The Lost World

Rating: 8 out of 10.

(8/10) The original dinosaur blockbuster, the film that spawned the likes of King Kong, Godzilla and Jurassic Park was released in 1925 by First National Pictures. With stop-motion animation by legendary Willis O’Brien and cinematography by multiple Oscar nominee Arthur Edeson, the film is a beauty to behold, even if the plot and pacing suffers from director Harry Hoyt’s determination to get as much dino action into the picture as possible. 

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, Lewis Stone, Arthur Hoyt. Produced by Earl Hudson. IMDb score: 7.1. Tomatometer: 100%. Metacritic: N/A. 


In my last post about the horror comedy The Monster (1925, review) I discussed at some length the problems with labelling certain films as “the first of its kind” or stating that one filmmaker or the other “invented” themes or tropes. I’ve also written about the fallacy of equating “pioneering” with “influential”. You often read articles stating that “without X we would never have had Y or Z”. But just as with science, literature or art, films are never born in a vacuum, and more often than not, circumstances guide the hands of many artists in the same direction at the same time. So if X(a) had not been made, then probably X(b) would have been made instead a little further down the road. New technical innovations, current affairs, literature, theatre, scientific breakthroughs, trends in art and philosophy and public debate all shape the movies.

Dinosaurs rampage, courtesy of animator Willis O’Brien.

This is not to say that individual artists, writers, directors, etc. can’t have a profound impact on cinema thanks to the way that they put together a movie. It’s just something I like to keep in mind as I gush over films like The Lost World, the first (released) feature film revolving around a lost world with dinosaurs. Also the first (released) full-length feature film with stop-motion animation by the legendary Willis O’Brien, the creator of King Kong (1933, review).

Now, stop-motion animation has been used in film since the very beginning of the 20th century to move and animate objects, props and puppets. It’s closely related to the stop trick photography utilised to such marvellous effect by filmmakers such as Georges Méliès or Walter R. Booth. Booth was also one of the British pioneers of the stop-motion technique around 1905, see for example his work in The ‘?’ Motorist (1906, review). An even more important pioneer was another Brit, J. Stuart Blackton, who emigrated to the US as a child with his family, and became one of the central artists in developing stop-motion as a film technique. His 1898 film The Humpty Dumpty Circus is generally regarded as the first movie with stop-motion animation. In 1907 Blackton made the highly influential The Haunted Hotel, and the same period saw the rise of one of the most original filmmakers of the era, Spanish Segundo de Chomon, who showed off his amazing skills in both stop-motion animation and pixilation, which is basically stop-motion with human actors, in films such as The Electric Hotel (1908, review). Chomon was also one of the early adaptors of claymation, which became prominent in the 1910s.

Automatic shoe polishing from Segundo de Chomon’s film The Electric Hotel.

Polish-Russian filmmaker Ladislas Starevich was one of the great pioneers of stop motion puppet films. Between 1910 and WWI he specialised in films featuring anthropomorphic insects. Not even the combination of stop-motion and live-action was new in 1925. All of the afore-mentioned filmmakers did it to some extent. But despite all this, The Lost World was something utterly unique when it was released. Not because it invented the wheel, but because it built the loudest, coolest, fastest and most expensive car atop the wheels.

I will not say that without The Lost World we wouldn’t have Jurassic Park (1996). But I will say that The Lost World was the starting point and served as an inspiration for a decade of filmmaking that has given us King Kong, Ray Harryhausen, all those B-movies of Raquel Welch and the likes in tiny fur bikinis, Jurassic Park and Peter Jackson. We unfortunately do not yet have any Peter Jackson in tiny fur bikinis. But the impact of The Lost World resonates to this day in a way that is reserved for a few elite productions, in the sense that we can see many of the tropes and storylines that it pioneered reproduced a hundred years later. Not only that, but the visuals of this film have become so iconic that they are, in a way, part of our collective culture even for people who haven’t seen the film.

Willis O’Brien.

I doubt that anyone reading this post is unfamiliar with Willis O’Brien – if you are, then hello and welcome to geek world. O’Brien was one of the pioneers of stop-motion animation with puppets, and still regarded by some as the very best in his craft. Stop-motion was a slow and painstaking technique of creating creatures and monsters, 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. Willis’ most famous work 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 received no credit for the film when it was released as an 11 minute short after his colleague, producer and co-animator Herbert M. Dawley cut down the film and removed his credits after a row between the two (O’Brien had previously released a press junket where he in turn had removed Dawley’s name). Dawley filed a patent for the stop-motion animation and tried to sue O’Brien for patent breach when The Lost World was released. Dawley has long been villified for this, but more recent examination of the circumstances seem to indicate that it O’Brien did indeed systematically downplay Dawley’s role in the development of his craft. It seems that it had in fact been Dawley that created the animated puppets used in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and that O’Brien showed them to puppet-maker Marcel Delgado, who more or less copied the principle of them for The Lost World. It was when Dawley saw early test footage of Delgado’s and O’Brien’s work for The Lost World, with puppets almost identical to the ones that he had patented, that he filed for a lawsuit.

Herbert Dawley with a dinosaur.

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 skeptic 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, called Professor Challenger, a burly, ill-tempered mountain of a man, prone to set off on fantastical adventures. 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.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

In fact, despite creating the highly skeptical 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 operetta. 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.

Lloyd Hughes as Ed Malone, Wallace Beery as Prof. Challenger and Bessie Love as Paula White.

The Lost World tells the story of an expedition to an unexplored region in South America, where dinosaurs still roam freely, and where a war rages between a lost tribe of men and a tribe of ape-men. 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 around 150-200 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 parallel world that could be entered through the Arctic, and the 18th century brought forth more lost world stories – some of them using the hollow earth device. Best known are perhaps 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 partly inspired Jules Verne to write his classic Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864.

The first modern author to describe a lost world with a prehistoric flora and fauna was probably Simon Tyssot de Patot, with Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé (1714), which he followed up with La Vie, les Aventures et le Voyage de Groenland du Révérend Père Cordelier Pierre de Mésange (1720). Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth also described a giant prehistoric flora, as well as a number of dinosaurs and (maybe) a giant humanoid. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) is more renowned for its depiction of an advanced, lost race of humans living underground, harnessing the mental power of Vril (electricity), and inspiring the myth of ancient Egyptians. But the book also contains giant dinosaur-like lizards and a strange, otherworldly flora.

Drawing for Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Edouard Riou from 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 notion that giant reptiles had once roamed the Earth first reared its head in 1808, when palaeontology had asserted itself as a branch of the natural sciences, and a French palaeontologist discovered the bones of a giant marine reptile in Maastricht. The idea really caught fire in the mid-19th century when Darwin and other scientists began spreading theories about evolution. One of the greatest hurdles for the notion was that it upset some religious sensibilities. The idea of extinct races did not mesh with the biblical story of creation. Furthermore, if indeed dinosaurs had existed, and man had been created just a couple of days after the creation of the world, then someone, somewhere in the Bible would probably have mentioned that OH MY GOD THESE GIANT LIZARDS ARE TRYING TO EAT US!

Watercolor describing life in ancient Dorset, painted in 1830 by Henry de la Beche, based on fossils found by Mary Anning.

However, disregarding the creationist nuts, the idea of the Earth being millions of years old and there having been numerous extinct species before humans, was widely accepted in the late 19th century, and slowly these giant reptiles started to find their way into literature, as stated above. The early 20th century also brought a new boom in exploration, as cars, combustion engine boats and, most importantly, airplanes made travel to remote and previously almost inaccessible regions a lot quicker and simpler. Expeditions were now long longer made simply for the sake of curiosity, but as part of a scientific drive to document and comprehend the world and its history and prehistory. Palaeontologists, geologists and biologists hoped to find new species that would shed light on the evolution of mankind. There was a booming interest in the press and among the public in matters of evolution and prehistory. The Java Man, the first “intermediate” between the ape and humans, was found in 1908, further spurring on imaginations of a prehistoric ape-man. And hence, books like The Lost World and At the Earth’s Core were almost inevitable in the 1910s. And in 1925 the art of film had developed to a point where these stories could be told on screen.

Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger.

The film The Lost World 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).

Like Verne and Wells before him, Doyle didn’t much care for skirts on his adventures, 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.

Bessie Love as Paula 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 single-handedly, 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. The book also has the character of Zambo in it, but the decidedly anti-racist Doyle paints him in a good light, To the filmmakers’ credit, Zambo is portrayed very sympathetically, and his white colleague is just as bumbling as he is. But still, the image of an easily spooked and dim-witted Afro-American played by a white man in blackface still hits a little too close to minstrel shows for comfort.

Jules Cowles in blackface as Zambo.

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 and puppet creator Marcel Delgado’s work is astonishingly good.

An example of O’Brien’s animation in the film.

The models themselves are meticulously crafted by Delgado, and their look was inspired by the drawings by Charles R. Knight, one of the very first popularisers of dinosaurs. 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 unnecessary 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 becomes incoherent and secondary. This incoherence has sometimes been attributed to the fact that some of the film has been lost until recently, but even a recent Flicker Alley restoration that should be very close to the original demonstrates that film film’s dramatic arc gets lost in the dino-on-dino action.

An Allosaurus attacking Bessie Love.

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.

The first part of the film contains some really good screenwriting and brilliant acting. It is funny, witty and has a female character that is clearly not written by a man in the 1920s, and might one point out, one that is absent from the book. For the first part of the film, Paula White is one of the better female characters of mainstream cinema of the twenties. I like the juxtaposition between the two women – the one who needs Eddie to prove his valour in an adventure before she marries him, and the other who actually goes on an adventure with Eddie herself. I’m not convinced of the “love quadrant” where the old Roxton is trying to woo Paula even though he clearly sees that she is reluctant, but somehow seems to be “promised” to him. Throughout the film he feels like too much of a nice guy to marry a girl (half his age) against her own will.

Arthur Hoyt as professor Summerlee.

That’s another thing I like about the script: all characters involved exceed there stereotypes, and all of them are rather likeable characters. Even the foppy Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt, the director’s brother) who tags along just out of spite is rather sympathetic. Everyone keeps raving about the dinosaurs, but he’s desperately trying to to study the abundance of unknown insects that noboby else on the trip gives a rat’s ass about. His restrained frustration as Ed swats an hitherto unknown fly in the back of his neck is priceless. In a modern film Summerlee would be reduced to an annoying, loud comic relief, and Roxton would become a stereotypical, pompous and evil big game hunter. But The Lost World allows them their humanity. In fact, what I find so refreshing in this film is that people actually behave like people. When threatened by giant dinosaurs nobody goes off to hunt down a specimen, leaving their colleagues to die. Neither do two rivals start a fist-fight about the only woman on the expedition. These are things that simply don’t happen in real life. People tend to be fairly civilised, and in dangerous situations more often that not show their capacity for bravery and altruism. When stuck in a rut, we tend to try and work together, because that’s how we are designed – we’re flock animals.

It’s a shame that the dramatic tension doesn’t carry over to the second act of the film. Suddenly the characters we have spent quite a while investing in become wholly secondary to the special effects display. Nearly an hour is spent gawking at the dinosaurs battling it out, with short interludes of the actors running away from, firing at or watching the giant reptiles, or indeed trying to escape a forest fire. While the stop-motion and travelling matte shots are indeed well made and exciting to look at even today, the film does drag a great deal in the middle as the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s highly probable that a big chunk of Fairfax’s script was thrown out in favour of new material written by O’Brien, hence the disappearance of much of the character stories for a fair period of time. O’Brien wrote several story treatments over his career, and often ran something of his own little film studio inside the film studio. His stories, however, were seldom as good as his effects work. One need only look the The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

Bessie Love looking over her shoulder in terror. Again.

The ending is again a deviation from the book: in Doyle’s novel the team manage to bring a pterodactyl to London, while the Challenger expedition of the film somehow drags a fully grown brontosaurus to Britain. In the book, the flying dino breaks loose and simply flies back to the Lost World, and the giant brontosaurus stomping on London naturally makes for a more dramatic ending to the film. Now, at this point some audience members may notice something of a resemblance to the ending of King Kong, and indeed that film shamelessly ripped off The Lost World’s finale, with a crucial deviation, which I won’t divulge here. In fact much of the plot of King Kong is a regurgitation of The Lost World, to the extent that you could almost call it a rip-off.

O’Brien and Delgado used a whole number of tricks to bring the dinosaurs to life and put the actors right into the action. Part of the film is just simply stop-motion animation, but quite often actors are seen on screen alongside the animated beasts. In some parts the split-screen effect is obvious: dinosaurs roam the upper half of the screen, while tine people hide behind conveniently straight-edged hills in the lower half of the screen. But there are also a number of black screen replacement shots, which are of varying quality, with some of them strikingly well shot, others so-so. It also seems as if some of the shots of the dinosaurs were made using puppets filmed with normal-speed photography. For example, there are a few scenes of a brontosaurus stuck in a mudpit, which looks like it might be operated with bellows.

Examples of how the actors were combined in scenes with dinosaurs.

I’m not sure how the filmmakers placed the main actors in the midst of a blazing forest fire: rearscreen projection still wasn’t technically possible in 1925, but regardless, the effect must have blown audiences away at the time. The very best shots come at the end of the film, where a brontosaur roams the streets of London, wreaking havoc on well-known landmarks and trampling people underfoot, again proof of how much O’Brien and his small team learned while making the film.

Arthur Edeson.

Some of the credit, if not most, for the rendering of the live-action special effects should go to cinematographer Arthur Edeson, one of the greats of Hollywood. Born in New York, Edeson started out as a still photographer, but transitioned into film in 1911 and soon relocated to Hollywood, where he filmed some of the greatest action adventures spectacles of the twenties, including the Douglas Fairbanks vehicles The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924), in which he showed his prowess with special effects, such as were needed for The Lost World. Beside his visual effects, his mastery of lighting and his impeccable eye, Edeson also pioneered the sound film, as he his experiments with camouflaged microphones in In Old Arizona (1929) helped convince Hollywood executives that talkies could be filmed outdoors. In the early thirties he collaborated with director James Whale in creating not only three of the most influential horror films of all time, but also some of the most innovative movies of their time, regarding special effects and movie makeup, Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933, review). During the silent era Edeson also filmed another two classic old dark house movies, The Bat

Harry O. Hoyt.

(1926) and The Gorilla (1927).

This is all enough for anyone to be called a Hollywood Legend, but we haven’t even mentioned Edeson’s biggest films yet. In addition to the afore-mentioned classics, he also filmed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). Director Harry O. Hoyt, on the other hand, is in hindsight somewhat of a surprising choice, as there really isn’t anything in either his past or future films that would indicate he would have some special knack for films like The Lost World.

But Hoyt was not only backed up by Harryhausen, Delgado and Edeson, but a small army of hugely talented artists, many of whom I promise to get back to in later posts. There was legendary set designer, makeup artist, stuntman and ape-man Charles Gemora who created the ape-man suit for the movie, one of his earlier suits, and admittedly not his best. Gemora was involved in one way or the other in the making of such (cult) classics as Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), Ingagi (1930), The Gorilla (1930), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), Dr. Cyclops (1940, review), The Monster and the Girl (1941), Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), The War of the Worlds (1953, review), The Naked Jungle (1954), The Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), The Colossus of New York (1958), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), and Hands of a Stranger (1962). And apart from this he worked as a legitimate set designer and “traditional” makeup artist on A-listers like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Double Indemnity (1944), A Place in the Sun (1951), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Now just look at that credit sheet.

Cecil Holland making up Bull Montana.

There was also British actor-turned-makeup-artist Cecil Holland, who did the makeup for the ape-man, played by staple western heavy Bull Montana (real name Luigi Montagna). Holland was actually the first actor to whom the moniker “the man of a thousand faces” was affixed to, thanks to his ability to create different makeups for each of his characters. It was later inherited by his friend and co-worker Lon Chaney. Holland gradually gave up acting to become a makeup artist full-time, and was the first head of MGM’s makeup department. And then there was Perc Westmore, another makeup artist, brother to the legendary Bud Westmore and part of the famed Westmore family. During his career he worked on over 350 films, including science fiction movies like Doctor X (1932, review), The Walking Dead (1936, review), The Return of Doctor X (1939, review), The Body Disappears (1941, review) and The Hidden Hand (1942).

And the list goes on. There’s miniature maker extraordinaire Cleo E. Baker (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein [1935, review], The Invisible Ray [1936, review], The Invisible Man Returns [1940, review], This Island Earth [1955, review], The Incredible Shrinking Man [1957], The Deadly Mantis [1957]). And there’s Ralph Hammeras, art director, miniature maker, special effects creator, cinematographer and most importantly special effects photographer. Like Gemora, Hammeras’ career ranges from the best to worst of cinema history. He was three times Oscar nominated, for his effects for The Sky Hawk (1929) and Deep Waters (1948), and for his set design for the sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine (1930, review). He worked on A-listers like Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927), Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review), as well as no-budget stinkers like The Giant Claw (1957) and The Giant Gila Monster (1959).

Wallace Beery as Prof. Challenger, Margaret McWade in a wonderful role as Mrs. Challenger and Lloyd Hughes as Ed Malone.

And then, of course, there are the actors. 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. Here we see Willis O’Brien picking up the slack, and he does so with flair.

Bessie Love as Paula White.

Bessie Love is sadly underused in her role as the competent but decidedly scream-queen-ish staple helpless girl. We know where it is going long before any ape-men or dinosaurs have emerged, 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, basically every time something even potentially remotely dangerous happens. It is too bad, since so much more could have been done with the talented Love, who proved later on that she had a flair 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 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 sans beard in The Champ (1931).

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 Hollywood’s 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 as Ed Malone.

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, opposite John ”Mr Hyde” Barrymore’s Oscar-winning brother Lionel Barrymore. The ape-man in The Lost World is 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.

More dino action!

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).

Among other projects, O’Brien began work on a film based on his own script, called Creation, which included dinosaurs and humans, but First National Pictures’ head of production Merian C. Cooper pulled the plug on the film in 1931. Creation had by then stacked up huge development costs and only had 20 minutes of special effects footage to show for it. Furthermore, Cooper thought O’Brien’s script was boring. However, he was really impressed with the effects work, and together the two set about developing Cooper’s pet project King Kong, which must more or less be seen as either a sequel or a rip-off of The Lost World.

O’Brien’s Brontosaurus stomping its way through London.

No filmmaker dared try to recreate O’Brien’s work with dinosaurs for a decade and a half, which is a testament to the uniqueness of his craft. O’Brien did develop a number of dinosaur-themed films, with titles such as Gwangi, Valley of the Mist and War Eagles, but none of them were made, at least not at the time and not by O’Brien. The first dino-themed film after O’Brien’s Son of Kong (1933) popped up in 1940, called One Million B.C., a prehistoric adventure film with much-advertised dinos. While the film was praised for its special effects, the dinosaurs were realised with rubber suits and live lizards and reptiles. The dino footage was recycled for the 1950 film Two Lost Worlds. An actual attempt at stop-motion dinosaurs was made with the 1951 no-budget movie Lost Continent (review), which features animation that is clunky, but not at all too bad considering the circumstances.

No-one made anything close to the quality of The Lost World or King Kong until O’Brien’s apprentice Ray Harryhausen was assigned by Warner Bros. and director Eugène Lourié to create the stop-motion effects of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), which in turn inspired Ishiro Honda at Japanese studio Toho to make his magnum opus, Gojira (review) , in 1954, opening the floodgates again for giant, deadly reptiles. And it’s impossible to watch the monsters of these two films wreak havoc on New York and Tokyo without drawing parallels to O’Brien’s Brontosaurus rampaging through the streets of London. And in both cases, the stories are heavily influenced by both The Lost World and King Kong. One of the very best lost world films ever made was a Czechoslovakian 1955 children’s educational adventure film called A Journey to the Beginning of Time (review), directed by master animator Karel Zeman, with astounding special effects combining stop-motion puppetry, mechanical rod puppets, hand puppets, cut-out animation and traditional animation. The film’s plot is wholly unique and apart from a dino-on-dino fight scene bears no resemblance to The Lost World.

Bessie Love in a newspaper ad selling Twistum, the baby dinosaur.

In 1956 O’Brien’s ideas for Gwangi and Valley of the Mist were combined for the film The Beast of Hollow Mountain (review), a low-budget feature for which O’Brien ultimately didn’t end up doing the effects, although he did storyboard it. O’Brien probably felt that the movie couldn’t be done with the budget and time-frame allotted. The film contained a T. Rex-like dinosaur, which was ultimately realised with a combination of stop-motion puppet work, claymation and Godzilla-like “suitmation”. O’Brien finally got to return to his beloved dinosaurs in 1959 with Eugène Lourié on the low-budget film Behemoth the Sea Monster, another film in which a giant reptile wreaks havoc on a large city. The was a most definite throwback to The Lost World, as it was once again a Brontosaurus-like dinosaur stomping London, although the plot was almost a xerox copy of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

The Lost World was remade in 1960 by Irwin Allen, and O’Brien was hired to do the effects, but because of budgetary reasons Allen ended up using live lizards instead of stop-motion work, to equally hilarious and cringe-worthy effect. And Lourié stuck to his giant reptile guns of ever-declining quality, culminating in the British film Gorgo in 1961, in which – surprise surprise – a giant reptile wreaks havoc on London. Here the monster was realised in a shlocky suitmation technique. Ray Harryhausen kept the lost world genre alive with Mysterious Island (1961), a very very loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, with added prehistoric monsters, and in 1966 he did the effects for the hugely influential One Million Years B.C., which wasn’t a lost world movie per se, but rather a rekindling of the long line of films featuring prehistoric babes in tiny fur bikinis, personified here in the afore-mentioned Raquel Welch. What made this film stand out in comparison to its numerous low-budget imitations were the prehistoric monsters created by Harryhausen. 

The Lost World was the first film to be shown on an airplane.

By now dinosaurs and prehistoric worlds was a cliched staple of low-budget exploitation films, some with better and some with worse effects, and they kept turning up on a regular basis during the seventies and the eighties, but were mainly confined to the shlock category. That is to say until Michael Crichton released the most famous literary descendant of The Lost World in 1990, the novel Jurassic Park, and Steven Spielberg announced he would turn it into a film using computer graphic effects, which got its release in 1993 and made the whole world dino-crazy again. While the plot of the book and the film does stand on its own reptilian legs, the similarities with The Lost World cannot be overlooked. With the enormous success of the film, the public demanded Crichton write a sequel to his book, and this time he made no secret of his inspiration, and simply called the next novel The Lost World, in an homage to both Doyle’s novel and the 1925 film. Again the novel was an original work, but was heavily inspired by both Doyle and the earlier movie. The novel was likewise filmed by Spielberg in 1997, and in 1998 Roland Emmerich released his much-maligned Godzilla remake, and by now there was no stopping the computer-animated dinosaurs, which seemed to spout from every orifice of the movie business.

Screenwriter Marion Fairfax.

A fun little anomaly is the 1992 Canadian low-budget movie The Lost World, a remake of the original with the addition of Doyle’s prehistoric tribe. It is best known for starring John Rhys-Davies as Challenger. The special effects are clunky, and rely heavily on practical suitwork and puppets. One cannot but suspect that this third adaptation of Doyle’s novel was principally produced to ride the hype of Spielberg’s upcoming movie. And then as the second Jurassic Park film had been released, there was a flood of low-budget remakes of Doyle’s novel between 1998 and 2001, most of them with horrible CGI effects, and including one TV show. Then we had Peter Jackson’s King Kong in 2005, Cloverfield in 2008, another Hollywood Godzilla in 2014, yet another Jurassic Park in 2015, Shin Godzilla in 2016, Kong: Skull Island in 2017, and again a new Jurassic Park in 2018, and a whole lot more. And over all of it looms the granddaddy from 1925. The Lost World stubbornly refuses to go away.

Janne Wass

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, 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 for First National Pictures.

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