The Lost World – 1925

This is a silent movie based on a serialized novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame.  It is famous for being one of the earliest feature length films to use stop-motion animation to bring fantastic creatures (dinosaurs) to life.

As a teenager, I read the original novel and loved it.  The character of Professor Challenger was particularly memorable and I’ve always had a strong image of him in my head.  Wallace Beery played Professor Challenger to a T.  From the bristling beard to the brusque mannerisms, he nailed it.  The movie version added a romantic female lead with the character of Paula White, the daughter of lost explorer Maple White, played by Bessie Love.  Clearly, this need to always include a romantic interest dates back to the very beginnings of the Hollywood film industry.  I had no problem accepting this character into the story as the writers did a nice job of integrating her into the overall plot.  She was added to the story much more seamlessly than some recent attempts I could name (ahem….).

As the movie opened my first impression was that the pacing was very slow compared to “A Trip to the Moon“.   I found myself missing the action packed frames in which every person on screen was involved in doing something different.  In this film, there are lots of angst filled stares followed by an intertitle with some dialogue or explanatory background to read.  This is what I generally associate with silent movies and part of why they often seem slow and laborious.  Twenty three years had elapsed between “A Trip to the Moon” and “The Lost World”.  That’s quite a lot in terms of human culture.  By 1925, cars, telephones, electric lights, and radio had all gone from experimental toys of the rich to commonplace tools of the masses.  Movies, too, had clearly gone from a twelve-minute gee-whiz novelty to something more like attending a theatrical play.  The format, length, and expectations had all become standardized during the preceding two decades.

Several small details in the film impressed me in their attempts at authenticity.  First, Professor Challenger’s study bears a stylistic resemblance to Charles Darwin’s study which you can visit at Down House in Kent, England.  On closer inspection, one of the main differences – the position of the writing desk in the room – makes perfect sense given Darwin’s well-known modesty and good humor compared to Challenger’s outright megalomania: Darwin’s writing desk is against a wall while challenger’s is front and center.  Both men’s studies show the productive clutter that is indicative of a fertile mind.

Darwin_Study

Charles Darwin’s study at the time of his death in 1882.

Lost-world1ab

The fictitious study of Professor George Edward Challenger Ca. 1912

The second detail was the use of actual live South American animals.  Tapirs, crocodiles, jaguars, and sloths were all featured in different scenes depicting  the Amazon interior as the expedition made their way to the Lost World Plateau.  All too often film-makers seem to use whatever is available in the way of wild animals to lend an exotic feel to a film.  This changed cringingly once the adventurers reached the plateau.  Ape-men were prominent characters in the novel but only one (played by a former professional wrestler named Bull Montana) was present in the film.  Inexplicably, he was always accompanied by a chimpanzee – an African ape.  Was the chimp supposed to be a baby ape-man?  A henchman? A shamanic familiar?  Or, was the chimp simply there to inform us that the odd hairy badly costumed dude next to him was supposed to be an ape?

Anyway, once the explorers reach the plateau, they are in dinosaur city!  To my 21st century eyes, the animated dinosaurs  look like a mediocre junior high project in their execution.  How did they look to audiences in 1925?  A contemporary review in the New York Times described the double exposure effects superimposing the live actors with the stop motion dinosaurs as “remarkable” and “…as awesome as anything that has ever been shown in shadow form.”  It is interesting that the 1925 reviewer (Mordaunt Hall) found the special effects to be very convincing but the romantic interludes of the film to be “grotesque”.  I wonder what he would have said about “Romancing the Stone“?  Everything we see is calibrated by what we’ve seen before.

To my eye, the effects are at their best when there is a number of different dinosaurs moving around independently.  The effects look cheesy when the only thing moving in the frame is a single animated dinosaur.  This focuses my attention on the animation and any imperfections in shape or motion really stand out.  Fortunately, the most dramatic scenes involved a volcano eruption and a horde of stampeding dinosaurs.  this is when everything looked best.

One of the things I have noticed in silent films is the skill the film-makers have in telling small side-stories using only visual information.  In this movie, there are a few cut scenes in which a triceratops mother defends her babies from a carnivorous allosaur.  There is no explanatory dialogue or intertitles, just enough motion and visual cues that we figure out what is going on and root for the momma monster in her desperate fight against the bad monster.

The thing that really makes this film a classic is when Challenger and company bring a live dinosaur back to London.  This makes this movie the archetype for, what?, hundreds? thousands? of movies to come.  Every time you’ve ever seen a monster run amok and destroy a city, it owes a piece of its soul to “The Lost World”.  However, by modern mayhem standards, this dinosaur is pretty tame.  He kicks over a statue, clips the corner of a building, and accidentally (It’s not his fault that it couldn’t hold his weight) busts the bottom out of tower bridge.  After falling into the Thames, as he swims out to sea and a fate we cannot know, our dino-buddy gets another notable movie first – the door is left open for a possible sequel!

As with “A Trip to the Moon”, this film is in the public domain so it is available for viewing a number of ways.  There are several DVD versions available for sale and there are several different versions available on YouTube and at The Internet Archive.  Look for a copy that runs at least 90 minutes.  There are several abridged versions around that are missing some key scenes.  The version I watched had a simple piano accompaniment that was not at all effective.  The piano music had no relation whatsoever to anything happening on the screen.  There may be others that are better.

I enjoyed this movie but I was already a fan of the book and I was curious about the historical significance of the film.  If these aspects appeal to you (Of course they do!  Why else would you be reading this?)  Then it’s worth 90 minutes of your time to have a look.  If you like your action fast, continuous, and delivered with CGI realism, then you might find this one slow and laughable.

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3 Responses to “The Lost World – 1925”

  1. These old movies are almost painful to watch now, compared the films of today. I always loved the dinosaur movies, though. As a kid, when I wasn’t up a tree pretending to be Captain Kirk, I so wanted to live in a dinosaur world – and not get eaten, of course. 🙂

    • Hi A.D. Thanks for reading! I know what you mean about a dinosaur world. I never understood how the protagonist in “The Time Machine” could resist the temptation to go back to that time. Maybe to avoid the plot difficulties of backwards time travel?

But enough about me, what do YOU think?

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