Two Lost Worlds --- Part One
Last night, I came across the 8mm reel that started it all. The Lost World was one we (cousin, neighbor, and myself) pooled resources to order out of Famous Monsters #29 (aka Flesh Eaters edition). Should my purchasing partners come calling for respective third interests, it is here and ready to run. My viewing was a first in forty years. Somehow the image had dimmed, as though its black-and-white found a means of fading. We'd sent $4.95 to Captain Company in that summer of 1964. FM's ad promised The Lost World's dinosaurs to be the most realistic ever put on film. As of that year it was true, and easily borne out by inspection of a then-recent (1960) remake. Our Lost World was made in 1925 and effects were supervised by Willis O'Brien, King Kong's creator. We realized that going in thanks to Professor/FM editor Forrest Ackerman, and so bought with confidence. Those two hundred feet of The Lost World (originally a feature) accommodated four battles to the death among its prehistoric cast, so respective ten-eleven-fourteen year old dollars were wisely spent indeed. We ran it for nickel and dime admission in my parent's basement, sometimes in combo with Castle Films' Dracula, our accompanying purchase that season. I was surprised to find that The Lost World had been prepared for 8mm by Encyclopedia Britannica, an entity not otherwise given to endorsement of dinosaur battling, thus my explanation to parents that its acquisition was justified for educational values therein. Would Encyclopedia Britannica lend its imprinteur otherwise? Remarkable the efforts we made to legitimize a beloved, but disreputable, genre.
The Lost World's creatures were menacing but somehow personable. They snarled but also wagged tails. You knew the Brontosaurus would come a cropper for not being carnivorous. He's noble but has a brain the size of a pea so gets eased over a precipice by the habitually anti-heroic Tyrannosaurus Rex. 8mm titles indicated the Bronto would die slowly in swamps below, but FM's FJA assured us that selfsame brute was not only revived, but let loose to flatten London bridge in a fuller dish Lost World he saw back in prehistoric 1925 (when people maybe had real dinosaurs to contend with). FJA alerted us as well to missing link ape-man Bull Montana, also resident of an unexpurgated LW lost to ages (mine at least). Ackerman published stills to verify what I might have discarded as myth. For years, there was no more Lost World for me than what that 8mm reel contained. Serious film collecting, which really just means more dollars spent chasing thrills that can't help diminishing as one gets older, finally yielded a dupe from a dupe off a Kodascope, the latter being authorized 16mm prints once sold for home entertainment. These boasted improved visuals and longer running time. Still, they were short by nearly half from what Forry J and kinsmen saw. The Lost World had been trimmed to essential bone by a distributor set upon adapting merchandise to saleable length. More than one fan developed O.C.L.W.S., which was Obsessive Compulsive Lost World Syndrome, a malady wherein the afflicted spend lives in search of missing Lost World footage, their quest as frustrating as Professor Challenger's for his elusive plateau. The stunner here was fact they actually scored the 1925 original ... well, at least most of it ... and reliable authority suggests even more Lost World nitrate has revealed itself since.
Forever, it seemed, The Lost World was anybody's show. Having gone Public Domain long ago, it's been plundered for nips and clips that even in truncated circumstance can delight newcomers. Like with Ray Harryhausen's output, these stop-motion puppets correspond to beats of our hearts. My generation (and ones before me) love them with greater fidelity than later crops are likely to maintain for impersonal Jurassic Park residents. Blackhawk Films and Griggs-Moviedrome sold what they could pull off Kodascope copies through the sixties and seventies. A grand culmination arrived with a near-full length Lost World unveiling at 1998's Syracuse Cinefest, said restoration having originated with George Eastman House. That version surfaced later on DVD as an extra with 20th Fox's remake, a bargain disc whatever one's reservations about the 1960 version. Now with more footage having turned up since the 90's rescue, it seems somehow appropriate that a fully intact Lost World remains beyond reach ... at least of any institution's willingness to spend yet more revisiting it.
So here's what dogged me for years about The Lost World: Why didn't Hollywood make more dinosaur movies? Well, we could ask the same thing of King Kong. You'd figure Willis O'Brien's phone would ring off its hook in wake of those two. I don't know how The Lost World sold in 1925, but assume it was a hit. Some patrons are said to have thought the dinos were genuine. At the least, First National had stock footage I'd think could be spun off into a hundred low-budget replicas, plus there was FX test film (included on Fox's DVD) that could by itself satisfy demands of a poverty row contender. Instead it was Hal Roach's One Million BC in 1940 that became one stop shopping for monster scraps, but his were blown-up lizards no more or less convincing than ones Irwin Allen decorated in 1960. I did read Scott MacQueen's American Cinematographer account of how rights to The Lost World shifted around after 1925, so I'm not sure what if any ownership Warner Bros. would have inherited after they absorbed First National, but wouldn't it have been neat seeing O'Brien's creatures popping up in sci-fi adventures right through a black-and-white 50's? I'm picturing Frank Lovejoy and Paul Picerni leading a Warners-backed expedition, with Joan Weldon or Phyllis Kirk lending girl scientist assist. Maybe Frank could wear a beard and look scruffy so as to match up with Wallace Beery footage. He and Paul could fight over Joan/Phylis just as volcanoes erupt and all those million plus thirty year old dinosaurs stampede across process screens to amaze a new generation of filmgoers. Somebody send me back to JL's office around 1953! I could give as persuasive a pitch as Daffy did in The Scarlet Pumpernickel.
Coming in Part Two: Irwin Allen's Immortal 1960 Remake of The Lost World.