Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be famous for Sherlock but what he really loved writing were rousing adventure tales. The most famous of these concerned Professor Challenger and his intrepid band of explorers who discover dinosaurs in a lost world atop a plateau. Cutting edge stop-motion made the film adaptation one of the most beloved silent films.
Note: I will also be reviewing the 1960 version of this film. Click here to skip to the talkie.
The Lost World is a real crowd-pleaser. It has everything one could desire in a silent movie: Stunning visuals, wonderful cast and, of course, dinosaurs.
The Lost World is also a special film to me personally. You have read about the first silent movie I watched and the first silent movie I loved. Well, this was the first silent movie I was obsessed with.
Some background is in order. Growing up, there were three things that I loved most in the world: trains, Tron and dinosaurs. A tomboy, I guess you could say. Knowing my fascination, a friend of the family recorded the documentary Dinosaur! (hosted by the late Christopher Reeve) off of television. We pretty much wore the tape out watching it again and again. It featured some amazing animatronic dinos as well as clips of the creatures in popular media.
One of those clips was the allosaurus vs. triceratops battle from The Lost World. I was intrigued by the shimmering black and white images and the stop-motion animation– thanks to Gumby, that was another fixation of mine. I didn’t even known that The Lost World was silent. I just knew I had to see it.
Well, I tripped over to the local video stores (this was before the Blockbuster blight drove out the independents in my town) and asked for the 1925 film The Lost World. Blank stares from the 80s kids who worked behind the counter. Well, it would be a little unusual to get such a request from a first grader. So, no soap.
I eventually forgot about the movie… until I started getting into silents, that is! I cannot tell you how satisfying it was to order and receive my very own copy of The Lost World. So, was it all that little girl me could have hoped for?
The Lost World was written in 1912 by Arthur Conan Doyle. He provides a short introduction at the beginning of the film, welcoming the audience to his prehistoric adventure. I find these author introductions charming in the extreme so things were off to a great start. (Please note that this footage was actually from the release of a different film as the original introduction seems to have been lost.)
The story begins in London. Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes) is a reporter who is dying to propose to his girl. She, however, will not have him unless he performs some feat of daring. It looks like he will have that chance when he is assigned to get the scoop on Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery), a brutish academic who will thrash or sue anyone who disagrees with him.
Challenger has claimed that he has discovered a lost world of dinosaurs in South America. Since he has no real evidence to offer, he is the laughingstock of the intellectual world. In order to prove that he is not crazy, Challenger proposes an expedition accompanied by any who wish to see the prehistoric creatures for themselves.
Fussy Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt, popular character actor and older brother of the film’s director, Harry O. Hoyt) volunteers to go just so he can see Challenger proven wrong. The dapper Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) also throws his hat into the ring. Ed tries to join but Challenger refuses to have a reporter along. The whole matter ends in a fistfight and Challenger decides that Ed is not so bad after all.
(Margaret McWade has a small but funny part as Challenger’s equally feisty wife.)
The reason for Challenger’s urgency soon becomes apparent. Paula White (Bessie Love) discovered the dinosaur plateau with her father but an accident left him trapped there with his assistant. Sir John is in love with Paula and that is why he has volunteered. Ed realizes that his paper will fund the expedition if it is a daring rescue instead of a dino hunt. With everything settled, the team sets off for South America.
The plateau is just as Challenger described, complete with stop-motion animated dinosaurs.
The animation is really what makes The Lost World a visual marvel and an important film in the history of cinema. The effects were created under the supervision of Willis O’Brien, one of the great visual effects pioneers. He may be more famous for King Kong but my heart belongs to the dinos of the lost plateau.
The visual effects were created over a period of years (an entire day of work would yield only seconds of footage) and the human stars were not brought into the mix until the they were completed.
What appeals to me, personally, is the obvious care the O’Brien poured into his models. They may have been rubber and metal but they also had personality. The brontosaurus, in particular, is a spectacular grump. I can’t really blame him for rampaging through London. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The team ends up getting trapped on the plateau by one of those naughty brontosauruses. Challenger and Summerlee are having a wonderful time with their scientific endeavors so the entrapment is not too much of a hardship for them. Paula is worred about her father but that doesn’t stop her from starting to find Ed rather attractive. Sir John is played by Lewis Stone, king of the gallant-in-defeat lover types so I think we all know where this is going to end up.
The plateau scenes are not plot heavy but they are action-packed. In fact, it was only when I started writing the synopsis that I realized that very little actual story occurs up there. In fact, the entire film moves along at a confident clip, neither too slow nor too rushed.
I should mention, though, that The Lost World is not in its complete form. It was cut down drastically for re-release and the edited footage was thought lost. Most of the missing material was discovered in a Czech archive and the film was restored by the Eastman House in 1997.
In any case, The Lost World strikes a perfect balance between spectacle and character. The cast could not be more perfect. Wallace Beery is a blustering Challenger; Arthur Hoyt is welcome comedy relief as the prim Summerlee; Lewis Stone is as noble as one could wish; Bessie Love is a charmer… and even the normally dull Lloyd Hughes manages some enthusiasm. The only real quibble I have is that one minor character is played by a white actor in blackface. However, it is not a major role and the character is generally portrayed in a positive manner. I categorize it as an unfortunate casting decision but not a deal-breaker.
The movie boasts one of the most spectacular climaxes in silent cinema. That grumpy brontosaurus has been transported to London. He breaks loose and goes on a rampage before swimming off in a huff. It is a prototype for all of the creature feature rampages that would follow and holds up extremely well.
The Lost World is beautiful, well-acted, exciting and humorous. It was definitely worth the wait.
Fans of Up should particularly enjoy the look of the film, as well as the explorer plotline. In fact, this Pixar connection makes The Lost World a good silent film to show to children. You can tell them that is a movie that Carl and Ellie might have seen in the theater when they were kids.
This is a classic that thoroughly deserves the title.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
It’s time for another installment of Silents vs. Talkies. This time, I am pitting the 1925 classic version of The Lost World against the 1960 remake. Which dino thriller will be named king? There can be only one winner so let’s see!
The Talkie Challenger: The Lost World (1960)
It’s quickly turning into the swinging sixties but dinosaurs are as popular as ever!
This version of Doyle’s novel follows the basic premise (a lost world of dinosaurs on a South American plateau) but takes considerably more liberties with the tale. Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) is a surly scientist who plans an expedition to prove that he did, in fact, see dinosaurs.
He is accompanied by Lord Roxton (Michael Rennie of The Day the Earth Stood Still fame), reporter Ed Malone (David Hedison of The Fly), and some Venezuelan guides. Madcap heiress Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John) and her brother, David (Ray Stricklyn), tag along because their father is financing the enterprise.
The story is updated with mid-20th century technology. The party takes a helicopter to the top of the plateau and then they begin their dino hunt. However, Roxton has a secret. He is not there for the science, he is there for the diamonds that are said to stud the plateau. The plot thickens…
With such an illustrious cast, I really expected more. Claude Rains is suitably roaring as Challenger but Michael Rennie looks bored and David Hedison gets trapped into being the resident loverboy.
Jill St. John gives a really, truly dreadful performance. I spent the entire movie wishing that the dinosaurs would eat her. Worse, the film falls into the typical mid-century trap of making the lone female explorer spoiled, entitled, incompetent and whiny– complete with pink luggage and lapdog! Women in movies of this time were allowed to join expeditions, capers, hunts and safaris– but these adventures were often used to illustrate that a woman’s place was in the home.
Bessie Love’s character, on the other hand, is accepted as a full-fledged member of the exploration team without question. She was her father’s assistant and her expertise are considered a valuable contribution. And she certainly does not bring pink luggage or a toy poodle. That’s not to say she is a perfect empowered heroine, she still screams and faints at dino sightings. It’s just that she is not treated like a figure of ridicule for daring to explore with the boys.
Another woman is added to the 1960 plot in the form of a native girl played by Vitina Marcus. In this case, though, double the women means double the sexism. Vitina (whose character is never named) has lived on the lost plateau all her life but she is always shrieking at the sight of the wildlife. She basically exists to wear a tiny dress (which, admittedly, she does rather well) and to provide another love interest for the male cast to scuffle over.
I imagine this is how the discussion for the portrayals of women in the film went:
Women, eh? With their… ways! Their pink-wearing ways!
The South American characters do not fare any better. Both men are portrayed as either cowardly and lascivious or homicidal and sneaky. Oh, and Gomez carries a guitar with him everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Isn’t that what all Latin Americans do? And I will not even start on the portrayals of the non-babe native characters.
The poodle is by far the smartest character in the film. It manages to find the dinosaurs while everyone else is running around in circles. It is also is able to evade capture by the unfriendly natives– at least until Jennifer comes back and ruins everything.
The Lost World was directed, produced and co-written by Irwin Allen, who brought us such films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. I am personally rather fond of his killer bee flick, The Swarm (take a gander at the cast). However, I think he may have bitten off more than he could chew with this picture. Besides the questionable performances, the story is muddled and lots of plot threads are left dangling at the end.
The dinosaurs are lizards with horns and fins glued on. Stop-motion was simply not in the budget. On a distracting side note, I could swear that some of the dinosaur screams were reused as TIE fighter sound effects in Star Wars. I kept expecting X-wings to show up and blow them out of the stars. (Willis O’Brien’s name appears in the credits but he had very little to do with the effects.)
Other than the amusing TIE fighter dinos, there is really not much else interesting in the technical department. I only wish this was a silent what with the cheesy punching sound effects and droning dialogue. I realize that this film was not a particularly high-budget affair but for goodness sake! I expected more from the future Master of Disaster.
And the winner is…
This was a blowout. A rout. A slaughter. The silent version was the brontosaurus and the talkie was London. (Which, by the way, does not happen in the talkie. I am bereft!)
The 1925 version is a real rip-snorter with a perfect cast and groundbreaking effects. While the 1960 version boasts some cornball charm, it simply is not as fun. And, frankly, it is a bit disturbing that a version of the tale made 34 years later managed to be more sexist.
The silent is a classic for a reason. The talkie is a reasonably interesting way to spend a rainy afternoon but it cannot compete on story, cast or special effects.
Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.