*Sigh* — Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my escaped brontosaurus. This wonder movie of the silent era, which pits five intrepid explorers against Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fantastic South American plateau where marvelous animals from the dawn of time still live. Blackhawk Films and Lobster’s latest digital restoration includes footage never before seen, in original tints; it’s dedicated to film restorer David Shepard.
The Lost World
Deluxe Blu-ray Edition
1925 / Color / 1:37 Silent Ap / 110 min. / Street Date September 19, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Wallace Beery, Lloyd Hughes, Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Alma Bennett, Arthur Hoyt, Margaret McWade, Bull Montana, Frank Finch Smiles, Jules Cowles, George Bunny, Leo White.
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Writing credits: Marion Fairfax from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
New Music Score: Robert Israel
Technical Director: Willis O’Brien, assistants & effects men Marcel Delgado, Ralph Hammeras, Fred Jackman, Devereaux Jennings, Hans Koenekamp, Vernon Walker.
Dramatic Direction: Harry O. Hoyt
All of a sudden we have a new, much improved restoration of 1925’s The Lost World, the first feature-length prehistoric fantasy to combine live action and elaborate stop-motion models. Retaining the basic story idea of the popular 1912 book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the movie adds a romantic subplot that doesn’t intrude: “Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face.” It’s the template for dozens of ‘lost world’ stories to follow; it captured the imagination of millions and increased the popularity of dinosaurs.
My first contact with Doyle’s well written, exciting and imaginative book came after seeing the inferior 1960 Irwin Allen lizards-in-latex version. As a teenager I studied every frame of my 8mm digest version of the silent picture. So did a whole generation of ‘monster kids,’ who through Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters magazine, learned to worship Willis O’Brien, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young. etc. But it all began with The Lost World.
This new version runs ten minutes longer than anything I’ve seen. One must be careful with such comparisons because silent films can be projected at differing frame rates. It seemed to me that a substantial amount of material is new. The quality overall is much better.
At a big scientist’s meeting in London, hotheaded paleontologist Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) attacks newsmen when they scoff at his claims of a plateau in the upper Amazon, a ‘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 Paula, although she’s young enough to be his daughter. Professor Summerlee wants to catalog bugs along the way. Reporter Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes) needs to prove himself a man, so as to impress his girlfriend Gladys (Alma Bennett) back in London. The expedition endures thrilling adventures, especially after they become trapped atop the plateau with hundreds of fearsome dinosaurs and a menacing ape man (Bull Montana).
As a silent production The Lost World is first-class. The leading roles are played by well-known stars; although the story soon boils down to a simple jungle romance, the characters are clearly defined. Street scenes in London are impressive in scale, and the jungle ambience is a rich mix of back lot greenery and O’Brien glass mattes. The art direction lacks the classical Gustav Doré- inspired look of King Kong but the show has its share of unforgettable images, such as the dinosaur pushing the log from the top of the plateau, or the stampede of giant reptiles fleeing an exploding volcano.
If one showed Jurassic Park to primitive people now (are there any left?) they’d most likely accept the monsters as 100% bona fide. The Lost World may have had the same effect with ordinary audiences of 1925. King Kong knocked viewers out of their seats by what many thought to be a real gorilla, and many viewers of this picture may have been fooled. When First National’s movie version was under way, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have shown test reels of dinosaur footage at speaking engagements, pretending that they were the real thing.
As Professor Challenger, an impossibly young Wallace Beery sports a thick black beard and a bad temper that disappears as soon as the expedition is underway. Doyle based the character partly on Percy Fawcett, the real-life South American explorer featured in 2016’s The Lost City of Z. Sir Arthur reportedly identified with Challenger, who became his favorite character in his later years.
Bessie Love’s star faded soon into the sound era but as a bit player she showed up in seemingly everything made in England in the 1960s and beyond, as if she were a good luck charm. She’d peak with the lead in the Oscar-winning musical The Broadway Melody. Her main function is to be both the ‘pretty face’ and the brave woman on the expedition. Paula White shows as much spirit as the men do.
It was years before Lewis Stone would play Andy Hardy’s father at MGM, but he doesn’t look particularly young here as the dignified, fearless big game hunter Roxton. The young lead Lloyd Hughes and ‘Professor Summerlee’ Arthur Hoyt were also big silent picture names. Hoyt is present mostly to look at bugs, etc; but Hughes carries the romance, both serious and humorous.
We kids loved the Famous Monsters photos of Bull Montana’s scary ape-man, a really fine makeup job made better with an interesting, non-monkey man performance. The ape is plugged into the story for thrills and some easy suspense, but he’s still effective.
The digest versions of The Lost World hacked the film down to nothing, but even my 8mm fragment retained the character of Zambo, the black porter. Jules Cowles plays him in blackface, and his only acting seems to be flashing his eyes nervously. Zambo and a cockney porter stay at the base camp and make comments about the action atop the plateau, with their inter-title dialogue reflecting their ethnicity. Zambo says words like ‘gwine,’ etc., but isn’t characterized as cowardly. In the final Science Hall scene, he’s sitting with the rest of the adventurers, dressed in a tuxedo.
The 1925 release was a smash success but, like King Kong, it didn’t launch a wave of copycat movies. O’Brien’s integration of stop-motion photography with split screens, mattes, and multiple exposures were too advanced and too expensive. Several shots of the brontosaurus in London use advanced traveling mattes to paste the entire animated figure into live-action shots. The Lost World of course influenced Kong, which carries over a number of concepts and incidents. When the apeman leans out of a cave and pulls up a rope ladder on which the humans are trying to escape, we immediately think of Kong, both at the deep gorge, and on his mountaintop fortress.
Today’s fans, the ones with no appreciation of the evolution of movies, will likely not appreciate the glory of O’Brien’s work. Impressive split screens put live-action people together with the monsters. Animated scenes are given scale and texture with the addition of running rivers and smoke. The mattes are often artful, and difficult to detect. Marcel Delgado’s monster puppets were based on dinosaurs in paintings in Chicago museums. Some of them have realistic skins and claws, but others are oddly proportioned and under-articulated. These less anatomically convincing dinos have a clay-like appearance and little flipper forearms. Unintentional humor results when several of them are made to snarl by curling their lips – they sneer like cartoon characters. One dino, after pushing a brontosaurus off a cliff, appears to do a comedian’s double-take.
But for every odd anthropomorphism there is something startling or spectacular. A giant ceratosaurus and styracosaurus are not only more detailed than the other creatures, but are also much better animated. When they fight they circle like real animals, with animated ‘choreography’ that Ray Harryhausen would later repeat in his The Animal World and One Million Years B.C.. Were they perhaps given more of O’Brien’s personal attention? A shot in which an animated carnivore with glowing eyes looms out of the dark is both ingenious and frightening. It looks even better in this new restoration, because the scene is enhanced with hand-tinted fire.
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. That sounds like a job for Klaus Kinski, after he floats his boat in Fitzcarraldo.
The crowd scenes in the London finale show no sign of economizing — the mobs of panicked citizens fleeing the monster are still impressive. 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 stands proudly as a Pterodactyl he brought back from South America flies around the Explorers’ convention hall, until escaping and flying out to sea.
All the familiar ‘monster on the loose’ gags are here, including the drunk who thinks he’s seeing a d.t. hallucination. A woman 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, the London scenes are the most exciting part of the picture, an exciting ‘topper’ to the giant fire back in the jungle.
The Lost World became a victim of its own popularity and the death of silent films. According to Michael Yakaitis, in the late 1920s when 16mm was introduced, ‘Kodascope’ digest versions were made of some popular silent films, for the home movie market. The Lost World was one of the first. The restoration producer Bromberg implies that the full version of Lost World was junked so as to not compete with King Kong. As the films were produced by different studios, the statement needs further explanation. Is he saying that RKO paid First National to eradicate The Lost World? (Yes!: “B” informs me that ‘everyone who has read deep into King Kong knows that Merian C. Cooper bought the rights to The Lost World while making Kong to avoid plagiarism issues.’ I am obviously remiss. . .)
For sixty years The Lost World was seen only as a Kodascope cut-down. Michael Yakaitus showed me his copy of this fifty-minute version in early 1990s. But several impressive restorations would follow. Recovering major ‘new’ sections of the film from a print from Czechoslovakia, a 90-minute George Eastman House photochemical restoration became a Lumivision DVD in 1998. Then followed David Shepard’s 93-minute ARTE restoration in 2000, which couldn’t access the GEH version but was able to incorporate new clips from eight different international sources. It was finished only on video in the PAL system, and released on disc here in 2001, by Image. It actually may have been longer than 93 minutes, because of the slightly accelerated PAL frame rate.
As Serge Bromberg explains in his liner notes on the new Blu-ray, the new 2016 restoration was undertaken to take advantage of new technology and to incorporate newly discovered film sources. David Abramitis came forward with four original feature reels with original tints, including that ‘Hanschliegel’ tinted fire scene. Everything was scanned directly from the original materials, resulting in better images all around. The Abramitis reels allowed the restorers to better approximate the original tinting patterns through the movie. The new material still does not include the legendary ‘cannibal’ scene, so we don’t know how Zambo’s arm was wounded. I got the impression of seeing more dinosaur shots here than in the earlier Shepard version, but I may be wrong.
We still get occasional jump cuts and missing frames, and the Czech footage is still lightly scratched (and thus easy to spot). People that have only seen the old Kodascope version will be rewarded with far improved continuity and a full narrative for the Malone / Paula White / Sir John Roxton love triangle. It entails a fair share of romantic self-sacrifice, and a good joke for Malone on his return to London.
The restoration was a joint venture by Serge Bromberg’s Lobster Films and David Shepard’s Blackhawk Films. Mr. Shepard passed away just this January, and the restoration and release are dedicated to his memory.
Research help and corrections from Gary Teetzel.
Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray of The Lost World (1925) brings this favorite silent monster epic up to speed technically, and also interpolates quite a bit of new-found material. As previewed earlier this year in a web promo, that specially tinted fire scene with the Allosaurus is really impressive.
Robert Israel composed an earlier Lost World music track, but this full orchestral score is quite exciting, with complex musical responses to the action on screen. I listened to it while working — it’s an unbroken concert.
The handsomely mounted disc is loaded with extras. Nicolas Ciccone’s audio commentary is quite good, in that he gets right into the issues of restoration, but also tells us about the stories behind earlier versions. He compares the book to the movie versions as well, and even discusses several real-life explorers that might have been inspirations for Challenger and Roxton.
Features from older discs are repeated, including the famous reel of deleted scenes and outtakes that include cameras stops and slates showing O’Brien and his animators working amid the model tabletops. The five-minute reel of shots for the aborted film Creation is present, too. The early Edison short R.F.D., 10,000 BC (1917) is here, along with a new restoration of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918). A fat image gallery shows us vintage ad material.
Perhaps anticipating a ‘versions’ confusion, producer Serge Bromberg has written and included an insert pamphlet that delineates the evolution of the various restorations in full detail, explaining the relevant improvements in each forward step. The only unanswered question I have is in running times — are all the versions running at the same frame rate? Also, Bromberg correctly quotes the new restoration at 103 minutes in his text, whereas the packaging and Amazon listing give a length of 110.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lost World (1925) Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent restoration — variable, of course
Supplements: new Robert Israel orchestral music score
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Inter-titles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 2, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson