There once was a time in the not-too-distant cinematic past where the world was still largely undiscovered and areas of the planet were a mystery to modern man. What beasts lived on these islands? What creatures were in these jungles? What was out there, lurking in the shadows? This theme cropped up again last month when Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla opened. In the updated version, Godzilla is not a lizard that has become radioactive due to nuclear bomb testing, but a prehistoric beast that ruled the land. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s game-changing Jurassic Park harbored dinosaurs on a remote Hawaiian island. True, these dinosaurs were cloned, but they were cloned from DNA found in mosquitoes that were dug up from deep underground in remote jungles. Were those the same jungles that King Kong once ruled?
Trace these stories back far enough, and you end up with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel, The Lost World. It has been adapted directly to cinema five times, and who knows how many more it inspired, but the original (and best) is the 1925 silent version directed by Harry Hoyt, which will be screened Wednesday, June 11 at Chautauqua Auditorium with Purple Squirrel Quartet providing live musical accompaniment. Max Fleischer’s Koko the Clown (an early example of rotoscope animation) will precede the screening.
The plot of The Lost World is so simple and so maddeningly stupid that you’ll find yourself cheering for the dinosaurs (maybe that’s the point). Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) is convinced that somewhere in the “trackless jungles” of Venezuela, dinosaurs still walk the Earth. This theory is based on a few sketches found in a notebook that Paula White (Bessie Love) gave him. Apparently, that’s good enough for Challenger and he challenges any man that does not believe him to follow him into that very jungle. A newspaper offers to fund the adventure and a rag-tag team joins Dr. Challenger and Paula: sportsman Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone), reporter Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes), the skeptical professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt), the Indian servant Zambor (Jules Cowes in appalling black face) and Challenger’s butler, Austin (Francis Finch-Smiles).
The characters are one-dimensional (at best) and the plot is barely there, but that’s okay. We did not come to see scintillating story telling, we came to see dinosaurs!
And thanks to the work of Willis O’Brien, dinosaurs are what we get. O’Brien started working with stop-motion animation as early as 1913, a painstaking process where the illusion of movement is constructed by creating a small figure, usually out of clay, and photographing it’s movement one-frame at a time. When the images are played back at a normal speed (twenty-four frames a second) the figure comes to life and moves before our very eyes. It takes a lot of time and love to make a stop-motion movie, and it shows. O’Brien followed up the success of The Lost World with another classic, 1933’s King Kong, and both have remained in good circulation on TV and in specialty theaters worldwide. Both movies contain wooden acting and dated filmmaking, but the creatures themselves continue to be cherished and loved.