The Lost World (1925)
“Mighty prehistoric monsters clash with modern lovers!”
Director: Harry O. Hoyt
Cast: Wallace Beery, Bessie Love, Lloyd Hughes
Synopsis: The first film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel about a land where prehistoric creatures still roam.
Pity poor old Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes): the woman he loves (Alma Bennett) simply can’t bring herself to marry a man who hasn’t looked danger in the eye — or so she says. The fact that Harry O. Hoyt, the largely forgotten director of The Lost World, cuts away to the object of Ed’s affection playing distractedly with a cat the moment Ed rushes off to prove just how brave he can be, doesn’t bode well for him slipping his ring on her finger, but of course he doesn’t know that. In fact, he dashes straight to the offices of the London Journal, where he works as a junior reporter, and where his boss is bemoaning the way the maverick explorer Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery, sporting a particularly unflattering and unconvincing false beard) refuses to talk to any reporter because of the way they ridicule his claims to have discovered an uncharted plateau upon which prehistoric creatures roam.
Malone asks for — and receives — permission to talk to Challenger and heads to a lecture Challenger is conducting. Fortunately for Ed, he’s friends with Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) with whom Challenger is also on friendly terms, and thanks largely to this mutual acquaintance, Ed gets himself included on the expedition Challenger is mounting to return to the plateau to get evidence of his claims and also to find fellow explorer Maple White, who went missing on the last expedition. Roxton is also coming along, as is young Paula White (Bessie Love — Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Beau Brummell), White’s daughter, on whom Roxton has a rather inappropriate and unwelcome crush. Ed is also enchanted by the lovely young Paula, and it’s not long before all thoughts of impressing his girlfriend are completely forgotten.
So we have a possible antagonistic relationship between Challenger, an irascible old coot with a reasonably justifiable grudge against the press and eager young journalist Ed Malone, a potential competition for Paula’s love between young Ed and the older, but extremely wealthy Roxton, and a search for a missing explorer in an Amazonian jungle alive with dinosaurs. How, after a fairly slow start, could things fail to liven up once the expedition to the Lost World proper gets underway?
I’ll tell you how: by forgetting the plot entirely for the next half of the movie, that’s how. After gaining access to the plateau by chopping down a conveniently positioned tree to form a makeshift bridge between the plateau and a narrow tower of rock which was obviously part of the plateau long ago but has since become separated. And if the location and relative position of that finger of rock looks familiar it’s probably because it served as the template for the similar feature in the animated feature Up.
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between our first glimpse of the dinosaurs in this movie and of the CGI creations of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. After all, The Lost World was the 1920s Jurassic Park, even if it was to be quickly forgotten (and almost lost forever with the introduction of talking pictures), and that first sight must have blown the audience away in 1925. Bearing in mind the year in which The Lost World was released and the comparatively primitive technology with which special effects wizard Willis O’Brien was working, his creations still look pretty impressive today, and served as the inspiration for Ray Harryhausen who, in the 1960s and ‘70s would refine O’Brien’s techniques even further. O’Brien’s dinosaurs even have some character to them, curling their lips at one another before engaging in battle. Look closely when a volcano erupts on the plateau and you’ll even see one dinosaur leap onto another’s back to get a piggy-back away from the volcano!
Unfortunately, the impressiveness of O’Brien’s creations can only take the movie so far, and it seems as if Challenger and his band spend as much time watching these creatures eating and fighting as we do. All those little sub-plots that looked to be brewing nicely prior to the expedition are either left to simmer untended for long stretches before being cursorily addressed or forgotten completely. The plot does bear some superficial resemblance to that of King Kong (1933) (on which O’Brien also worked), but lacks the narrative sophistication of the later movie. Depth of characterisation was clearly seen to be of secondary importance to sheer spectacle in The Lost World in a way that foreshadows all those technically impressive but soulless blockbusters with which we’re assailed each summer.
(Reviewed 20th January 2014)