November 3, 2019
The Lost World – U.S., 1925
Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World just missed being the first “summer film” by three months. I say this not because Hollywood had conceived of the modern-day concept of a summer film at a time when studios were producing a film a week, but because The Lost World has so much in common with what has come to be associated with a film released between May and August – thinly-drawn characters, impressive special effects, and an action-packed finale that, like King Kong eight years later, brings danger to the streets of New York. And in an eerie sense of déjà vu, its star bares a striking resemblance to Richard Attenborough, who played the man responsible for bringing dinosaurs back in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
To some, this may seem like a put-down. I certainly don’t intent for it to be. Instead, it is meant as an acknowledgement that Hollywood has always been conflicted as to its overall purpose. Are movies meant to simply afford the audience a venue through which to pass the time happily, or are they meant to be bigger and better than that? Just two years later, this split was reflected in the awarding of the first Best Picture award to two films – one, Sunrise, which was artistic and shed light on the fragility and imperfection of regular people; and Wings, which told the tale of two pilots in love with the same woman. This debate continues today in the current arguments over whether superhero movies are cinema, which of course they are. It’s just that they are in the vein of Wings, well-constructed, but soon-to-be-forgotten crowd-pleasures, and many cinephiles see that as an inferior genre.
So, The Lost World does not aspire to be Intolerance or The Kid; not every film has to. What we should therefore ask of a film like it is for there to be a story that makes sense in its established reality, performances that make us feel as if the events are really occurring, and characters whose fates we care about enough to watch as they embark on an adventure that is – if we’re honest with ourselves – fairly silly. Jurassic Park had this in spades. The Lost World, on the other hand, is hit and miss.
The Lost World begins with a man named Ed (Lloyd Hughes) asking his long-time love, Gladys, why she won’t marry him. She explains that the man she marries has to be daring and make his own chances. In her words, “you can’t hold him back.” Immediately, he dons a look of determination and sets off to ask the newspaper he works for to send him on an assignment will enable him to prove that he is indeed a man unchained. Soon we find him begging a professor (Wallace Beery), appropriately named Challenger, to be included on an expedition to prove the existence of modern-day dinosaurs in South America. He succeeds, of course, and even convinces his employer to finance the operation under the guise of rescuing the father of a young woman who became trapped in the land that Challenger claims is inhabited by prehistoric beasts. It’s not long before he and four others are staring up at the Amazon’s majestic tepuis and taking in their first view of a living Pterodactyl.
As for the first of my criteria, a story that makes sense in its established reality, The Lost World is mostly successful. It is logical that most people would disbelieve a story as crazy as Challenger’s, and many of the experiences of the explorers, from the threat of being eaten to that of being trapped in that land for eternity, are logical. Where the film falters is in the reactions of many of its supporting characters. One member of the expedition is black, and like so many such characters from films of this time period, he’s portrayed as a fool and a coward. It also appears that he’s played by an actor in blackface. Another character is a sixty-year old professor with an affinity for bugs. Normally, there’s nothing wrong with that, but when he stops to comment on a bug in the middle of a path rife with hazards, it stretches credibility. It was a reminder of how many great films have been somewhat weakened by the addition of a superfluous comic character.
The performances are generally good, yet they are slightly undone by several questionable plotlines. The first involves the great hunter in the group, John Roxton (Lewis Stone). While it is reasonable that one would be involved in the voyage, the choice to make him part of the film’s love triangle is a peculiar one, primarily because of the age difference between the hunter and the woman he wishes to marry – at first glance, he could be her grandfather. There’s also little chemistry between the two actors. One could argue that those facts make it logical that she would fall for Ed, yet the two of them share so little screen time together that when they began professing their love for each other, I found myself sighing. They literally go from saying I love you to planning their wedding in less than a minute.
And then there are the characters, and here is where the film mostly finds its strength. Resonating the most are Challenger and Roxton. It may be impossible for Beery to do wrong, and here he finds the perfect blend of belligerence, leadership, humor, and bravery to make you believe that Challenger would walk in the direction of animals that would look at him as their next meal. Stone brings a great deal of gravitas and nobility to the role of Roxton, and I loved the way the character reacts to the dinosaurs, always keeping his rifle handy, but cognizant that the weapon would have little effect on the enormous beasts. He also does better than most people could have with the love angle. As Miss Paula White, the daughter of the missing man, Bessie Love makes you believe her character is staring at the unthinkable, and Hughes is perfectly fine as Ed. Even Arthur Hoyt, playing Professor Summerlee, the bug lover, does reasonably well with a role that could easily have been removed from the film.
One other matter bears mentioning, and that is the number of scenes involving either wildlife or dinosaurs. As with many other films from the early days of cinema, viewers were not expected to have traveled abroad much, so part of their interest in films or documentaries set it other countries involved seeing the animals that roam those lands. Fortunately for them, Hoyt gives them plenty to marvel at. However, seen today, these moments drag, for they are not meant to establish an atmosphere or level of peril. (Hoyt actually accomplishes this through some pretty interesting work with colors.) The same can also be said of several scenes depicting battles between dinosaurs, three of which involve a triceratops and an allosaurus. With all the time and effort spent on their duels, I fully expected the allosaurus to factor in the film’s climax. He doesn’t, though, and there is a lot less at stake in the finale as a result.
The Lost World was certainly a revelation in its time. Removed from that context, though, the film suffers. Its love story is weak, its focus scattered, and its comedy only partly successful. The film succeeds due to Hoyt’s impressive direction, and the cast’s incredible commitment to selling the story and their characters. Seen today, the film’s impact is unmistakable. One need only look at the climax of Spielberg’s The Lost World to see the debt it owes Hoyt’s film. And so what if it resembles much of what we now consider a summer movies? There’s nothing wrong with striving just to entertain, and I’m happy to report that The Lost World, despite all its faults, continues to do that. (on DVD and Blu-ray)