The 1925 Silent Film

The hour-long Kodascope version of The Lost World.

The story of The Lost World on the silver screen begins not with the 1925 silent film produced by First National Pictures, but rather, with an unrealized version first developed by early film magnate William Selig, whose most well-known contributions to film were Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle and Los Angeles' first zoo. All that remains of the version of The Lost World that Selig intended to make is a synopsis, a scenario up to the end of the first reel, a potential cast list, and a handful of storyboards, all of which are housed within the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Selig's version never was made, as his company liquidated its assets in 1918. 

Those assets, however, fell into the hands of Watterson R. Rothacker. Their echo can still be heard in the version that was made. It was Selig who first introduced the idea of adding a love interest to Conan Doyle's seminal tale of prehistoric adventure. Several cast members on Selig's proposed list were eventually approached by Rothacker as well, including Lewis Stone as Lord John Roxton and Bull Montana as the Ape Man. Most implausible were the storyboards, which showed scenes of menacing saurian monstrosities, some of which look like they could have been drawn right from the finished film. The expertise to accomplish that feat lay with the discovery of Willis O'Brien.

Fresh from his string of stop-motion comedies for Thomas Edison and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, Rothacker hired O'Brien to do the animation for this ambitious project. In those previous films, O'Brien's dinosaur models were built largely out of clay and cloth on wooden armatures. When hired to undertake animation work on The Lost World, he realized that what he had been doing up to that point was inadequate for a motion picture spectacular such as this. Furthermore, the sheer number of models required was too ambitious for him to accomplish alone. 

The solution to this dilemma came in the person of a young grocery clerk and aspiring sculptor O'Brien met named Marcel Delgado. For inspiration, Delgado went to the paintings of Charles R. Knight, the father of modern palaeontological restoration who worked out of the American Museum of Natural History. By virtue of this relationship with the palaeontologists of his time, Knight's paintings were as accurate as science could make them at the time, and this worked it's way into The Lost World. Delgado's models, 49 or 50 in total, were exact three-dimensional representations of Knight's paintings, and inherited their accuracy. The dinosaurs of The Lost World remain to this day the most accurate ever seen in a movie based on what science knew at the time. 

The models Delgado crafted were carried by ball-and-socket dual armatures, upon which foam musculature and detailed latex skins were applied. Many of them included an air bladder for breathing effects. Numerous scale sets had to be built for the dinosaurs to stomp around in as well. Most ambitious was the massive 150 feet long plateau landscape used in the climactic dinosaur stampede sequence. Months upon months and years upon years of work went into every minute action that brought these ancient monsters to life on the screen. And extremely convincing they were! 

A cast for the Challenger Expedition were found in Wallace Beery as the irascible professor, Lloyd Hughes as reporter Ed Malone, Bessie Love as the love interest and daughter of the Lost World's discoverer, Lewis Stone and Bull Montana. Animal actors found lucrative work in The Lost World, earning incredibly high salaries. Among these were a python, an alligator, spiders and termites and other assorted insects, a sloth, two bear cubs masquerading as "full grown" spectacle bears and Jocko the ring-tailed monkey. Beery, Hughes and Stone were all insured by the producers against python bites, in anticipation of filming a scene that has since been lost. 

Joining the main cast and the animals were, reportedly, an additional 2000 extras, 200 automobiles and six omnibuses for the grand finale in the streets of London. The London sets themselves sprawled an eighth of a mile, while the jungle scenes included a shallow pool that housed the sleepy Amazonian village and the crocodiles and alligators swimming beneath it. Principle filming was done on First National's patch of the Brunton Studios, a Hollywood establishment renting soundstages and space for smaller studios without their own property. Extra filming of the steaming waterways of the Amazon was done on the steaming waterways of Los Angeles' open sewer, which marked the border of MGM’s studio in nearby Culver City.

Nevertheless, filming was completed after three years of tests and production. The Lost World ended up with a price-tag of $1 million compared to $200,000 or less for the average silent movie. Adjusting for inflation, The Lost World would now cost some $10.8 million (for comparison Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park cost an estimated $63 million). Appropriately, the gala premiere was held at Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Ten days later, The Lost World was reported breaking attendance records at the theatre. The film was both a critical and a box-office success. 

Life intersected with art as well. The newly renovated New Gallery Theatre in London hosted a matinee performance in aid of the British Museum Fund for Exploration of South Africa on June 19th 1925. Sir Sidney Harmer preceded the showing with a lecture on W.E. Cutler’s attempts to find fossil dinosaurs in the Tanganyika territory of East Africa. Today, Tanganyika is part of Tanzania, which is bordered by the Congo and the reputed home of a legendary ‘dinosaur-like’ animal named Mokele-mbembe. In its November 1930 issue, National Geographic recounted an expedition "Through Brazil to the Summit of Mount Roraima" and there were a few words spared to the doubtful possibility of finding dinosaurs upon it. Back in 1925, Katharine MacGregor – the first woman to cross the Andes from Peru to Paraguay – embarked on an expedition into Columbia to find a real life lost world. While MacGregor was heading to Columbia, Roy Chapman Andrews was preparing to depart for his second Mongolian expedition on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History. The first expedition, which got underway in 1922, had created a stir by the discovery of the first dinosaur eggs. The 1925 expedition, beginning in April, was expected to return more wonders. Adding to the furor over the whole thing, 1925 was also the year of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.

The Lost World also received another important distinction - one of the first movies to be screened in an aeroplane. This historic showing was on Monday, April 6th, 1925 during a half-hour Imperial Airways flight from London to Paris. It was also shown the following day to a special party of 12 persons during an hour circle flight around Croydon, England. Not to be outdone, the German Air Service Company premiered the film on Feb. 4th, 1926 during a flight over Berlin. The very first aeroplane in-flight movie had been shown as an exhibit during the 1921 Chicago Pageant of Progress. A Santa Maria hydroplane circled the Windy City as it showed the promotional film Howdy Chicago! which had also been produced by Watterson R. Rothacker. 

Unfortunately, time was not kind to The Lost World. First National Pictures was bought up by Warner Brothers in 1929, who licenced the film to Kodascope Libraries, who in turn excised 30 minutes of dramatic footage from it. Clips were used in the 1931 film Mystery of Life, co-narrated by the Scopes Trial's Clarence Darrow. The whole film, and Willis O'Brien's career, was overshadowed by a certain 1933 film involving dinosaurs and a gigantic ape. At least the film inspired a boy named Bob Clampett, who drew upon that inspiration to create the beloved cartoon characters Beanie and Cecil. Now an inductee into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, recent restorations making use of recovered footage have put some of the lustre back onto "the greatest entertainment the brains of man have ever achieved".

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