Monday, September 14, 2009

Movie Monday - The Lost World (1925)

So I was researching that whole T-Rex scratch thing for this past Saturday's Vault, and it gave me a reason to finally sit down and watch "The Lost World," the 1925 silent film featuring Willis O'Brien's pre-"King Kong" dinosaur animation.

As a kid, I always wanted to see the film, because it was talked about in such glowing terms in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Forrie Ackerman raved about it, so I figured I had to see it. But it was not so easy in those days. I got to see a lot of classic stuff on Friday and Saturday night late movies or on Sunday TV matinees (usually the dinosaur movies played late at night, and the classic Universal monsters--Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Mummy--played on Sundays; no idea why).

And I even got to see quite a bit of it on a big screen at a revival theater that ran for a few years in Oklahoma City. I saw the original "King Kong," "The Valley of Gwangi," "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," virtually everything by the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields (excluding Fields's silent pictures), all the Universal monsters. But no "Lost World."

By the time I ran across it on the Internet Archive, I had already seen samples of the dinosaur animation in documentaries about O' Brien's work, and had no interest in sitting through the entire thing anymore. But finally last week, I did, and noticed some interesting things.

Let's get this out of the way first: it hasn't aged well. The plot is haphazard, the effects are very amateurish compared to what O'Brien and his crew would later accomplish, and modern sensibilities would likely be offended by a supporting character played in blackface. So let's stipulate right up front that we aren't watching this because it's good, but because it's historically significant and start out on our quest, shall we? Because virtually everyone and everything in this movie ended up doing bigger, better, more famous things later.

The movie starts out in London. Professor Challenger is the laughingstock of London with his outrageous claims that dinosaurs still live in a remote part of the Amazon. The ridicule has made Challenger a bit crazy...

Or maybe he was crazy to start with. Challenger was played by Wallace Beery, who later won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in "The Champ."

Turns out, Challenger hasn't actually seen the dinosaurs himself. He has only read about them in the diary of Maple White, a fellow explorer who was lost on an expedition to the lost plateau in the Amazon. The diary was brought back by his daughter Paula, who wears her hair in these really freakish braids wrapped around her head.

Paula White was played by Bessie Love, who early in her career appeared in D.W. Griffith's epic "Intolerance" and continued sporadically to play roles into the 1980's. Her final film was "The Hunger," the lesbian vampire story starring Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

Challenger's rough manner has kept him from being able to raise funds for a new expedition until reporter Edward Malone comes along, played by Charlie Sheen.

Okay, actually his name is Lloyd Hughes, but he has a Charlie Sheen-esque expression in several scenes in the film. Malone has the stupidest character motivation ever: he is desperate for a dangerous assignment, because he's engaged to a woman who demands he risk his life to prove his manliness before she will marry him (she never actually appears in the film). Malone convinces his paper to finance the expedition, with the help of Sir John Roxton, a famous big game hunter who is in love with Paula.

So the characters travel to the Amazon, where they see some exotic wildlife then very quickly find the plateau. Fans of Pixar films will get a pleasant jolt at this moment, because the plateau in "The Lost World" was revisited in Pixar's "Up."

The expedition climbs up onto the plateau, where they encounter dinosaurs and a goofy ape man played by Bull Montana. Sir Roxton finds Maple White's bones and watch in a cave. He gives the watch to Paula. Meanwhile Edward has figured out that Gladys, the bitch back home who sent him on this death trip, is not worth staying faithful to, so he woos Paula, and they decide to get married. Aw. Sir John is heartbroken, but keeps a brave face because he wants Paula to be happy.

A volcano erupts, the travelers escape without a scratch, and as luck would have it, they find a live brontosaurus that has also fallen off the plateau. They have living proof! At least until the brontosaurus escapes to rampage briefly through London, then swims off down the Thames (no, the brontosaurus does not climb Big Ben and have to be shot off with airplanes, although how cool would it have been if he did?).

This shot kind of interested me, though. Lileks highlights shots like this when he reviews old movies just to see what kinds of details about daily life they reveal. In this case, the ads on the left for Black & White Whisky (it's still around) and Schweppes Ginger Ale (the lighted signs on the left blink and not all three were on at once, so you can't see it in this screencap). Between the two, of course, is Bovril, which I've never tasted but is apparently some kind of British salty meat juice. On the right side is the London Pavilion theatre, which is showing the 1924 version of "The Sea Hawk." It was remade with Errol Flynn in 1940, but it's not one of his better known roles.

So anyway, everyone lives happily ever after, or sort of. Challenger loses his brontosaurus, but at least nobody's deriding him as a fraud anymore. Edward and Paula ride off blissfully into the sunset. Everybody's happy except this guy: Sir John Roxton, the big game hunter.

He was in love with Paula, and she ran off with Edward. And he spent his personal fortune to transport the brontosaurus back to London, only to have it escape literally as they were unloading it from the ship, so there's no way of making his money back on that. So after this final shot of his forlorn face, he probably went back home and shot himself. Or maybe he looked up Edward's ex, Gladys. Same diff.

And what really sucks is the guy who was saddled with this shitty part was the best actor in the movie: Lewis Stone, who went on to play Judge Hardy in the "Andy Hardy" series of films. He went from playing second fiddle to dinosaurs to playing second fiddle to Mickey Rooney, yet somehow kept his dignity. Wow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know, I've never seen it either. With all the clips on "Movie Monster" shows I saw, I've probably watched all the good parts anyway.

Bovril is beef tea, from the words BOVine VRIL (as in 'life energy') It sounds really disgusting, but is still around.