Sunday, February 22, 2009

4. The Lost World (1925)

Director: Harry O. Hoyt

Cast: Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Wallace Beery, Lloyd Hughes, Arthur Hoyt

Caveman Quotient: One love-lorn apeman, and a chimpanzee who must have taken one hell of a wrong turn at Albuquerque.


Way back in 1912 or so, Arthur Conan Doyle got tired of dressing-up as a Viking and finding gelflings in his sock draw, and decided to do something useful with his time. Normally, I suppose he’d just write a Sherlock Holmes novel, but Conan Doyle had also gotten sick of detectives by this point and so instead he set about concocting a rather different sort of hero. Instead of a snooty genius of artistic temperament who kept himself constantly cool and withdrawn from the world, he developed Professor Challenger – a snooty genius of artistic temperament who went around yelling boisterously at people as though he were a pissed-off Brian Blessed. Having developed this queer old bird, he sent him off into the middle of the Amazon, to get lost in a tangle of Jules Verne scientific romance and Boy’s Own adventure. The result is The Lost World, a really cool novel that I actually remember very little about. The fact that I have a bad memory isn’t important, however – what matters is that the story was a success. Enough of a success that First National decided it was worth making a picture of, in any case. Sure, there were some hurdles in the way, chief being how the hell you realistically portray live dinosaurs on film using the technology of the early ‘20s, but they stuck with it and the results are, if not a particularly good film, then that next best thing - a commercially successful one.

The plot of The Lost World has by this point become the stuff of cliché , but then I suppose this is what happens when you go ahead and make the archetypal “lost world” film. Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery, more or less perfectly cast) has just returned from the jungles of Venezuela telling tales of an isolated plateau populated entirely by prehistoric beasts. Unfortunately for the Professor, no-one believes him – the photographs he took as evidence were ruined when his canoe capsized – and the press has been having a field day with him ever since he returned to London. The professor takes this about as well as you’d expect any megalomaniacal firebrand to, and has gotten in to the habit of beating the living tar out of any reporter who comes within an inch of him.

This brings us to Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes), a young and rather clueless reporter for the London Record-Journal. Malone has a rather unique problem, you see, in that his fiancée of some years – a Miss Gladys Hungerford, to be precise – has gotten it in to her head to refuse the hand of any man unless he’s shown his mettle by staring death in the face. Malone being a hapless klutz (albeit a handsome and charming one, in a non-threatening sort of way), the only danger he’s liable to encounter any time soon will be from tripping over his own shoelaces, and he’s left at something of a loss. His break comes, however, when he manages to trip and fall into his editors-in-chief’s office. Revenge brewing in their moustachioed little craniums, the editors-in-chief pack Malone off on a suicide mission to cover a lecture being given Professor Challenger that very evening at the London Zoological Society.

There’s a problem there, though – the lecture is barred to reporters, and if Malone shows his press pass he’ll get kicked out. Luckily, however, he spots someone he recognises in the crowd of jeerers waiting in line at the lecturer hall - Sir John Roxton, famous hunter, wooer of women and pillager of picturesque locales, who is also a friend of Challenger’s (and who consequently grants far more credence to the Professor’s claims than the host of unruly students who have gathered to mock him). Roxton (Lewis Stone) agrees to smuggle Malone in on his own pass, and together they take their seats as Professor Challenger is welcomed onto the stage by his colleague Professor Summerlee, and walks straight into the highly vocal derision of the crowd. Challenger does what one expects of such characters in these circumstances, hurling out bombastic insults at his detractors and getting all the best lines of the movie in the process. He then follows-up with something completely out of left field - it turns out Challenger isn’t here to defend his claims at all. No, instead the professor is, appropriately enough, here to issue a challenge – to demand volunteers for a dangerous expedition back into the primordial lost world.

Out of a room of at least five hundred people, this nets Challenger three volunteers. First is Summerlee, who may be sixty years old but is sure enough that Challenger’s a fraud that he’ll follow him into the rainforests just to prove it. Then there’s Roxton, who has spent his entire time on screen looking deeply bored by his civilised surroundings. And then, of course, there’s Malone - a near-suicidal mission halfway around the world is just about the best thing that could happen to him right now, and while Challenger doesn’t think much of him (“the brain of a child, but the body of an athlete!” is how the doc puts it) he signs him up anyway. Unfortunately for Malone, he wants to know the man’s occupation, and the reporter is either too honest or too stupid to lie.

One frenzied chase sequence later, Malone is climbing out of his hiding place on the back of the cab the Professor caught home. He sneaks into the Doc’s house through an open window in an ill-advised attempt to prove to Challenger that maybe not all reporters are the scum of the Earth, and he’s barely gotten two words out regarding the special consideration he should be afforded do to the stipulations of his betrothal before Challenger has him in a headlock and their rolling out the front door. However things finally get sorted-out when a cop breaks things up, and Malone’s mentioning that Roxton is a friend of his is enough to win Challenger over, begrudging though his approval may be.

All this rigmarole aside, it’s time to get to the meat of the story. It seems that Challenger’s desire to return to the Venezuelan plateau is not entirely scientific in nature. Once back inside he shows Malone a sketchbook, formerly the property of one Maple White, and which contains incredibly detailed drawings of live Brontosaurs, Allosaurs and a wide variety of temporally-dislocated plant life. It also shows a map of the mesa – a great big thing miles long and with shear cliffs all around, accessible only by spanning the gap from a nearby escarpment via log bridge. He then introduces Malone to Miss Paula White (played here by the unfathomably adorable Bessie Love) – Maple White’s daughter. As she tells it, she had accompanied her father on his scientific expedition only to find herself laid-up with dengue at the foot of the prehistoric plateau. Her father scaled the summit, but when the bearers caught sight of the dinosaurs they flipped and high-tailed it back to Rio, taking Paula with them and leaving Maple marooned on his Mesozoic mesa, his log-bridge to freedom in ruins. Now Paula believes he father has survived, and she and Challenger have been trying to get together the money and men for a rescue expedition. Well, they have the men now (even if those men happen to be a senile coleoperist, a milksop and an over-the-hill baboon-botherer) – all they need is the money. And it’s here that Malone immediately proves his usefulness. You see, this being the 1920s newspapers were often apt to finance ill-conceived ventures. And while Malone’s managing editor might not buy the scientific value of this trip, as Malone so rightly points-out this makes for a great human interest story. And so maybe, with a little persuading (and the promise of exclusive publishing rights), they could be made to finance the trip as a rescue mission...

If you’ve grown weary of the longwindedness of my plot-recapping then have no fear – it’s all about to stop. This isn’t necessarily because I have any great concern for the welfare of anyone stupid enough to read this (on the contrary, I’d probably do a shot-by-shot retelling of Lawrence of Arabia if I thought I could find the time). Instead, it is at this point that The Lost World decides to abandon both the fecundity of its premise and the character relationships developed in the first twenty minutes of the film. Instead, The Lost World turns into one of those infuriating old jungle adventure films where the characters spend all their time gazing at things without ever interacting with them. The only difference is that this time, instead of stock footage of water buffalo we get brand new footage of some of Willis O’Brien’s less impressive “fighting dinosaur” animation. Despite the fact that something is always happening, the result is a film that just feels padded and sloppy. How padded and sloppy? Well, I watched both the restored 95 minute and 60 minute edited versions of this, and I honestly can’t think of any reason to recommend the more complete version except perhaps for it’s having much better image quality. Thirty minutes hacked from an already incomplete film, and it still survives with its plot more-or-less intact? That is one poorly-written film.

So, as is to be expected, the explorers become trapped on the mesa, the bridge they’ve improvised from a tree knocked into the abyss by a Brontosaurus. As is also to be expected, Paula and Ed gradually fall in love, with Roxton acting as a rather milque-toast version of the usual rival who complicates things. Then Roxton finds Maple White’s corpse, and Paula and Ed decide they’re trapped forever and they could married and Gladys be damned, and meanwhile I sit there growing very bored and wondering just what exactly is the point of it all. Perhaps less expected, Paula is followed everywhere by an apeman and his friend the chimpanzee, who spend most of their time trying to kill Ed Malone. I will grant that isn’t something you see every day. And Paula’s affinity for monkeys does come in handy when it allows her to coax the pet capuchin of one of the porters left at the foot of the mesa into climbing up the cliff face with a rope ladder tied to it. But that doesn’t really make-up for all the wasted potential of a dinosaur film in which the characters never do anything at all related to the dinosaurs.

The blame for much of this can, as I understand it, be laid at the feet of screenwriter Marion Fairfax. Supposedly, she didn’t have much faith in Willis O’Brien’s special effects actually delivering on their promise, and so she wrote a film which, she claimed, could survive intact the excision of all of its dinosaur-related scenes. Unfortunately Fairfax realised this perfectly – the problem being that, in so doing, she failed to develop a story interesting enough to stand on its own.

What’s more, while the dinosaur scenes must have looked pretty spectacular in 1925 they’ve aged rather poorly across eighty years – hell, they’d aged poorly by 1933, when King Kong came out. What’s especially irritating is that there is every indication that O’Brien could have done better – his models are usually decent (he had gotten Marcel Delgado on by this point, who was capable of building far more sophisticated and detailed miniatures) and the real problem lies more in the cheap jerkiness of the animation, which was something far less evident in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, a full seven years earlier. A large part of this is no doubt due to the demands which tax any film featuring this much animation, but this is at the same time exactly why it would have helped to integrate the dinosaurs more thoroughly into the main action of the story. If they’d posed a threat more often, then there’d be some sort of emotional response to compel the viewer into buying them. Heck, she didn’t even manage a plot that makes sense. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? First off, if Challenger has both the diary of a missing man and the testimony of his daughter, then why on Earth is it so difficult for him to convince people that his lost plateau at least exists, irrespective of what’s atop it? Then, when it comes to funding the rescue mission, why firstly has no-one heard anything of it despite the fact that Challenger claims to have been working at the thing for weeks, and in the second point why didn’t Challenger immediately approach Roxton – who is shown to be both an extremely wealthy man and primarily interested in the affair due to his fondness for Paula – about funding the rescue mission? The most obvious assumption would be that he abstained on Paula’s behalf so that she shouldn’t feel as though she were prostituting herself for the sake of her father, except that once Malone enters the picture there’s no reason at all why Roxton couldn’t step forward and offer the money off his own back – in fact he has a clear incentive to do so, as it would immediately put him one up over poor old Ed. Add to this hideous minor details like Zambo the Comedy-Relief Fake Black Guy, the wasting of what looks to have been quite a good lead actress in a pointless “faint & scream” heroine roll, and that most heinous of all crimes in the inclusion of a “cute animal helper”, and by the end of things Fairfax was beginning to sorely test my patience. Why the hell do these movies always need the black guy? Is it like how British films always need the gay guy or the comedy Frenchman? And am I the only person in the world who doesn’t get excited at the prospect of a clumsily-inserted monkey sidekick? Apparently, yes.

Of course one could argue that all of this is beside the point, and they’d probably be right. The Lost World is a spectacle film aimed squarely at the hind brain, crammed full of neat stuff of all kinds. The problem is just that none of it has anything to do with anything else, and in the end it just feels like the makers were killing time waiting for the spectacular finale.

As to that finale? Well, you probably know what’s coming – after all, in many ways The Lost World is just a dry run for King Kong with its priorities all mixed up. If not then go away and watch the film, since it’s both a nice twist and a nice tweaking of the source material. If you do know what happens (and since I’m assuming the only person reading this is Matt, you probably do) then good, since it means I can discuss it. In short, what happens is this: at some point, during one of the various dinosaur fights, a brontosaurus is knocked from a cliff edge and into a mud pit situated at the floor of the plateau. When the adventures finally escape the plateau (which, true to this film’s goal of establishing every single cliché of the genre to which it lends its name, is currently in the process of being wracked by enormous volcanic eruptions) they discover that the unfortunate dinosaur is still alive. And this is where Sir John Roxton gets it in to his head to make an incredibly stupid suggestion. The decision to ship the live dinosaur back to civilisation is one taken directly from the books, but here the film makers have sensed an opportunity and delivered one of their few genuine improvements over the novel – instead of a pterodactyl hatching from an egg in the lecture hall of the Zoological Society and winging its way out into the London air, we’re instead treated to a full-grown apatosaur breaking loose from the confines of its ship and running havoc around the streets of London. It’s by far the best part of the film, completely redeeming it from the wasted potential of the middle hour, and it would go on to provide a direct template first for Kong’s tour through New York, and then more transparently for the brilliant rampage sequence in 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Factor in the fact that The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms simultaneously created the kaiju films of Japan and the atomic monster explosion of the United States, and you’ve got one of the most influential monster films ever made.

I just, you know, wish that it had been a better movie. The finale really is great, maybe not Kong level or even Gwangi but solidly enjoyable in any case, and with vastly better stop-motion work than that displayed throughout the body of the film. The opening twenty minutes show a lot of promise, too, and you can see how in a different era the mid-section could have been considered to deliver on it. After all the olden days were a strange time, when a film like Grand Hotel could win Best Picture and Wallace Beery was considered an excellent character actor. I’m not one to rag on a film for looking dated, and really I don’t think it is dated – it’s just sloppy, which is a quality that transcends both time and space. It’s an enjoyable way to pass an hour or so in any case, and it isn’t too hard to see what audiences saw in it way back when to make it the big hit that it was. This was, after all, a new kind of motion picture at the time, and it doesn’t seem fair to expect them to have gotten it right on the first try.

As for technical supervisor Willis O’Brien, following this film he was something of a hot property, and would spend his time wandering from studio to studio trying to get projects off the ground. The problem was that, at the time, special effects-driven monster films weren’t really very well understood, and so studios were seldom inclined to put much faith in O’Brien. He spent some time in development for a film about Atlantis, only to have it scrapped, and then followed this up with a project at RKO called Creation. The film was a loose rip-off of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, and involved a modern ship getting wrecked on an island inhabited entirely by dinosaurs. After spending several years and a few hundred thousand dollars on Creation with nothing to show for it but a few minutes of test footage, David O. Selznick stepped in and suggested O’Brien team-up with Merrian C. Cooper to make King Kong. The movie constituted both a significant technical advance in terms of the integration of stop-motion and live actors, and one of the best adventure stories ever film. O’Brien was called back that same year to help crank-out the cheap-jack sequel, and suffered not only at the hands of the studio but on the home front, as his estranged wife decided during filming to murder their children and then turn the gun on herself.

Afterwards, O’Brien went on to try and get further projects off the ground – most famously (or infamously) War Eagles, a projected film with Merrian C. Cooper about a lost colony of Vikings living on a prehistoric island who must do battle with Nazi airships while riding atop giant eagles – but nothing really came-up until the 1950s, when the giant monster fad was kicked-off by the 1952 reissue of his own King Kong. O’Brien may ended his days lending name cache to two-bit productions, but at least he left a string of impressive films in his wake, while also serving as the principle inspiration to countless others – most notably Ray Harryhausen, who he worked with on Mighty Joe Young and who would go on to bring O’Brien’s concept for The Valley of Gwangi to life (and who is also, it should be noted, currently trying to get a War Eagles film off the ground – we can only hope). Perhaps, however, O’Brien’s most important legacy is that he inspired Tom Waits to write a really weird song where it sounds like he is trying to vomit-up the soles of his own feet. And that, truly, is something for the ages.

Before I move on to the next section, there's something else I'd like to deal with. Readers familiar with Conan Doyle's book will immediately twig to one major change in the plot - a complete overhaul of the original story in favour of a standard romance, with the insertion of a female lead who was in no way at all present in the book. In the book, a good deal more is made of Ed's feelings for Gladys, leading up to an "oh ho those wacky, capricious women!" sort of twist which has been preserved for the film, but robbed of much of its purpose by the blooming romance between Malone and Paula. Now, I'm not really going to complain about this, since I realise First National probably didn't have the resources to stage the elaborate caveman battle scenes of the book but still need something to fill the time, and at the same time I'm glad they makers largely managed to undercut the lighthearted misogyny of the novel. However, I am curious as to just how early an example this is of the time-honoured Hollywood tradition of shoe-horning an unasked-for love story into an adaptation of a novel. The pattern it takes - giving the missing White a daughter who wants to come and help find him - seems to have been repeated ad infinitum in later adventure film, so that you can barely swing a cat without hitting half a dozen conveniently extinguished patriarchs, there corpses ready to launch those they left behind on exotic and highly sensual adventures. Granted, I'm not complaining really, since I liked Bessie Love in this film and I enjoy, for example, the 1950 version of King Solomon's Mines, which does basically the same thing (right down to more or less ignoring the original point of the story) but makes it so that Deborah Kerr is looking for her husband and ends-up falling for Stewart Granger instead. I'm just curious as to where exactly it all began.

I’m No Scientist, But...

Well, this film certainly has its share of cracked science. The question is, where on earth do I start? Probably with the central premise, which was clearly nonsense even in 1912. Putting aside whether or not dinosaurs could survive to modern times on the plateau (which seems unlikely even taking into account early ideas about evolutionary biology which posited dinosaurs as only a few thousand years old) there’s the fact that the population of dinosaurs present on the plateau is simply too large to support itself. The amount of food needed for just one of those Apatosauruses (they are called Brontosauruses in the film, but I’m letting them off because they didn’t know any better) would have been simply astronomical, and I doubt the vast herds seen during the course of the film could have survived one something that can be walked across in a few hours. The same goes for the various Allosaurs. It all reminded me of something I read in, appropriately enough, Michael Crichton’s The Lost World about how there’s typically only one pride of lions to every hundred odd square miles.

Then there’s the question of the species present, all of which are clearly North American in origin despite the film’s South American setting, and range from Jurrassic (the Apatosaurs, Allosaurs and Stegosaurus) to Cretaceous (the Pteranodons and Triceratopses) with no real regard to the mechanics of it. As I understand it, the implication is that the plateau was thrust up out of the earth by volcanic activity and thus stranded a particular ecosystem. These plateau are actually real things, called tepui and entirely unique to Venezuela, but apparently they occur through a process of erosion rather than volcanic upheaval. They do boast unique, ancient ecologies, however although neither dinosaurs nor large, preternaturally intelligent spiders have as yet been found amongst any of them. To be fair, the book makes even less sense on this point, since it includes a Megalosaurus, an Ichthyosaur and a Diatryma amidst the species represented on the mesa. Greg Bear, I believe, did come-up with a neat explanation for all of this by adopting an approach similar to that seen in the new King Kong film. In his book Dinosaur Summer, which is a sequel to The Lost World set a generation on, he posits firstly that various different species have wandered on to the plateau at different times and been trapped by accident, and secondly that these species have all evolved over time to become distinct from anything in the fossil record. Actually, no, I think I’m mixing that up, and the giant predatory bird in Bear’s book is actually a dinosaur that has evolved over time, while the “wander on throughout history” approach is the one posited by Conan Doyle (in which case it makes slightly more sense, since South America was, and still is, home to various species of large flightless birds – although I doubt a rhea could tale down a stegosaur). In any case, I’m just confusing myself and we should move on.

As to the ape man? Look, I just don’t know. Sometimes you see something in a film and you think to yourself “What the hell was the thought process that led to this?” I mean, I guess the chimp he pals around with is supposed to be one of his less evolved cousins or something? Maybe just over visiting from Africa? Actually, this film seems to have developed a whole mythos about how apes are somehow connected to women. Jocko the monkey loves Paula, and the ape man loves Paula, and I bet the chimpanzee would love Paula too if it got to know her better. It’s like there’s supposed to be some sort of “coalition of the primitive” connecting women, monkeys, and the black guy who looks after Jocko. Honestly it baffles me endlessly. I mean, what the hell does a hairy monkey man even find all that attractive in a human woman? Granted, I think Bessie Love is gorgeous, but I’ve only very occasionally been taken for caveman. I keep imagine it, several months into the relationship, constantly pestering Paula to stop shaving her legs. (Incidentally, speaking of scientific impossibilities, the party is in the field at least three months, and yet Paula’s hair never changes at all). Actually, if you wanted to be kind, you could argue that rather than being "just some guy", the horny ape man is actually a representation of Sir John Roxton's suppressed id, which would explain why it keeps trying to kill Malone and yet Roxton is constantly forced to do battle with the beast by shooting it with his gun, thus reasserting his cultured civility over his desre to club Paula and drag her into the bushes. You could argue that, but you'd have to pause and wonder just how much credit you want to give to a film where a caveman in Venezuela spends his time hanging-out with a chimp.

Other things to pick-at include inaccuracies in the physiology of the dinosaurs, but since it’s very late at night I’m willing to cut O’Brien and co some slack and just ascribe it to budgetary constraints and the general scientific conceptions of the day. In the end, the film is pretty goofy, but it’s nothing on crap like One Million B.C. and The Land that Time Forgot (not to suggest that either of those films are actually crap, mind). One thing I won’t let slide, however, is the inevitable appearance of a Pteranodon in the lost world. It’s not that I object, of course, to such a creature making an appearance, but I am a little confused by the characters’ insistence that it is in fact a Pterodactyl. In addition to this, what the hell am I suppose to make of the fact that an enormous, airborne creature with no obvious potential predators has had untold aeons to fly loose from its Mesozoic prison and conquer the world. Every damned lost world film has a Pteranodon in it, and every damned time I find myself wondering the same blasted thing.

Over All:

2 ½ McClures out of 5.

Thomas, What is The Very Best Moment In The Film?

When an Allosaurus jumps up and bites a Pteranodon out of the air.


  1. I watched a pieces of this movie again a few days ago because I wanted to look at the stop-motion effects. I totally agree with you about the disappointing diorama style display. I didn't know that the script was intentionally written to limit the interaction with the dinosaurs, but Willis O'Brien -- at least in this movie -- also seems to just stick his camera in one place, let the dinosaurs fight for a few minutes, and then that's it. O'Brien's dinosaurs are also unbelievably slow and lumbering, which doesn't help any.

    There's also another template-setting element of the brontosaurus's trip to London that you didn't specifically mention -- namely, the way it meets its apparent demise (even though it's not clear exactly what happens) only when it encounters a prominent, recognizable landmark.

  2. I think the bridge breaks under the concentrated weight of the brontosaur. After that, it swims away to become a sea-serpent or something.

    I feel kind of bad for not mentioning that, given the amount of digital ink spilled in this review.

    As to the script thing, I read it an analysis of the various re-issues, so I'm not sure how accurate it is, but it makes sense since with with a couple of quick edits the entire film could be made to centre on the ape-man.

  3. Yes, but if the brontosaurus just swims away, then what are we supposed to conclude? That he swims all the way back to South America? Or that he climbs out at the next bridge and starts rampaging all over again? I mean that is just no way to end a movie!

  4. I like to imagine the brontosaurus is a pregnant female. It swam down to Africa and laid all the groundwork for Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.

  5. Better that than laying the groundwork for Irwin Allen's 1960 remake of THE LOST WORLD, from what I hear.