(1/10) In 1950 former ballet master and style adviser to Mae West, Boris Petroff, produced a bewildering mishmash of pirates, Australian farm romance, western action and slurpasaurs starring later TV star James Arness. Two Lost Worlds is a low-budget patch job with new dialogue scenes edited to fit action sequences from at least three other movies.
THIS ARTICLE IS UPDATED ON MAY 5, 2020 WITH ANSWERS FROM ACTRESS GLORIA (PETROFF) ADLER. SCROLL DOWN TO THE CAST AND CREW PRESENTATION FOR GLORIA’S INPUT.
Two Lost Worlds. 1950, USA. Directed by Norman Dawn. Written by Boris Petroff, Tom Hubbard, Phyllis Parker, Bill Shaw. Starring: James Arness, Kasey Rogers, Bill Kennedy, Gloria Petroff, Jane Harlan, Dan Riss, Michael Rye. Produced by Boris Petroff. IMDb: 4.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
I’ll begin this article by citing one of my favourite critics, Robin Bailes of Dark Corners; “Nobody expects a B movie to be like its poster, because budget limits what’s achievable. We know the dinosaurs will be lizards with bits stuck on, posing as creatures from the Land Humane Society Forgot. But you do expect a poster, and indeed a title, to reflect, to some extent, what the movie is about“.
Cue the poster of Two Lost Worlds, featured here to the right. Two thirds of the poster is dominated by two vicious dinosaurs locked in a deadly battle against the backdrop of a flaming volcano. The title, Two Lost Worlds, suggests that we will get not just one, but two lost continents filled with prehistoric creatures and wonders. Imagine the disappointment of teenage boys (and hopefully girls) around the USA and the rest of the world when the dinosaurs don’t appear until the last quarter of the film and their combined screen time is somewhere around two and a half minutes. Furthermore, apart from the island where these monsters live, there is no other “lost world”. The majority of the movie takes place on a sheep farm in Australia, suggesting that the “other” lost world is Queensland. The movie was released in my home country Finland as Merirosvojen saari or “Pirate Island”, which is also heavily misleading since not a single pirate sets foot on the island in question, but it is a far more accurate description of the film’s plot than either the original poster or title.
Two Lost Worlds is not as frequent a contender on “worst movies of all time” lists as my one-star rating might suggest (it is rare that I deal out such low marks for a movie), and in truth, it is a film that is quite serviceable in many ways, not least thanks to the experienced hand of director Norman Dawn, a veteran of the silent era. And indeed, if you cut apart the 61-minute movie into three 20-minute segments, all three are quite enjoyable (if highly flawed nonetheless). As a combined piece of cinema, however, it just falls apart.
Before watching this film I knew nothing about it, so my opinions were not coloured by the reviews online, some of which are fairly harsh. However, about halfway through the plodding romance/pirate drama set on an Australian sheep farm in 1830 I had to make sure I was actually watching the right movie.
The movie opens with footage seemingly stolen from another film, showing a number of ships at a harbour. Dan Riss begins one of his many, long, extremely flowery monologues which he delivers throughout the film — in newsreader mode. According to Riss, it is 1830, and the world stands on the brink of the era in which the US will rise to dominate the world commerce, the era of the clipper ship. This will be the story of the greatest of all these ships, the story of the Queen Hamilton. A clipper ship, Riss tells us, that carries not only cargo for sale, but “she carried the American dream of destiny, and she carried the men who took in their hands the wheel of destiny” [cut here to James Arness holding the steering wheel of the ship], “men like young Kirk Hamilton. His was the vision and courage of the seafaring Yankee pioneer. He knew the dangers that faced the pioneer, but his was the energy and the enterprise that ignored the danger and achieved the dream. 86 days out of Salem and with a fair find, the fate of a nation and the fate of Kirk Hamilton was bound up in his ship, bound around the Cape Horn and across the Pacific and westward to the fabulous fortune-laden Indies, outward bound for destiny.”
The plot, if you can call it that, follows clipper shipmate Kirk Hamilton (alas, not Captain Kirk), played by James Arness (under his real name Aurness), the son of a wealthy trader. Navigating from the US toward the East Indies, Queen Hamilton is attacked by pirates when passing through the New Hebrides (Vanutau today). They manage to outrun the pirates, but not before a skirmish in which Hamilton is badly wounded in the leg (or as David Maine at PopMatters puts it: “sustains a nasty rip in his trousers”). Captain Allison (Robert Carson) leaves Hamilton to recuperate in a small sheep farming (or “ranching” as the film calls it) community in Queensland, Australia before heading on with Queen Hamilton’s urgent commerce voyage.
Here’s where the film turns from pirate adventure to pioneer romance, as Hamilton immediately catches the eye of the town magistrate’s daughter Elaine Jeffries (Kasey Rogers appearing under her then-screen pseudonym Laura Elliott) and her little sister Janice (Gloria Petroff, daughter of producer Boris Petroff), aged 10. This now turns into a triangle drama, as Janice is already engaged to big “rancher” Martin Shannon (Bill Kennedy). However, before the romantic dispute has a chance to be resolved, the pirates attack the village after having tracked the Queen Hamilton there, and manage to kidnap Elaine and her friend Nancy (Jane Harlan). Hamilton and the town’s men convince a British navy vessel to take up the chase, with young Janice hidden among the cargo. They soon catch up with the pirates, who, ironically, are just on their way to deposit the two women on the nearest island, as the pirate captain (Michael Rye, under his real name Rye Billsbury) takes offence to the fact that the ladies don’t appreciate being kidnapped and call him fouls names like “a person like you”. A great battle ensues as the pursuers catch up with the pirates, courtesy of footage lifted from Captain Caution (1940). Shannon is badly wounded when saving Hamilton from being killed by the pirate captain, and as the pirate ship goes up in a blaze, Shannon, Hamilton, the three girls and a sailor named Hartley (Tom Hubbard) escape in a dinghy.
After drifting for two days the group end up on a remote island. When looking for food and water the group discover that the island is inhabited by giant monsters out of the past, and watch in horror as the baby alligator with a tail glued on and the monitor lizard from One Million B.C. (1940) engage in a death match. With the show over, the island’s volcano suddenly erupts, and Nancy is engulfed in burning lava, finally explaining why her character is included in the film at all (more on that later). And Shannon soon succumbs to his injuries, resolving the love triangle as neatly as only a B movie can resolve a love triangle. Meanwhile, the British navy have caught wind that Hamilton and the girls escapes in a life-boat, and are now searching the nearby islands. But will they make it in time …?
There is much speculation about how this film came to fruition, but very few facts. The most obvious steal in Two Lost Worlds is the footage snatched from One Million B.C. (1940), produced by Hal Roach. However, the film incorporates footage from at least four other films, including the afore-mentioned pirate movie Captain Caution and Captain Fury (1939), which is basically a western set in Australia. The fourth one I have not been able to spot, but according to my sources, it should be in there somewhere. The reason for the multitude of speculation about the movie is its odd, disjointed nature and lack of coherent plot. The bewildering turn from pirate romance to dinosaur adventure in the last quarter of the movie is obvious enough, but there’s also the whole Australian plot which seems to serve little purpose and ends in a climactic fistfight/gunfight/horse chase sequence that’s the kind of stuff you normally see at the end of a movie from that era. One theory that floats out there is that Two Lost Worlds began its life as two different stories for a TV show, and that the stock footage and endless narration has been slapped on in order to try and glue the two together in a single film. The theory is mentioned in a lot of places, but I think I’ve been able to track down its origin to Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies!, American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. However, this is just speculation on Warren’s part, and he has nothing to back the claim up with. Another theory is that producer Boris Petroff had originally intended to make a pirate romance film, but was forced, for commercial reasons, to attach the dino angle to the end.
Both theories are plausible enough, but I don’t think most people realise just how much of this film is made up by footage from other films. Almost all action sequences are pilfered, mainly from Captain Caution, Captain Fury, One Million B.C., and I suspect some western film. You can almost be certain that any time you don’t see one of the main characters’ faces, you’e watching stock footage. Those fifteen minutes of fighting on ships? Captain Caution. That great piece of underwater photography where the crew of the British naval vessel swim under the pirate ship? Captain Caution. Great miniature footage of ships sailing the high seas? Captain Caution. The wonderful introduction of Shannon riding through the Australian hills, dodging sheep and kangaroos? Captain Fury. That awe-inspiring horse chase where the magistrate heads of to save his daughters, with a dozen pursuers on his tale? Captain Fury. Fistfights in Australian saloons involving stunts and choreography? Captain Fury. Any footage involving reptiles, earthquakes, landslides and volcanoes? One Million B.C. plus stock footage of real volcanoes.
The movie seems to have been the brainchild of producer Boris Petroff, an interesting character whom I’ll get to later. Petroff gets story credit, while Tom Hubbard, who also plays Hartley, is credited for story adaptation and screenplay. This explains why the character Hartley turns up out of nowhere in the last quarter of the film and goes on to be one of the survivors of the lost world, despite being of no consequence whatsoever for the story.
A clue as to the origins of the film can be found in Tom and Jim Goldrup’s book The Encyclopedia of Feature Players of Hollywood, Volume 2, in which actor Bill Kennedy is interviewed. In the interview, Kennedy seems to debunk all the theories that Two Lost Worlds was originally planned as something very difficult than the final product. Kennedy outright states that the film’s original idea was to cut and edit together footage from four different films in order to save money on production costs. All four films that have been pilfered in the process were produced by Hal Roach, and Kennedy states that principal photography on Two Lost Worlds was done at Hal Roach Studios. The Goldrups write: “A script was written incorporating the scenes taken from these four films”. According to Kennedy: “We only did one day of shooting out at Red Rock Canyon for exteriors. The rest was done at Hal Roach Studios. That was some movie, the guy made a fortune on that.” Granted, it is not a hundred percent certain what “guy” Kennedy is referring to here, by earlier in the interview he also mentions that Hal Roach himself attended the production: “He would sit up there in the catwalk with his wife, who brought him his lunch every day”. So while Roach’s name isn’t mentioned anywhere in the credits, it seems clear that he was heavily involved in the picture, either as financier or perhaps unofficial producer.
Now, I don’t have anything against films that use edited material from other movies per se, if it is done well. For example, Edward Dmytryk did a great job of matching lion taming footage from The Big Cage (1932) with original material in Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), whereas Harold Young demonstrated how not to do it in the follow-up Jungle Woman (1945, review). The actual matching of footage in Two Lost Worlds isn’t half-bad, but nowhere near as innovative Dmytryk’s ditto. The most egregious flaw, as pointed out earlier, with Two Lost Worlds is that Petroff and Dawn haven’t used the stock footage to enhance an intriguing original story, but rather built a flimsy, incoherent framework barely recognisable as a plot simply in order to cash in on previously filmed material.
Apart from the afore-mentioned flaws, Two Lost Worlds is all over the map when it comes to history. The movie is set in 1830 and follows the first mate of a clipper ship. Naval historians disagree to some extent as to when the first clipper was built, but all seem to agree that it was at least not before 1832. Furthermore, Bill Warren, who seems knowledgeable about these things, points out that the ship in the film posing as a clipper is actually not a clipper. In fact, Warren writes, there is not a single clipper ship in the entire movie.
Furthermore, the Queen Hamilton is attacked by pirates when navigating through the New Hebrides — an area the crew as been worried about as it is infamous for being infested with pirates. Historically, though, there were no pirates active in that area at that period in time, if ever. At least not AMERICAN pirates. To be fair, the nationality of the pirates in the movie is never established, but the captain is called Hackett they all sound a look very American to this viewer. Liz Kingsley over at AYCYAS further points out a few minor flaws in the crew’s idea to let Kirk Hamilton recuperate in “Queensland”. First, Kingsley, notes, there was no “Queensland” in 1830, the area was then part of what was called New South Wales. Second, there was only one settlement in that particular area, and that was Brisbane. And Brisbane was at the time a penal colony. Third, general sheep farming did not begin in “Queensland” until around 1840. And fourth: the area in which the Queen Hamilton lays anchor is and was rain forest, not pasture land. Plus, one might add, as opposed to what the film indicates, residents of North-East Australia in 1830 did not dress like they were in a western movie, nor did they speak with American accents.
I alluded earlier to the character of Nancy Holden, Elaine Jeffrie’s friend and comrade throughout the movie, played by Jane Harlan. If you want definitive proof that this film was meticulously planned to play out just the way it does, then look no further than to the character of Ms. Holden. Having a supporting female character accompany the lead as a friend, maid or happenstance travelling companion in a B movie is nothing out of the ordinary. Usually, she is present for a limited number of reasons, not mutually exclusive. She may be a romantic rival who in the course of the film represents a threat or danger. Or she may be a mirror image of the leading lady’s personal characteristics, written into the script to highlight the leading lady’s traits and/or act as a sounding board or an audience stand-in so that the main character can lay bare the emotional exposition needed for the plot. Often she is the femme fatale to the leading lady’s ingenue. More often than not she is inserted as a comic relief character, or sometimes her role is to snatch up the consolation prize from a love triangle, thus contributing to a morally wholesome ending to the a movie.
However, oddly enough Nancy Holden fits none of these drama purposes. In fact, the movie already has a secondary female character ticking many of the boxes, that of Elaine’s little sister Janice. Janice act as audience stand-in, she is there to draw attention to Elaine’s caring and maternal character traits and she functions as comic relief. Janice renders Nancy completely redundant, which is reflected in the fact that despite being present in around half of the movie, she has almost no lines and certainly no perceivable personality or agenda.
The reason for Nancy’s presence becomes apparent later in the film, as stated earlier, when she is burned by molten lava. This does not happen because the screenwriter wants to sacrifice a secondary character we care about, because we don’t, and all the other characters promptly seem to forget the whole incident, which has as little consequence as the rest of Nancy’s presence in the movie. But the important thing to note here is that the scene is taken from One Million B.C. Now, somewhere along the island adventure the audience starts to notice the considerable wear and tear that occurs with regards to the two adult women’s attire. It is not unusual for B movie makers to use danger and distress to show some extra leg and/or cleavage, but even for an exploitation film, the sheer amount of fabric that disappears between shots — for no apparent reason, one might add — is staggering. In the end, Nancy appears to be wearing little more than a bikini top and a loincloth — and that’s when she’s hit with the lava. But the woman in the shot is, naturally, not Jane Harlan, but an actress from One Million B.C., probably Lorraine Rivero. What the filmmakers have done, is match exactly the dress and hair of Harlan to the actress in the older film who is covered by the lava flow. This means that Tom Hubbard has written the character of Nancy Holden for the single purpose of being able to use that one shot from One Million B.C. And since Holden is present in almost the entire picture, there is no way that Two Lost Worlds was originally two TV episodes or something else of the sort which was then spliced together with stock footage. On the contrary, Nancy Holden makes it clear as day that recycling the old films was the single purpose of Two Lost Worlds from the very beginning.
Perhaps the most aggravating thing about the film is the ever-present and overlong narration filled with flowery language but read in the manner of a news report. Not only does give the rest of the film permission to dispense with all character introductions — or indeed let the audience decide for themselves what the characters are like — but it also tells us in plain words all the emotions going through the characters’ minds and hearts, something which is normally portrayed — well, by acting. When it isn’t going on and on and on about the wonderful American clipper ships carrying the American dream and the fate of the nation, it tells us what we can see on screen. When we see a shot of kangaroos, it tells us that this is a shot of kangaroos, and when the entire screen is filled with an erupting volcano, the narrator kindly informs us that we are seeing a shot of an erupting volcano. Well, thank you. Elsewhere, it sounds like this:
“But the plans of Elaine Jeffries did not reckon with the plans fate had drawn for the young American. Nor did Elaine reckon with her own heart. She did not reckon with the springtime. And springtime in Queensland is just the same as springtime anywhere in the world. There is the same bright sunshine and the fresh green on the hills. The quickening pulse in the earth is the same. The fragrant caress of the wind is the same. The stirring life is the same in the trees, in the flowers, in the birds of the airs, and a man and a woman are the same.”
Plus the fact that the film keeps referring to Australian farms as “ranches”.
According to Bill Warren the film, unsurprisingly, got few accolades in the press. Daily Variety wrote that the film “emerges as a hodgepodge of amateurish handling”, and The Hollywood reporter wrote that it is “a hastily compiled series of stock and process photos around which a pointless story rambles under the uninspired direction by Norman Dawn“.
Of modern outlets, TV Guide awards the film with 1/4 stars, and AllMovie gives Two Lost Worlds 1/5. TV Guide writes: “This no-thrills, no-frills thriller [has the cast pretending] to be frightened by some intercut footage of One Million B.C.. Plenty of gusto with some wonderfully hokey dialog to boot.” French Cinema Fantastique gives it 2/5 stars and Fred Pizzoferrato writes: “The tale of adventures remains predictable and banal, honest but without the slightest inspiration and, the fantastic side turns out to be completely underused and stuck on the plot, which for a long time entertains a love triangle without much interest. The lack of budget is, moreover, cruelly felt in the use of clearly visible stock-shots and in the poverty of the decorations used, in particular in the case of the rudimentary sets on the ship.” The movie has a 4.4/10 rating on IMDb, which is quite low for the site.
Despite the film’s many flaws, it is not considered as hopeless at all by all reviewers. In fact, Chris Hewson at the blog Not This Time, Nayland Smith writes a rather enthusiastic review, turning what many see as its major flaw into its biggest advantage:, calling it “an eclectic mishmash of genres [… ], but it kinda works, and it makes this unlike anything else from the period! One of the biggest pluses to Two Lost Worlds is how it changes things up every 20 or so minutes. […] There’s never a dull moment in such a varied picture. […] as it is, it’s certainly not bad.”
Hewson concludes: “Discounting all the stolen footage, Two Lost Worlds honestly looks really good! From the pirate attack on land, the waterfall at the enc [sic] of the chase, the volcano off in the distance, no ‘expense’ has been spared.” Err, Chris, all the shots you mentioned ARE stolen footage.
The Silver Scream also gives the film two thumbs up: “The movie was actually good if you are looking for either a romance story or an adventure film. The acting was great. The plot(s) and the dialogue all good. If you are just looking for a dinosaur movie, I’m afraid it’s a rip-off.”
It’s understandable that one might give the picture a pass if one believes that the pirate and sheep farm sequences with all their excitement are original footage. However, Francis Barbier at French DevilDead has seen through the paste job: “At first glance, the film is ‘rich’. Because unless you know all the films lending their spectacular sequences to the movie, you really feel like you are witnessing ‘original’ footage. […] But we really wonder if the dialogue scenes were not the only ones to have actually been shot for the occasion.” Barbier concludes: “Two Lost Worlds is fragmented and clichéd”.
Marc Fusion writes: “This is about as ‘bait & switch’ as cinema can be, I think”, ” I like the premise here, but this one is a clunker”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings says: “As a pirate flick, it seems competent but totally uninspired; as a lost world movie, it is a waste of time.” The afore-mentioned David Maine at PopMatters states: “The giant lizards look okay, but there’s not enough of them to make this anything more than tedious.” And Bill Warren writes in his book: “Minor in all departments, Two Lost Worlds is cheap, unimaginative and dull, barely remembered today by others than those most most likely to read this book, and die-hard Gunsmoke buffs.”
My take on the business is that even when I first watched the movie and wasn’t aware that almost everything good and exciting in it was pilfered from other films, I found it disjointed and clumsy. If you watch it without any knowledge of how it was put together, it’s not a completely terrible film and might even be considered quite entertaining in patches — that is until the god-awful narration kicks in. As a patch-job it is fairly well crafted — the editor was later Oscar nominee Fred Feitshans. But it remains a patch job nonetheless. When you know the backstory you realise why the film is as oddly structured as it is, and how little original story there is to the film. Everything in between the action sequences is there for a single reason: to somehow try and drag an at least superficially coherent plot to the next patch of stolen footage. Oftentimes the plot makes no sense, but as soon as you realise that it is building up to another stretch of pirate or western action, you at least understand why it doesn’t make any sense.
There’s too little romance in the film for it to be satisfying as a frontier romance, too little horse riding and gunfighting for it to be satisfying as a western, too little pirate action for it to be satisfying as a pirate movie and way too little dinosaurs for it to be satisfying as a dinosaur movie. If anything, the film made me want to watch Captain Caution, as the pirate segments look really good.
One thing worthy of mention is the way in which the dinosaur footage is inserted into the Two Lost Worlds. It’s not merely a matter of cutting together existing footage with new material. There are a few shots in the film where the reptiles and the actors are actually in the same shot. This probably means that producer Boris Petroff was able to get his hands on the original process plates from One Million B.C., which Hal Roach had probably shrewdly stored for future use. Even so, putting together footage like this on a time constraint was not just something any director or editor could do. Enter director Norman Dawn.
Dawn had been around the movie business since the very beginning of Hollywood as a director, editor and special effects innovator. His first movie credit is from as far back as 1907, and in the 1910’s he was pioneering the use of the glass shot, in which, instead of a regular matte shot, where a portion of the image is masked out and replaced with a double exposure, the camera shoots through a glass pane with a matte painting painted directly on top, meaning that the camera can catch both the action and the matte painting in a single shot. He has also been credited as the first filmmaker to use rear projection, but such claims are almost always dubious, at best, as so very few innovations in any field happen in a vacuum. That said, Dawn was at the cutting edge of the special effects film in the twenties. But as with so many silent era pioneers, he was left in the shadow with the emergence of sound, not so much because they failed to keep up with the times, but often more because younger, hotter and hipper directors took their place. This is how this one-time hotshot now found himself scraping the barrel of Hollywood with Hal Roach, Boris Petroff and a bunch of anonymous bit-part actors and writers who wrote themselves into their films. Dawn lived for some whole both in Australia and Alaska, which also reflected in his films in the thirties and forties, many of which he wrote, directed, shot and edited himself with a skeleton crew. His last three films were Arctic Fury (1949), Two Lost Worlds and Wild Women (1951). The first two were both produced by Petroff, and the last he wrote, directed and filmed himself. Wild Women is perhaps best remembered for featuring Dana Broccoli, future wife of movie mogul Albert Broccoli, in the female lead as a native queen.
The acting in Two Lost Worlds is not terrible at all, even if there is precious little for the actors to work with, standing among plywood ship sets hollering at invisible crew members from another film. Beefy lead actor James Arness is known for three things. 1. For appearing in two of the best SF films from the fifties. 2. For becoming a star on the TV show Gunsmoke. 3. For his height, 6’7 or 201 cm. Two Lost Worlds was Arness’ first and his only leading role in feature film, except for 1955’s western Gun the Man Down, as well as a few TV movies. Born in 1923 in Minneapolis to a Norwegian-American family (his last name Aurness was originally Aursness), Arness served in WWII and was wounded. While recuperating his brother Peter (later SF star Peter Graves) suggested he take a radio course, and Arness slowly edged his way into acting in radio, on stage and on the screen, later spurred on by his wife Virginia Chapman, an actress.
Arness made his film debut in 1947 and was, unsurprisingly, often cast as tough guys in westerns because of his size. He was spotted on-stage by John Wayne’s agent in 1952, who took him under contract. Subsequently, Arness appeared in a number of movies with the Duke, and Arness considered Wayne as his mentor. The similarities between the two actors didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1988 Arness reprised Wayne’s role in a TV remake of the 1948 movie Red River. Also in 1987, he starred in another John Wayne TV remake, The Alamo (orig. 1960), although not in Wayne’s role as Davy Crocket, but as Jim Bowie. It was John Wayne who recommended Arness for the lead role as Matt Dillon in the TV series Gunsmoke, which he ended up playing for 20 years between 1955 and 1975 and turned him into a superstar in the US. I don’t think the show ever aired in Finland, so I wasn’t quite aware of Arness’ fame when I first encountered him as the Thing. However, his European fame is perhaps more based on a later TV series, How the West Was Won (1977–1979), which became a huge hit at least in my neighbouring countries Sweden and Norway, and which I know ran in Finland as well 1979–1980 (not that I remember that as I wasn’t born then).
Arness’ TV fame made him quit the movie business almost altogether, which means his feature film credits are surprisingly few for an actor active over five decades (he made his last TV movie in 1994). However, despite the short-ish list, Arness had time to make a major dent in the genre of science fiction. It is debatable whether Two Lost Worlds should be counted as SF or not — even for a lost world film, the sci-fi connection is thin. However, his most famous role is one in which he is barely recognisable, covered as he is in makeup as a space age Frankenstein monster. Before his fame, Arness was enlisted by Howard Hawks to play the alien monster in Hawks’ and Christian Nyby’s adaptation of the short story Who Goes There?, renamed The Thing from Another World (1951), which is better known to a modern audience from its John Carpenter remake The Thing (1982). However, Arness wasn’t in the Thing suit in the famous scene where it was set on fire from head to toe — that shot was done by his stuntman. Arness also had a leading role in another genre-defining science fiction film; Them! (1954), the first bone fide giant insect movie. While the film lacks a clear protagonist, Arness plays the role which might be considered the “romantic lead”, even if there is no romance in the movie as such.
Arness’ lack of fame in 1950 is well illustrated by the fact that he was second-billed for Two Lost Worlds behind Kasey Rogers, who at the time went by the screen name Laura Elliott. After spending much of her youth on stage and training for a career as an actress, she was spotted in 1949, aged 24, by a talent scout at Universal, and cast as the leading lady a week later in the film Special Agent, a film about a train robbery, which would become emblematic of her film career. Her three best remembered movie roles are from Union Station (1950), about the railroad police hunting an armed man on a train, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), where she turns in a small but memorable performance, and Denver and Rio Grande (1952), about the building of the railroad in the Colorado mountains. In 1950, Rogers was on loan from Paramount, where she was part of the famous Golden Circle of starlets.
Rogers left Paramount and the moniker “Laura Elliott” behind in 1953, and transitioned seemingly smoothly into television, where she appeared as a guest star on numerous shows between 1954 and 1964, including The Lone Ranger, Cheyenne, Perry Mason, Maverick and The Lucy Show. She got her big break in 1964, when she was cast in the recurring role as Julie Anderson on the hugely successful soap opera Peyton Place, in which she appeared in over 100 episodes. After the actress who originally played Louise Tate on the hit show Bewitched was fired, Rogers was cast in the role, which she played to much acclaim between 1966 and 1972. After Bewitched ended, Rogers, though only 47, she more or less retired from acting, barring the occasional TV guest spot. She did, however, write several very successful home decorating and cook books inspired by Bewitched.
Kasey Rogers can be seen in a small, uncredited role as a stewardess in the 1951 big-budget SF movie When Worlds Collide.
Bill (Willard) Kennedy was a “working actor”, who got into the movie business through his work on radio, but failed to impress studios with his looks and performance as much as he did with his voice, and after a seven-years stint doing mostly bit-parts at Warner, went freelance and even landed a couple of leading man roles in Poverty Row films. He is, however, best known for providing the iconic title narration to the George Reeves series Adventures of Superman, in which he also appeared in a couple of episodes in minor roles. Also in 1952 he could be briefly seen as a news commentator in the SF clunker Red Planet Mars, starring James Arness’ brother Peter Graves.
Child actress Gloria Petroff had a handful of roles in films, many of them produced or directed by her father, and made a “comeback” of sorts in the mad scientist film The Unearthly (1957), directed by Boris Petroff and starring John Carradine, in a very brief scene as “Screaming woman”, being manhandled by Tor Johnson.
*** UPDATE: I was thrilled to get a hold of Gloria, now named Adler, and she gladly shared a lot of information on the filming of the movie and about her father. She now lives in a senior community in Las Vegas, where parts of Two Lost Worlds was filmed, and tells us she is doing well despite the pandemic, and had a fun time recollecting her youth in the film industry: “I am 80 years old and you have helped me too realize I had an interesting childhood and still have a pretty good memory!” She continues: “I remember the pirate scene where I was a stowaway. I remember the scene in Australia with my “sister”. These were all done on set. The scene going through trees and shrubbery, can’t recall if that was supposed to be Australia or the Lost World … I think it was the former … that was taken at my uncle’s home in the hills of his backyard in Beverly Hills, California. The dinosaurs and the Lost World were done on the set with stock shots behind us.” Adler also remembers that James Arness was so tall that they had to redo the door arches on set for him to get through them. She recalls Arness as “very kind and soft spoken”.
Adler further writes: “My last major movie was […] Lorna Doone by Columbia Pictures, in which I played Lorna Doone as a child. I won the part over Natalie Wood and Margaret O’Brien because Barbara Hale chose me, since I looked so much like her as a child. She played Lorna as an adult. I remember that I had a very short part in The Unearthly because I had just gotten over the measles. I was supposed to have a major part, but was too ill, so my father gave me that tiny part with Tor [Johnson]. I had barely any interaction with Tor.”
Pierre Watkin has a substantial supporting part in Two Lost Worlds as Elaine’s and Janice’s father magistrate Jeffries. Watkin is perhaps best known for playing Perry White, managing editor of The Daily Planet, in the 1948 film serial Superman (review). Watkin was a noted character actor who appeared in over 400 films, serials or series during his career, often playing military or authority figures. He also appeared in a supporting role in the afore-mentioned Jungle Woman.
Jane Harlan, playing the crowbarred-in character of Nancy, has no other IMDb credit, and the only other information I can find about her is that she appeared in the female lead in the ABC science fiction radio show Starr of Space (1954–54) — which was written and created by none other than Tom Hubbard, who also wrote Two Lost Worlds and crowbarred himself into the picture. Hubbard seems to have been something of a busybody rattling around the Poverty Row and independent movie business along with people like Ed Wood, Boris Petroff and Roger Corman. He worked on a few dozen films as a bit-part player (unless he wrote them, and promoted himself to bigger supporting parts), and wrote or co-wrote a good dozen of them. His first credited screenwriting job was providing narration for another patch-up job called Devil Monster (1946), a re-edit and re-dub of a ten years old picture called The Sea Fiend. In 1954 he co-wrote and appeared in Highway Dragnet, directed by Nathan Juran and produced by Roger Corman. He also acted as associate producer on a couple of low-budget films.
As seemingly many actors on this roster, Michael Rye (as the pirate captain) had a background in radio. Born John Michael Riorden Billsbury in 1918, he was a minor radio star, appearing on many popular shows. With the advent of TV, he transitioned into voice work for animated TV shows, primarily for Hannah-Barbera, and is remembered for voicing Green Lantern in five Super Friends shows between 1977 and 1985. He also had a number of reappearing roles in the 1985–1991 Disney show Adventures of the Gummi Bears. In 1962 Rye also had a supporting role in the SF horror film Hands of a Stranger, an adaptation of Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac. In a role as one of the sailors accompanying Hamilton in Australia we see Fred Kohler, Jr., whose father Fred Kohler Sr. we have encountered earlier on this blog, as the main villain in the 1935 apocalyptic film Deluge (review). Jr. became an accomplished actor himself, appearing in over 100 films or TV series, mostly westerns. He even had a couple of lead roles, most notably perhaps the title role in The Pecos Kid (1935).
The rest of the cast is filled up with similar bit-part or supporting actors from the wide field of low-budget movies. Worthy of mention for the sake of this blog is at least Tim Graham who plays the film’s primary comic relief, cabin boy Salty. Graham can also be seen in Abbot and Costello Go to Mars (1953 and as a sheriff in the schlocky The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). Robert Carson, playing the British navy captain, had a long career playing bit-parts as military or government officials, for example in SF films like Petroff’s own Red Snow (1952), Red Planet Mars, The Magnetic Monster (1953) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). Dan Riss, the obnoxious narrator, can be spotted in the Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors picture Riders to the Stars (1953) and the Mickey Rooney comedy The Atomic Kid (1953).
I have mentioned the producer of Two Lost Worlds a number of times in this article. Boris Petroff is an interesting character that seems to have been a well-known figure behind the scenes in Hollywood during the forties and fifties, but about whom there is very little information available online. IMDb knows nothing more about Petroff than the fact that he was born in 1894 in Saratov, Russia, and died in 1972, and that he directed, produced and co-wrote around a dozen low-budget films between 1936 and 1963, the large majority of them in the fifties. Petroff has left no great mark on Hollywood, but he is of some interest for fans of science fiction, as three of his movies dance around on the outskirts of the genre. Of these he produced and co-wrote Two Lost Worlds, produced and co-directed Red Snow (1952) and produced and directed The Unearthly (1957). Like almost all of his films, Red Snow was produced by a small one-off production company and starred a ragtag crew of struggling freelance B movie actors. The film is very low of sci, and could perhaps be classified as an Alaskan spy adventure film with a Gizmo MacGuffin twist. It is best known for starring Inuit B movie heartthrob Ray Mala as one of the lead characters. The Unearthly is a by-the-numbers mad scientist story of yesteryear with John Carradine seeking eternal life by experimenting on the patients of his psychiatric clinic — a film that in 1957 came about fifteen years too late. Another fact that makes Petroff interesting is that in 1963 he collaborated with none other than Ed Wood himself, who was a friend of his, on his last picture Shotgun Wedding, with Petroff, his wife Jane Mann and Wood co-writing the movie.
After a good deal of digging around the more obscure corners of the internet, I find that, curiously enough, the best source of information on Petroff seems to be biographies about the female stars he courted. The most complete list of biographical information I can find comes from a blog dedicated to Mae West. Different biographies about the actress also all seem to contain at least a footnote about Petroff. Another source of information is a book about Carla Laemmle of the Laemmle movie dynasty.
UPDATE: As mentioned earlier, I got a hold of Petroff’s daughter after this article was originally published, now called Gloria Adler, and she thankfully pointed out a few errors that I incorrectly gleaned from the scarce information on Petroff, and hence the section on Petroff below has been reworked as of May 12, 2020.
Gloria Adler writes: “Boris was born in Saratov, Russia, one of twelve siblings, seven of whom survived to adulthood. He and his brother Morris Lerman brought each of them, including their mother to the United States. My father’s family name was Lerman, but he and his brother Victor took the name Petroff with passports they got in Russia, to escape. Before he came to Los Angeles, he resided in San Francisco, California and ran a dance studio with his brother Victor. He and his brother were Russian Ballet Dancers, until they came to Hollywood, California.”
As far as I have gathered, Petroff moved to the US sometime prior to 1919, in all probability after the 1917 revolution. In 1919 he is mentioned as working the prestigious B.F. Keith Circuit, a chain of vaudeville theatres with over 700 stages in the US and Canada. The book Ballet Class: An American History by Melissa R. Klapper states that Petroff settled down from the vaudeville circuit in the twenties and opened a ballet school in San Francisco. In 1923 he produced a large show in Chicago. In 1925 we find him teaching in Denver, according to the book European Dance Teachers in the United States. According to the short passage “tuition was free and classes were immense”. It was probably during this time that Petroff became involved in the movie business, when he was hired by Paramount to produce and direct live-performed movie prologues at movie theatres, if I gather correctly, first in Chicago, and later in New York. In 1926 he was hired as the stage director at the lavish Paramount Publix Theatre in Times Square, which is described in the Routledge Guide to Broadway as the “best-loved theater on Times Square”. Petroff stayed with the theatre until 1937.
As an aside, it is mentioned in Rick Atkins’ biography on Carla Laemmle that between 1931 and 1933, Laemmle and Petroff had a romantic affair, which has been confirmed by Laemmle herself. Carla (actually Rebekah) was the niece of Universal’s founder Carl Laemmle, and had a handful of bit-parts in films in the twenties and thirties. She is best known for portraying the young bespectacled passenger in the carriage that drives Renfield to Castle Dracula in the 1931 classic, and has the first spoken lined in the movie.
It was in 1933 that Boris Petroff made the acquaintance of then-stage diva and sex symbol Mae West, who had recently landed a movie deal with Paramount. Promoting her new film She Done Him Wrong, Petroff directed a stage show called Knights of Love with West at the centre. For one reason or the other, West was “impressed” with the dark Russian, and convinced Paramount to hire him as her “style adviser” and bring him to Hollywood. In 1934 he moved into Paramount’s legendary art deco apartment complex, The Ravenswood, in Los Angeles, according to some sources into the spare bedroom of West’s lavish penthouse apartment, according to others into another apartment below, which he shared with her long-time manager and former boyfriend Jim Timony. Along with Timony and West’s brother, Petroff became part of West’s constant entourage, and rumours spread that the two were romantically engaged.
Adler comments: “I have heard rumors that he was romantically involved with Mae West which he always vehemently denied. He was also married for a time to a Russian ballet dancer before he met my mother and before that was married to a Russian family friend only to get her to the United States … so the story goes. He only had children with his third wife, my mother. There are two of us … myself and my brother, Michael Lerman Petroff.”
In 1936 Boris Petroff directed his first film, a little-remembered musical comedy called Hats Off, which remained his only screen credit until 1949. Here Adler recalls that the film starred Mae West, but in fact it starred Mae Clarke, best known for portraying Victor Frankenstein’s bride in the 1931 classic.
Quothe Gloria Adler: “I was born in 1939 and [Boris Petroff] married my mother, Jane Rose Hauptman in 1936. My brother, Michael Petroff was born in 1941. By then he was in Southern California, Hollywood to be exact and prior to that he was in New York producing stage shows for the New York Police Academy and directing stage shows for Mae West.”
Petroff’s involvement with the Paramount Publix Theatre ended in 1937, and it is unclear from the scarce information I have found when his contract as Mae West’s “style adviser” ran out. What we do know is that there are photographs taken in 1935 with West and Petroff ringside at the Madison Square Garden, possibly watching her boyfriend, champion boxer William “Gorilla” Jones doing the rounds. As Gloria Adler points out above, in 1936 he married Jane Mann, who is sometimes called a screenwriter, but who in fact only co-wrote three screenplays for her husband’s films in the fifties and sixties.
The period in Boris Petroff’s life between 1939 and 1949 is something of a blank spot in the information gleaned on the web. There are ads in Billboard Magazine from 1943 promoting a new stage show by The Hollywood Sweater Girl Revue, directed by Boris Petroff, which suggests that he returned to choreographing stage shows. This is corroborated by his daughter, who states that he continued directing stage shows. According to her, his work with Mae West ended after he married Jane Mann, although they “did stay in contact”. Gloria does have some recollections of West, though: “I went to her suites in Ravenswood with him when I was five. Everything was white and elegant including white bear throw rugs. She wore only long gowns to conceal extremely high heels so no one would know she was very short. When I was born she had a gold and diamond infants heart drop necklace, a bracelet engraved with her name and mine and a tiny ring also all in gold and diamonds designed by her and given to me at birth. All of her famous sayings were written by an unknown writer whom she paid next to nothing. She was so illiterate that all of her comments were written for her … ‘Come up and see me sometime’ ‘Peel me a grape’ and so on.”
Regarding Boris Petroff’s doings in the forties, Adler writes that “he had a traveling ice skating show for a number of years when I was very young. It was called Hollywood on Ice and was later bought out and became Holiday on Ice.” Some googling turns up that Petroff was the director of Hollywood on Ice at least in 1947 and 1948, just prior to the first of his later low-budget movies. Hollywood on Ice was one of many show skating groups, along with Holiday on Ice, which Adler mentions — but Holiday on Ice was founded in 1942, so this was another company. It is possible that one bought the other.
As to the question why this successful Russian emigré, once a lauded stage choreographer, director and respected ballet teacher, as well as a trusted inside man in Hollywood, suddenly emerged as an edwoodian producer and director of cash-grab low-budget schlock and exploitation, Gloria Adler doesn’t give an answer — she was quite young at the time, and as she writes, wasn’t privy to all conversations. But if anything emerges from the reading of Boris Petroff’s career, it is that he was a fearless artist who wasn’t afraid of throwing himself into new situations. Perhaps this was a gift from his father in Russia, who was a travelling showman. Perhaps filmmaking was a new challenge. Perhaps he decided to use his many contacts in Hollywood that he had collected over the years. Perhaps he saw there was more money in filmmaking than in stage shows in the fifties. Perhaps none of the above. Perhaps he just followed a passion. Perhaps only Boris Petroff himself could answer this question.
A very special thanks to Gloria (Petroff) Adler, who took the time to answer all my questions and correct the errors in the original article. It is a rare treat that I get to chat with someone who was actually involved in making these old pictures. And a huge thank you as well to Boris Petroff’s grandson Brendan Petroff, who put me in touch with Gloria and helped out along the way!
Two Lost Worlds. 1950, USA. Directed by Norman Dawn. Written by Boris Petroff, Tom Hubbard, Phyllis Parker, Bill Shaw. Starring: James Arness, Kasey Rogers, Bill Kennedy, Gloria Petroff, Pierre Watkin, Tom Hubbard, Jane Harlan, Dan Riss, Michael Rye, Tom Monroe, Tim Graham, Fred Kohler, Jr., Richard Bartell, Robert Carson. Music: Alex Alexander. Cinematography: Harry Neumann. Editing: Fred Feitshans, Jr., Art direction: Charles D. Hall. Makeup artist: Harry Ross. Sound effects: John D. Hall. Sound recordist: Fred Hynes. Special effects: Jack R. Glass. Stunts: Sol Gorss. Costumes: Harry Blackledge, Kitty Mager. Produced by Boris Petroff for Sterling Productions and Eagle-Lion Classics.