(8/10) In a nutshell: Although the plot does completely disappear when the dinosaurs enter, this 1925 classic is still as thrilling an adventure as it was when it was released, and Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary stop motion animations still holds up to scrutiny.
The Lost World. 1925, USA. Directed by Harry O. Hoyt. Stop motion sequences directed by Willis O’Brien. Written by Marion Fairfax. Based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Wallace Beery, Lloyd Hughes, Bessie Love. Produced by: Earl Hudson (uncredited) for First National Pictures. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.1
At some point when reviewing these old silent sci-fi movies it starts getting a little tedious to introduce them as ”the first film to blah blah blah …” But you really can’t help it. During the twenties not many sci-fi films were made, and even fewer before that. Those that were made will almost by default be the first to introduce something. And – if you want a first of something, then few films are as apt as The Lost World. This is the first full length film to feature a lost world, the first full length film with dinosaurs, and stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien’s first involvement in a full length film.
The importance and impact of this film cannot be understated. Without The Lost World we probably wouldn’t have King Kong. We probably wouldn’t have any films by Ray Harryhausen, we probably wouldn’t have all those B-movies of Raquel Welch and the likes in tiny fur bikinis, or Jurassic Park or any Peter Jackson, for that matter. We unfortunately do not have any Peter Jackson in tiny fur bikinis. I would pay a long penny for that.
I doubt that anyone reading this post is unfamiliar with Willis O’Brien – if you are, then hello and welcome to geek world. Willis O’Brien was the man who more or less singlehandedly invented stop-motion puppet animation on film. This was a slow and painstaking way of making creatures and monsters come alive on the screen, and for a very long time the the most realistic way to make non-human creatures come to life on screen with personalities and character. His most famous work, apart from The Lost World, is the creation and animation of King Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949), for which he won an Academy Award for best special effects. Sadly, for many of his later films he didn’t receive the resources or time to make the best of the material, and in some cases studios simply gave him a check to be able to use his name in the credits. Such was the fate of the infamous remake of The Lost World (1960), where he is credited as ”technical consultant”, although there is no animation in the film, rather the studio just used live lizards with crests and horns glued to them to make them look like dinosaurs. They didn’t.
The 1925 film The Lost World is sometimes called a ”dry run” for King Kong, but in fact O’Brien had been creating stop-motion dinosaurs for years, starting with his first animation film The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy in 1915 – a very funny short film about a tribe of cave men and their trials and tribulations during a normal day of fighting ape men and dinosaurs. He made nearly an hour long film about time travel back to the age of the dinosaurs in 1918 with The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (review). Unfortunately he recieved no credit for the film when it was released as an 11 minute short, cut down by his producer, who not only claimed to have directed it, but also created the animations. The producer even filed a patent for the stop-motion animation and tried to sue O’Brien for patent breach when The Lost World was released. In any case, The Lost World was miles ahead of what anyone had seen as far as fantastical creatures on screen in 1925. Author Arthur Conan Doyle screened some of the test reels of the dinosaurs in 1922 for some American magicians, including the sceptic Harry Houdini, without saying anything about its origin. The New York Times reported that ”if they were fake, they were astonishing”.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, indeed, most known for his creation of the world’s most renowned detective, Sherlock Holmes. He also created a second character, much less known today, who is called Professor Challenger, a burly, aggressive mountain of a man, often setting out on adventures of science fiction or paranormal nature. Challenger appeared in three novels, one of which was The Lost World (1912), and two short stories. Whereas Holmes was confined to the stark reality of reason and logic, Challenger often moved about worlds of fantasy, sci-fi and the paranormal.
In fact, despite creating the highly sceptical Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle himself was a stout believer in all sorts of hokum. He was an extremely productive writer of mystery and adventure, who also wrote poems, stage plays, historical novels, non-fiction books and even an operetto. Quite a few of his books also had a strong element of the occult, spiritualism and paranormal. He wrote several books in which he tried to make his case for spiritualism, mediumship and even tried to prove the existence of fairies. This he did after having been famously fooled by a photography of cut-out cardboard fairies by a stream. But that is another story.
The Lost World, to put it bluntly and simply, is about an expedition to an unexplored region in South America, where dinosaurs still roam freely. Lost worlds were not an uncommon theme among fantastic literature at the beginning of the 20th century, in fact it had been around for hundreds of years. Even the old mythologies dealt with strange worlds of gods and mystical creatures, and for example Arabian Nights had their characters travel to strange locations inhabited by genies, mermaids and proto-robots. Many ancient Greek writers wrote of Fantastical Voyages to strange lands – Lucian of Samosata in 200 BC wrote of a strange journey, first to the moon and then into the belly of a gigantic whale, where they find a whole civilisation living on an island. In the 17th century Margaret Cavendish wrote something of a feminist novel about a strange civilisation living on the Arctic, and the 18th century brought lost world stories – some of them using the hollow earth device. Best known are perhand Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Ludvig Holberg’s Niels Klim’s Underground Travels. Edgar Allan Poe touched on the idea of a lost underground world in the early 19th century, and inspired Jules Verne to write his classic Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World in 1912, and no doubt inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs to write his Pellucidar series about a vast hollow Earth world, with his first book At the Earth’s Core in 1914. By 1925 lost worlds were a staple among pulp sci-fi.
The film roughly follows the premise of the book. The irritable and aggressive Professor Challenger (movie star Wallace Beery) is ridiculed by the scientific community for suggesting that he has found an isolated plateau in Venezuela where prehistoric dinosaurs still roam the lands. Edward Malone (minor leading man Lloyd Hughes) is a timid (more so in the film than the book) reporter whose girlfriend doesn’t respect him because he is not ”a real man”. The most dangerous assignment for a journalist at this time is interviewing Professor Challenger, who not only chews scenery, but also reporters. When Challenger seeks volunteers for a second expedition, Malone sums up his courage and reports for duty, along with rival Professor Summerlee (veteran actor and the director’s brother Arthur Hoyt) and big game hunter and friend John Roxton (regular contract player Lewis Stone).
As Verne and Wells before him, Doyle didn’t much care for skirts on his adventures, other than as romantic interests – and on the other hand the movie business couldn’t make a film without a prominent female lead, beautiful and prone to fainting and tripping over, of course. Enter Paula White (Bessie Love), daughter of explorer Maple White, who disappeared on the plateau on Challenger’s last trip. Maple White was indeed a character in the book, but he had first discovered the lost world years ago. In the film, though, the expedition is actually not for exploring, but for rescuing Maple White.
Apart from the female tag-along, the greatest difference between the book and the film is that the film focuses only on the dinosaurs and one ape man on the plateau. The book had based its primary storyline on a war between a tribe of prehistoric indians and a tribe of ape men. The hardy British scientists and journalists naturally beat the ape men down singlehandedly, since back in those days being British and male made you the pinnacle of evolution, nearly demi-gods on Earth (or indeed if you were American, if it was Burroughs writing the books). The film also has a monkey showing the way and a contemporary racist element by having a black servant along on the trip, played by the decidedly white Jules Cowes in blackface. To the film makers credit, he is portrayed very sympathetically.
Up until the emergence of the dinosaurs about one third into the film, the screenplay holds up remarkably well. Seasoned screenwriter Marion Fairfax keeps the action consistent, the dialogue both funny and dynamic and adds some very entertaining sidenotes. The characters are fairly well fleshed out. The only thing that rings a bit false is the fact that for some reason Fairfax has decided that Roxton has a crush on Paula White, and he acts almost like a creepy stalker, despite the fact that he could almost be her grandfather.
In fact, Marion Fairfax had such confidence in her screenplay, that she informed Willis O’Brien not to worry if his dinosaurs didn’t work out. Her screenplay would work fine without them. But alas, about halfway into the movie it seems as if Hoyt was so impressed with O’Brien’s work, that he tore out about a third of the screenplay to make room for more dinosaur action. Once the beautifully made creatures enter the screen, it is lizard on lizard action FTW. And O’Brien’s work is astonishingly good. The models themselves are meticulously crafted and O’Brien not only makes them move and act naturally, but he infuses life and character into them. We see them scratch their heads, react at their surroundings, make little unnessecary movements and actions here and there, which must have taken a very long time to do and serve no apparent reason other than creating personalities for the dinos. They kick loose dirt and rocks as they fight each other, jumping on each other’s backs, water splashes and ripples as they fall into ponds and rivers. Not until some of Ray Harryhausen’s best work in the 1960’s would we see the level of animation that O’Brien turned out on the screen, and the question remains if even Harryhausen ever made such superb work as O’Brien. Many think not. O’Brien also perfected the way he placed live action into his animation sequences, and he did a little movie history in the process. At first he was only able to do it by split-screen, but as he experimented he was soon able to place the actors in the same frame as the stop-motion dinosaurs, sometimes with spectacular effects. But, alas, there is not much of a plot when the dinos get involved, and whatever is left of Fairfax’s story gets incoherent and secondary.
Ultimately the explorers bring a live Brontosaurus to London, but it breaks free and goes rampaging through town in the perhaps most impressive scene of the movie, before swimming out to sea.
Wallace Beery in a hilarious false beard is just as burly and aggressive as we like him, and he is the heart and soul of the movie, overacting beautifully, chewing scenery like a pro. All the other actors turn out strong performances, and it is a shame that we don’t get to see more of Lloyd Hughes, as he does a great job as the jumpy, but smart reporter in the beginning of the film. He just sort of turns into a standard leading man when the giant lizards start emerging. Harry Hoyt’s direction also gets shakier the further the film progresses, and he doesn’t seem to have been very comfortable with the blue screen photography. Here we see Willis O’Brien taking up the reins, and he does so with flare. Bessie Love is sadly underused in her role as the competent but decidedly scream queen-ish staple helpless girl. We see where it is going when she screams in terror over seeing a sloth. This is the first time, but not the last, where Hoyt has her looking over her shoulder with her big, beautiful eyes, looking scared in a vignetted shot. A variation of the shot turns up at least ten times in the film. It is too bad, since so much more could have been done with the talented Love, who proved later on that she had a flare for playing strong female characters. In the scenes where she actually gets to do and portray something in The Lost World she outshines all the other characters.
Love started out as a child actor in 1916, and she had a small role in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece Intolerance the same year. She had a number of starring roles after The Lost World, and made a very successful transfer to talkies, making a name for herself in a string of musicals – the first was The Broadway Melody (1929), for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She also continued to work into her middle and old ages, often getting smaller, but interesting parts. In 1963 she appered in the sci-fi horror movie Children of the Damned as Mrs Robbins, Mark’s grandmother. In 1969 she had a small role as a tourist in the James Bond film On her Majesty’s Secret Service. 1974 saw her in a bit part in the bizarre lesbian vampire erotica Vampyres, in 1977 she had a voice role in the animated Gulliver’s Travels with Richard Harris in the lead. Her last film was the horror film The Hunger, starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon.
Wallace Beery was a rumbling, booming force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. He played a lot of villains in the mid-silent era, most notably Pancho Villa in Patria (1917), a role he would later reprise in one of MGM:s greatest hits Viva Villa! in 1934. His real breakthrough came in 1920 with the lead in The Last of the Mohicans, and he then went on to play as Richard Lionheart in Robin Hood opposite Douglas Fairbanks in 1922, Professor Challenger in The Lost World in 1925 and a number of other major silent roles. His basso voice and gruff drawl made him an even bigger star in the talkies, starting out with a role as an inmate, originally slated for Lon Chaney, in the 1930 film The Big House, scoring him an Oscar nomination. His next film Min and Bill made him Hollywood’s box office draw number one. The next year he played a down and out boxer trying to oull his life together for his son in The Champ. The portrayal earned him an Oscar, which he shared with Fredric March, who had made Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the same year. In 1934 he appeared in yet another iconic role as Long John Silver in The Treasure Island. Beery was one of Hollywoods top 10 box office draws of the whole 1930’s, and at one point he was the best payed actor in the world.
Lloyd Hughes had a fairly successful Hollywood career in both silents and talkies, and had a few not very high profile leads. His only other venture into science fiction was the interesting but ultimately bungled semi-talkie ”adaptation” of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, released in 1929 (review), opposite John ”Mr Hyde” Barrymore’s Oscar-winning brother Lionel Barrymore. The ape-man was played by professional wrestler Bull Montana, who carved out a piece of Hollywood for himself by playing thugs and brutes. He also appeared in the Flash Gordon serial (1936, review) as one of Buster Crabbe’s famously hilarious antagonists, in this case a monkey man. As an uncredited extra we see a young Gilbert Roland (born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso), the Mexican-American macho man, perhaps best known for his six films as The Cisco Kid, for appearing as an adversary for Zorro in TV-productions, and for a string of A-list films by John Ford, John Huston and others in the fifties. Marion Fairfax had a good career as a screenwriter in silent era Hollywood, perhaps best known for The Lost World, Sherlock Holmes (1922) starring John Barrymore, and Hashimura Togo in 1917. The Lost World remains director Harry Hoyt’s best known film by far.
Doyle’s book has been turned into numerous films and tv-adaptations. Most notoriuosly the 1960 infamous Irwin Allen film with live lizards doubling as dinosaurs, and with The Invisible Man (1933, review) star Claude Rains as Challenger. John Rhys-Davies (of Gimli fame) channelled Beery’s Challanger in two low profile films in 1992, and he has since been played by Patrick Bergin, Bob Hoskins, among others. Steven Spielberg has praised The Lost World as an inspiration for Jurassic Park, and even named the sequel The Lost World, even though its is not an adaptation of the book.
In the end The Lost World is a triumph for Willis O’Brien and even today his special effects are exciting and impressive, even though they won’t excite the same sense of wonder as back in the day. But despite the wonderful dinosaur action, the film sort of drags along when the story gets lost in all the commotion, and there is a sense that Hoyt loses track of what he was originally doing. But despite that, this is still a wonderful film, and certainly the best American sci-fi of the twenties (not that there were many contenders).
The Lost World. 1925, USA. Directed by Harry O. Hoyt. Stop motion sequences directed by Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Written by Marion Fairfax. Based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Wallace Beery, Lloyd Hughes, Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Arthur Hoyt, Alma Bennett, Bull Montana, Gilbert Roland. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Editing: George McGuire. Set and art design: Milton Menasco, Marcel Delgado. Make-up (ape man): Cecil Holland. Produced by: Earl Hudson (uncredited).