From the Dust-Bins: The Lost World

U.S.; Science-Fiction/Adventure; 1925; 93 minutes (originally 106 minutes); Directed by: Harry Hoyt; Produced by: Jamie White (executive), Earl Hudson (unc); Based off of the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; First National Pictures

Very few times before in film history has the audience looked upon a special effect and wonder in astonishment “How did they film that?” Especially in today’s technologically driven world, where most of the wonder of special effects have been stolen under the common knowledge of computer graphics. Upon the introduction of computer imagery in films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park, the sense of wonder was only increased. But after hearing of the amazing new technology and the wonders it can perform, most special effects can be swept under the rug with a quick realization of our digital world. Not to mention the over-use of that technology nowadays just makes “special” effects nothing special at all to today’s audiences.

Such was not the case back in 1922, when renowned Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle strolled into Society of American Magicians meeting with a 35mm film reel tucked under his arm. His friend, renowned illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini, was a part of the society of magicians, and Doyle wanted to impress him and his friends at the society with a magic trick even the great Houdini couldn’t explain. Doyle projected the film reel, and the screen filled with dinosaurs going about their natural daily lives. The footage included shots of a Triceratops family, a Stegosaurus, and even the carnivorous Allosaurus attacking said dinosaurs. After the viewing, Doyle refused to answer the questions the magicians bombarded him with about the film’s origin. The very next day, the New York Times‘ front page article stated “[Conan Doyle’s] monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces.”

This was how the film adaptation of Doyle’s The Lost World, the first book in his new science fiction book series, came into the world’s public knowledge; 10 years after the book began publication. Not only did this film pioneer as the first feature length live-action dinosaur film, but was possibly the first feature length film in the world to rely on stop-motion animation as the main special effect tool. It also seemed to be such a hot picture that it became the first film to be screen in airplanes during long flights.

The film starts off very similarly to Doyle’s book. Edward Malone (played by Lloyd Hughes) is introduced trying to win over his love-interest Gladys Hungerford (Alma Bennett), who swears she shall not settle for any man unless he can look death in the face and not flinch. So Malone returns to his newspaper reporter job and requests to be sent on a dangerous mission. Malone is sent out to try and make contact with a violent man Professor Challenger (Wallace Berry), who seems hellbent on getting the scientific community in London to fund an expedition to the uncharted lands of South America in search of the dinosaurs rumored to have survived there.

Maple White (Bessie Love) hides out in a cave.

The film takes its time setting up the anticipation of the dinosaurs, as well as the mystery of the unfortunate explorer Maple White, who never returned after reporting the dinosaur sightings. Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) and White’s daughter, Paula (Bessie Love), are also introduced to form a love triangle between the two and Malone. The four people, plus another scientist named Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt), set out to confirm or deny the dinosaur rumors of South America, as well as find the missing Maple White. After traveling to the plateau in the Amazon a giant Brontosaurus ruins any chance the team had of returning home, and the film becomes a survival story with strong romantic undertones butting in from the film’s love triangle story.

The sets are very well crafted for its time. Each location was built or scouted with a large atmosphere around it, creating a vast tropical world for the film to take place. There are a few points were you can see sets extended through paintings and the like, but over all it’s really unnoticeable.

The real reason to watch this film is Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation work with the dinosaur effects. The dinosaurs seem to interact with real rivers, trees, and smoke, and can even be seen breathing. Considering the limitations of stop-motion animation, this is quite a feat. And the truly amazing fact is that Willis animated almost every dinosaur scene by himself, hiring help for only the vast volcano aftermath scene.

The film does have some of the common sins of a silent picture. With the exception of Lewis Stone, who seems to have the most natural screen presence of any actor in the film, most of the acting is rather broad and over the top, as many actors of the silent era were more concerned with making their emotions obvious rather than appear natural, though Berry’s presentation of Professor Challenger seems true to character because of his broad motions. The underlying romance in the film is rather strong for it’s genre, perhaps to attract the female audience, but the story really never develops any if the situations thoroughly enough for any of it to pay off in some fashion.

The film also shows clear signs of aging. Even with the newly restored 93 minute cut of the film released by Image Entertainment, which includes a lot of footage that used to be damaged or lost, one can see places where only a half of a shot could be usable for the restoration of the film. And other restoration techniques of the film include creating digital print insert shots of articles found in Doyle’s book, and not known to be included in the original motion picture adaptation. But regardless, the film as it stands now is as complete as one can hope to find it, and is a good insight to the technological break-troughs of special effects in film history. The Lost World is a very fun adventure film for those interested in the silent era.

Rexes gorge on a felled sauropod the day after a volcano eruption.

 

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About Stefan D. Byerley
Stefan D. Byerley is an independent filmmaker and freelance visual artist currently residing in North Carolina. He likes detailed storytelling, intriguing imagery, massive bloody violence, crying at the movies, and long walks in the park during the Autumn season.

3 Responses to From the Dust-Bins: The Lost World

  1. Mac Colestock says:

    As always, you deliver a great review, man. I keep meaning to watch this at some point because I love stop-motion stuff.

    • Stefan D. Byerley says:

      Thanks! I’d rank this film right up there with the 1933 King Kong among important adventure films in history. I’d suggest the Image Entertainment DVD release of the film if you’re interested in watching it. You should be able to find it on Amazon. It’s the most complete cut known to date. (There was a longer cut of the film transferred to VHS back in 1998, but it’s believed to have the test footage for the film included in the cut.) There are also two different music tracks, (a small, live ensemble recorded playing “traditional” film score of the 1920’s, and a synth full orchestra soundtrack with some out-of-place added sound effects.) It also contains a very dry and boring audio commentary of the film and the book, and the animation test reel for the film.

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