Film buffs and aficionados of stop-motion animation have been frustrated for years because The Lost World, the 1925 feature that laid the groundwork for King Kong, has only existed in severely truncated prints. Even an ambitious restoration in the late 1990s had to make do without a number of key scenes. Now Lobster Film of Paris, in association with Blackhawk Films, has pulled off the near-impossible, with the participation of numerous archives and collectors around the globe—and it’s a joy to behold. The new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley even includes a jaw-dropping reel of outtakes showing technicians manipulating their dinosaur models!
Much of this is the result of hard work and persistence, but some of it must be chalked up to serendipity. Master preservationist Scott MacQueen (a lifelong Lost World buff) transferred the outtakes, which originally turned up years ago, and Lobster’s Serge Bromberg supervised the assemblage of footage from a number of sources to create this best-ever version of the film. Scott also identified for me the man you see (wearing glasses) on camera animating a dinosaur: it’s not Willis O’Brien but J.L. Roop, who has an impressive history of his own in this field of animation. You can—and should—look him up on YouTube.
Another key participant was the late, great film archivist David Shepard, who toward the end of his life wrote a check to Robert Israel to create and perform an orchestral score for the movie. It’s quite good and I’m sure David would have been pleased.
I first encountered The Lost World in my teens when I got hooked on silent films and saved my money to buy an 8mm print. I didn’t care that much that the movie was originally much longer. I thoroughly enjoyed it and absorbed everything I could read about the man who made its prehistoric creatures come to life, Willis O’Brien. (Most of this was in Forrest J. Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.)
Another person who was obsessed by this tantalizing title was Samuel K. Rubin, founder and publisher of The 8mm Collector magazine, which lives on today as Classic Images. Sam checked out every print he could put his hands on, hoping to assemble the best possible copy. His greatest coup was acquiring a ten-minute reel issued on 8mm by Encyclopedia Britannica Films, which had access to a much clearer, cleaner print than any other home-movie dealer. (They issued it for the purpose of studying prehistoric life.) He lovingly spliced this footage into the body of his print, which he later sold to me when an even better version became available.
The Lost World is significant for a number of reasons. Based on a story by Arthur Conan Doyle, better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, it established a template which has been used ever since—not only for King Kong in the 1930s but Jurassic Park in the 1990s and its more recent remakes and sequels. It is the foundation for an entire movie genre and its influence cannot be overstated.
Phil Tippett, who became a master of stop-motion (bringing to life the Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance), used to attend screenings of The Lost World at Forry Ackerman’s house when he was growing up. Similar stories abound: when Scott MacQueen arranged a screening of the late-1990s restoration on the Walt Disney studio lot, lifelong friends Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen were in attendance. Needless to say, Harryhausen was a Willis O’Brien admirer and later worked with the master on Mighty Joe Young.
The new disc from Flicker Alley has all the extras you would expect, including an example of O’Brien’s early short subjects (R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.), The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, the test reel called Creation that convinced producer Merian C. Cooper to proceed with King Kong, and more. I learned a great deal from Nicolas Ciccone’s highly informative commentary track, including details of Conan Doyle’s original story about the intrepid Professor Challenger (played in The Lost World by Wallace Beery) and how it differs from the film. He is also obliged to discuss the embarrassing presence of an actor in blackface playing one of the bearers in the search party and issuing unfunny dialogue—via title cards—in dialect.
An impressive number of silent films are making their way to DVD and Blu-ray right now, and I’ll be discussing them in future columns. But The Lost World is not just another movie: its restoration is a bona fide event, and to everyone who played a part in bringing it about I say “thank you.”
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