Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Lost World (1925)

Director: Harry O. Hoyt                                  Writer: Marion Fairfax
Film Score: Cecil Copping                             Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Lewis Stone, Bessie Love, Wallace Beery and Lloyd Hughes

The precursor to decades of stop-motion animation films, The Lost World was a showcase for Willis O’Brien who had toiled for years making short films that proved his techniques with adjustable miniatures could be made realistic in a way that actors in animal suits never could. This film also that showed their inclusion in features films could provide the foundation for stories that couldn’t be told in any other way. It was, in fact, the first feature to include stop-motion animation and eventually led to O’Brien’s iconic work on King Kong. Based on the popular novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, the film has become a classic in its own right. As with so many silent films, legal battles and volatile nitrate stock have led to the disappearance of some of the footage. The best restoration of the film includes sections from eight different copies, some of them foreign releases that have slightly different camera angles or different variations of scenes. The version released by Image Entertainment is the most complete but now out of print and commands high prices. The most economical way to get the second best print is its inclusion in the lamentable 1960 remake by Irwin Allen.

The story begins in the office of the London Record Journal. Wallace Beery is an explorer who claims to have seen real dinosaurs and the newspaper sends Lloyd Hughes to see if he can get an interview with the man they have claimed is a liar. At the Zoological Hall where Beery is speaking that night, Hughes runs into Lewis Stone, a respected hunter and explorer, who gets him in to see Beery. Since no one believes that Beery has actually seen dinosaurs, his attempts to finance another expedition have failed. But when Hughes is introduced to Bessie Love, whose father was abandoned on the plateau where the beasts were seen, he gets the newspaper to finance their return in order to rescue her father rather than look for dinosaurs. Once in the jungles of the Amazon, the expedition makes its way upstream through uncharted rivers back to the plateau where Love’s father was lost. There they see a living Pterodactyl flying with its prey, and an ape-man who is trying to prevent them from reaching the plateau by dropping rocks on the explorers. Eventually they ascend the long slope to the plateau and fell a tree over the chasm to get across. Shortly after, however, a Brontosaurus sends the tree falling down the chasm and traps the explorers just like Love’s father.

Directory Harry Hoyt was primarily a writer, though he did have a brief career directing films in the silent era. His direction of the picture is limited to the actors, while the animation in the jungle sequences was handled by the visual effects department and second unit directors. The frame story is adequately done with standard techniques of the period, but where the film comes alive is when the expedition enters the jungle. The fact that the brilliant Arthur Edeson was behind the camera no doubt adds considerably to the quality of the picture. The acting is pretty good, also standard for the time. Wallace Beery’s technique may be a bit broad it works for his character, as does Bessie Love’s tomboy quality. And both Lewis Stone and Lloyd Hughes do a solid job in support. All of the principals were stars, which must have added to the film’s popularity. Plans for a sound remake a few years later resulted in all rights to the film being purchased from First National, and an agreement to destroy all release prints. This is one reason for the fragmentary nature of the existing copies. Some have even suggested that the remake was just a ruse and that the producers of King Kong were behind the purchase because of the similarity of the story and the effects.

I dislike tremendously being an apologist for older films. So many of them stand on their own that they don’t need to be treated differently than modern films. By that standard, however, the animated sequences with the dinosaurs really suffer. When judged by today’s standards they are crude and obviously miniature. Nevertheless, the effort is impressive. The movements of the dinosaurs as they roam the jungle killing each other lacks the sophistication that would come less than a decade later with King Kong, but it’s a fascinating exercise to watch and delivers its own kind of entertainment that is definitely worthwhile. And the one long shot with dozens of dinosaurs moving at the same time is miraculous. Later in the film, when a Brontosaurus is thrown off the plateau by an Allosaurus and survives by falling into mud, the expedition brings it back to London and its rampage through the streets would be the template for hundreds of similar scenes in monster movies for decades afterward. The quality of The Lost World is going to depend on the print that you acquire. Image is easily the best, but the version on the remake is very good as well. But the special effects are wonderful and a fascinating look at stop-motion techniques in their infancy.

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