk who thinks he's seeing d.t.'s and the woman who snatches a child from the path of the stampeding dino, another incident repeated verbatim for Kong. Not among the restored bits is the fabled business where the dinosaur smashes its head into a public house, sending patrons flying. With buildings and vehicles to give the beast scale, this is the most exciting part of the picture.
The first DVD of The Lost World made up for its truncated running time by adding excerpts from some of O'Brien's earlier short subjects. This disc includes a fascinating reel of animation outtakes that show the original camera slates and the occasional workman or animator appearing in flash frames - and none of them look like published pictures of Willis O'Brien. There's some great animation here, and several angles not seen in the finished picture. The shots in The Lost World were designed as freestanding tableaux, with the subject matter the only focus of interest. As handsome as they are (the quality in the outtakes is flawless), they point up the fact that the greatest leap between this picture and Kong is that the effects animation in the latter film is integrated into the story flow, and designed and directed with an energy that has defied time and fashion. The Lost World is now a relic, albeit a fascinating one.
Image Entertainment's handsome package includes two full musical soundtracks, a modern one by the Alloy Orchestra (in 5.1) and a more conventional one in 2.0 by Robert Israel. Both are limited by the film's lack of pace and dramatics but provide a good background. Author Roy Pilot provides a commentary on a third track. Two still sections are here, and a very nice booklet reproduces an original souvenir program from 76 years ago. The artwork on the package-back features a misleading, totally 90s-looking picture of a Jurassic Park-type raptor. With Stan Winston providing a text blurb, it might really be one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Lost World rates:
1. In 1993, it seemed obvious that if you showed Jurassic Park to primitive people (are there any left?) they'd most likely accept the monsters as 100% bona fide. The Lost World probably had the same effect way back in 1925, and with much more sophisticated audiences.
2. Note that the movie ellipses the ponderous narrative chapter of building a steel cage for the brontosaurus, waiting for the rains to swell the rivers, floating it down to the Amazon, and carting it alive all the way back to London. Sounds like a job for Fitzcarraldo -- now wouldn't it be funny to see Klaus Kinski show up! This is another lesson taken by the producers of King Kong - we dissolve from the jungle back to civilization just in time to see the giant captive monster escape!
June 15, 2001: A Note from friendly correspondent 'HB' on this disc:
There were a couple of things I wanted to confirm. The first scene in the Image version is the 1929(?) Fox Movietone News footage of Conan Doyle at his estate which is substituted for a scene of Doyle that was used in the original film. If I remember correctly, the original shot of Doyle, or part of it, is on the Lumivision disc as part of the original coming attractions trailer.
The Lumivision disc also includes a list of missing scenes taken, if I remember right, from a cutting continuity. For example, in both discs there's a jump cut when Challenger chases Malone out of the museum and Malone suddenly is wearing a bowler. As I recall, the missing shot(s) shows us how Malone came to be wearing Challenger's hat. That's important because it helps explain why the London bobby doesn't challenge Malone when he enters Challenger's house through the window: He thinks it's Challenger.
But what surprised me about this and some other jump cuts is that they're in both the Kodascope version and in the longer versions of the same scenes of the restoration. In this instance, it would appear that the film got shortened very early in the game by unknown hands. But it would also appear to me the director was rather slapdash. His blocking is often clumsy which leads to cuts within scenes that don't appear to belong together.
Overall, the biggest surprise was how good that Kodascope condensation is. There's very little in this longer version that improves on the Kodascope. Indeed, the digest version sometimes gains from the crisper editing. - HB