[box cover]

The Lost World (1925)

Image Entertainment

Starring Wallace Beery, Lloyd Hughes, Lewis Stone,
Arthur Hoyt, Bessie Love
and lots of dinosaurs

Written by Marion Fairfax,
from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

"Dramatic Director": Harry O. Hoyt
"Research and Technical Director": Willis H. O'Brien

Restoration by David Shepard and Serge Bromberg


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"It is sheer adventure, and demonstrates that the camera knows no limitations in recording the most fanciful imagination."

— Laurence Reed, Motion Picture magazine, 1925

"Our desire was to make a smooth and entertaining film, as true as possible to the vanished original, but free of obvious reminders that the project has been patched together from fragments ... this is a stunning edition of a wonderful film."

— Film restorer David Shepard


You know what's one of the best things about the "DVD revolution"? It's the renewed and growing interest in preserving and restoring the silent screen classics in the best medium available. Movies that have been known chiefly to aficionados or the denizens of alt.movies.silent are finding broad new audiences of fans. Expert film preservationists now have a durable medium to work with, and they often treat their films like their own children, nurturing them to health before setting them out into the world. German silent film connoisseur Lokke Heiss, who provides the commentary track for Image Entertainment's Nosferatu, told me that he and his colleagues tend to "become" their movies, rather like the book people who preserve the lost art of literature in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The DVD generation is better suited than any before to experience the fact that some of the finest films ever made were first seen when their grandparents were young movie-goers. To those of us who are among the aforementioned aficionados, all of this is a Good Thing.

So once again I am pleased to announce that the fine folks at Image have released another restored and remastered silent screen marvel — in a dynamite DVD package that gives us the finest edition the film has seen in 70 years. It's The Lost World, the famous 1925 creature feature that is nothing less than:

This edition's bonus goodies, which include animation outtakes and two new musical scores, are cool too.

 

So this isn't the Jurassic Park sequel?

Not by 72 years. Originally distributed by First National two years before sound technology brought the Silent Era to a noisy close, The Lost World is a stripped down version of the 1912 novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The novel introduces Doyle's other most famous character, Professor George Edward Challenger, a man every bit as brilliant and larger-than-life as Holmes, yet as bullish, arrogant, and hot-tempered as Holmes is staid and controlled. In the movie, Challenger is played to blustery perfection by Wallace Beery. Taunted by his peers of the London scientific establishment for his declarations that a "lost world" of dinosaurs exists on a plateau deep within the South American continent, Challenger dares anyone to join him on an expedition to find proof and to rescue a colleague, Maple White, an explorer who never returned from the plateau.

Taking the dare are famous big-game hunter Lord John Roxton (Lewis Stone), doubting scientist Summerly (Arthur Hoyt), and newspaper reporter Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes), who wants not only a good story but the rather flighty heart of the woman he loves. Also along for the cinematic trip is a love interest character not found in the book: Paula White (Bessie Love), the daughter of the lost explorer. Naturally, Paula and Malone fall in love within the prehistoric jungles, much to the consternation of Roxton, who silently offers his heart to the daughter of his missing friend.

Trapped on the plateau, Challenger, Roxton, Malone, and Paula explore the plateau's caves, discover what became of Maple White, and face the possibility of having to spend the rest of their lives in such a hellish world. Challenger sets out to invent weapons and find a way back to civilization. The star attractions, naturally, appear as the explorers encounter more than enough proof (gigantic, ill-tempered proof) validating Challenger's wildest claims.

Doyle's novel, written in the waning days of British imperialism, is a rollicking "boys adventure" chronicling the expedition to the Amazon plateau cut off from evolutionary time and "the ordinary laws of Nature." Doyle incorporated the latest paleontological knowledge of his time into the novel, populating the plateau with brontosaurs, stegosaurs, megalosaurs, pterodactyls, and other beasts — plus a tribe of primitive Indian natives warring a subhuman civilization of hideous "ape-men." In proper Edwardian English fashion, this adventure of privilege and conquest is rife with the naive racism of the period. It's taken as a given (and dramatized accordingly) that if you're male and English, you are the pinnacle of human evolution and no matter where you go on Earth the poor benighted heathens had better know their proper place or superior English rifles will start a-firing. The climax of the novel involves Challenger and his men helping the natives wipe out and enslave the even-more-primitive ape-men nation. After the massacre, Doyle's narrator, Malone, tells us that "we were in truth the masters of the plateau, for the natives looked upon us with a mixture of fear and gratitude," thus affirming the hierarchy that was considered the Natural Order Of Things.

The 1925 screen adaptation doesn't contain the natives or the war with the ape-men, though the subhumans are represented by a single Ape Man endangering the expedition. A reflection of the sort of racism comfortable in 1925 is the porter Zambo, a character who is a Brazilian heroic figure in the book yet here is a comic-relief servant played obviously by a white man in blackface.

The movie follows the novel closely for about the first two-thirds of its story, but once the party is trapped on the plateau, the movie goes its own way and Willis O'Brien's famous dinosaur work becomes the focal point. Great chunks of Doyle's plot are discarded and replaced with dramatic dinosaur scenes. And this is what makes The Lost World so memorable and important to the development of fantasy on screen. Sure, by modern CGI standards O'Brien's stop-motion animation is at times jerky and primitive, but these scenes are still impressive. O'Brien and his team employed techniques of animation and monster-creation that he later perfected in King Kong, and even today the dinosaurs of The Lost World are among the best ever put on screen.

Painstakingly bringing detailed models to life, O'Brien showed 1925 audiences such wonders as an allosaur attacking the expedition, a tyrannosaur battling a stegosaur, a pterodactyl being snatched out of the air and devoured, and a tyrannosaur battling a brontosaur off a cliff. True to the style seen most potently in King Kong, O'Brien's dinosaurs aren't just clumsy static mannequins — they display nuances of individuality that add to their illusion of life-like reality. They stop to scratch their faces. They react realistically to noises. A mother stegosaur endearingly protects her young from the allosaur. The bellows-like chest of a brontosaur breathes convincingly. A herd forages among the trees. The hides have life-like textures. Tails whip like snakes. They snarl and sneer at their opponents, blink their eyes, and bleed when wounded or dying. Later, a (model) brontosaur moves its head to follow (real) people running beneath it on a street. It's great stuff. The table-top stages for the dinosaur scenes are themselves impressive examples of set dressing and model-making, photographed against backdrops of distant valleys and jungle vistas.

The film's most significant departures from the novel occur in two scenes near the end. A volcano erupts on the plateau (the most unconvincing visual effect), igniting a forest fire and sending an enormous herd of dinosaurs stampeding for safety. In the most gorgeous effects scene on the plateau, a vast panorama of dinosaurs is on the move, more than fifty models independently animated in one smooth scene.

Just in the nick of time, our heroes are rescued by "Major Hibbard of the Brazilian Geodetic Survey," who saw the cloud of smoke over the plateau and somehow managed to arrive there and meet the stranded explorers. His men will arrive to assist them out of this unknown and unexplored territory, so in an unintentionally humorous bit of story-telling convenience, an entire chapter of Doyle's book and weeks of story time are replaced with a single title card.

The second and most famous of the movie's alterations occurs back in London. In the book, Challenger's proof exists in the form of a pterodactyl egg that hatches before an auditorium of spectators. The newborn monstrosity flies out a window and Challenger is hailed as a hero while Roxton and Malone contemplate a return to the plateau. In the movie, the stakes are raised much higher as a brontosaur brought back alive breaks loose and runs amuck through the London streets (much like Kong will do through Manhattan). The beast roams the avenues, destroys a building, and ultimately crashes through London Bridge. Challenger looks despondent as his prize swims out to the open sea, lost forever.

How does the movie hold up today? Overall, pretty well, particularly if you're able to view it through the lens of movie-making history. A line from the original review in Life magazine still holds true today: "Mechanically The Lost World is marvelous. Dramatically, it's not so hot." The pace is sometimes slow and the narrative is often choppy (see the first trivia bullet point below). There are moments of deliberate humor, and others that make us giggle now only because of their age. Other than Wallace Beery's colorful Challenger, the characters don't pop off the screen. Malone is a standard-issue handsome hero. Roxton doesn't have much to do but look like a sullen explorer. Summerly smokes a pipe and examines things. Paula White is an ordinary, tacked-on love interest, and though she looks a little like Carrie Fisher she doesn't display the pluck and "modern woman" charisma that have since become so familiar and appealing in adventure flicks.

But still we have those dinosaurs and the bronto rampage at the end, and that's really what this movie is all about. It built the mold for much of what came afterward, and those of us who enjoy fantastical films have much to thank it and Willis O'Brien for. The Library of Congress deemed it "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

 

Where did this version come from?

When The Lost World opened on Broadway at New York City's Astor Theater in February 1925, its running time was between 104 and 108 minutes (depending on the theater's projector speed). After sound technology made silent movies obsolete, the majority of silents were pulled off the market and ultimately lost. The Lost World had the added complication of a 1929 contractual legality that led to it being pulled from circulation, all known positive prints and alternate negatives destroyed. First National arranged for Kodascope Libraries, Inc. to make an abridged 16mm version that ran about 55 minutes. Intended for distribution to schools and churches, this version had all but the most "essential" (i.e., dinosaurs) footage cut out. The Kodascope print, the original trailer, and a few still photos were for decades all the pieces of the original The Lost World known to survive.

Because about 80 percent of movies from the 1920s no longer exist, it's the lucky cases that managed to avoid extinction through the generations. The Lost World was lucky — mostly, and by no means immediately. A 1991 Laserdisc and 1997 DVD from Lumivision attempted to fill in the long-gone gaps in the footage with stills and explanatory title cards. Then in 1992, a nearly full-length print of the original movie was found in the Film Archive of the Czech Republic.

Thanks to that discovery plus footage from private collectors in the U.S. and Europe, including the startling surprise of several minutes of dinosaur outtakes, work began to restore the film in its entirety. Whole scenes of narrative, as well as sets and even characters, could at last be returned to the movie. The George Eastman House in Rochester, New York meticulously (and rather notoriously) labored over a restoration, but they have refused to license their version and have made it viewable only during special public screenings. So this Image release was made independently of Eastman House and followed somewhat different reconstruction guidelines.

The final public reward for these endeavors is this new DVD. All totaled, for the first time about 30 minutes of footage is back where it belongs, the most complete version available. This Lost World clocks in at 93 minutes, significantly longer than the 64-minute version most commonly seen before now. The Lost World is finally more than 90 percent complete, the best reconstruction possible today.

The prime mover behind this new restoration is David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates. Shepard has also fastidiously resurrected such peerless classics as Nosferatu, Dr. Mabuse, The Sheik / Son of the Sheik, and the vintage funny business bulking out the Slapstick Encyclopedia series. With fellow film restorer Serge Bomberg, Shepard made this edition of The Lost World a labor of love.

According to an announcement Shepard posted in alt.movies.silent, no one today knows exactly what the complete original The Lost World looked like. The best information anyone has had comes from the condensed Kodascope version, a production script that differs from the finished film in many respects, and the music cue sheet. Shepard crafted his version from portions of eight prints (three 35mm fine-grains, three 16mm tinted Kodascopes, and two Eastman Teaching Films prints).

Shepard says that according to musicians who have rescored both versions, this Image release contains shots that the Eastman House version does not have. It was prepared in PAL video with digital masters made directly from those original materials. Some hairline scratches, speckling, and other signs of wear still remain, as well as skipping caused by missing frames, but most of the defects have been digitally removed, so the picture is seamless and remarkably clean for a film that had been so abused for three generations. All title cards were remade in a facsimile of the original typography and the entire film is carefully tinted in period style (ochres and tans for London interior scenes, blues and blue-greens for jungle or nighttime scenes, etc.).

 

Attack of the Triviasaurs

 

What about the DVD extras?

Two new musical scores: Like Image's Nosferatu DVD, this new edition of The Lost World comes with two separate scores. The first, by the Alloy Orchestra, is a modern synthesizer score rich in orchestral instrumentation, bass, percussion, and sound effects. Recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1, it's my personal favorite of the two, especially after the movie leaves London, where this score can be a little overwrought. The other score is an excellent though more traditional period-flavored orchestration compiled and conducted by Robert Israel, recorded in 2.0 stereo. (Personally, I'd re-edit the two scores into a single track — the traditional one for the opening scenes, the Alloy Orchestra for everything after we begin the journey into the lost world.)

Commentary track: The commentary here is delivered by Roy Pilot, co-author of the book The Annotated Lost World. Pilot certainly knows his Lost World, novel and film. The bad news is that his delivery is the driest I've ever encountered on a DVD. While he offers plenty of interesting information on the how the film came to be and its differences from the novel, there are long portions where we hear no commentary at all and it's unclear whether his material was recorded with the movie playing. It may well have been recorded separately and then its paragraphs edited onto the most appropriate footage. It's definitely a bonus for the disc, though it's a shame that it's not a more spirited and fully-packed commentary track with at least David Shepard filling the gaps.

Animation outtakes: More than 13 minutes of rare unused dinosaur footage give us one of the disc's real treats. Discovered in 1993 and preserved with support by "Friends of the Challenger Expedition," this footage provides early versions and test shots of dino effects scenes. Shepard even adds icing to this cake by freeze-framing several shots where an animator is caught in a frame, giving us a clear look at the scale of the model work and reminding us of the sort of work that went into the creation of the movie's effects.

Production stills and art gallery: A click-through collection of roughly 20 original promotional posters, advertisements, press photos, and lobby cards.

Selected images from The Annotated Lost World: These shots from Roy Pilot's book include Doyle costumed and bearded as Challenger, and photo illustrations from the novel's original Strand magazine publication and early book editions.

Reproduction of the original program book: Perhaps the most charming extra is the package's interior pull-out, a miniature replica of the 18-page souvenir program from 1925. It's a terrific period piece with photos, artwork, overheated marketing flak, profiles of the stars, and even a page of sheet music from the "stirring ballad ... inspired by the wealth of romance in the impressive photoplay, The Lost World ... Get the Song and Try It On Your Piano." You gotta love it.

 

"The most wonderful things have happened..." — Malone, from the book

I've wanted to see The Lost World ever since I was a boy. I assumed that I'd never be able to. And now here it is in a form better than I could have hoped for — plus bonus material to boot! Thanks to DVD technology, conscientious film historians and preservationists, and companies like Image Entertainment and Kino, there's never been a better time to be one of those fan-geek aficionados or a denizen of alt.movies.silent — or someone discovering these gems for the first time. After all, they're part of our cultural memory and are the direct ancestors of all movies being made today. They are, in fact, not dinosaurs at all.

—Mark Bourne



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