Sherlock Holmes made his first print appearance in 1887 and quickly became a widespread sensation. Unlike the public, British writer Arthur Conan Doyle grew quickly sick of him and tried to abandon him for other literary endeavors, creating another character with an enduring impact, though he’s hardly a household name today. Professor Edward Challenger was everything the coolly intellectual Sherlock Holmes was not: Bullish of build and demeanor, bushy-bearded, hot-tempered, a man of impulsive action. If Holmes was a model of Victorian propriety even in the most garish crime-scene circumstances, Challenger was a combative manchild clad in a torn waistcoat. Forever getting into fights, he was also the chap very likely to get you out of some harrowing scrape. Befitting his outsize personality, Professor Challenger appears in five stories with far more fantastical settings than Holmes typically hazarded, extending into realms of science fiction.
The first and still most famous Challenger adventure is 1912’s The Lost World, in which he leads an expedition (chronicled by young reporter Edward Malone) to prove dinosaurs and other supposedly long-extinct creatures still exist in a hidden corner of the Amazon. This very Boy’s Own Story “ripping yarn” was a great success, widely imitated (most notably by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot twelve years later), and an obvious candidate for screen translation. Sherlock Holmes had already made numerous celluloid appearances by then (nearly all since lost), but how to credibly depict the world Doyle created, with its brontosauruses, pterodactyls, the ferocious iguanodon, and other beasts known only by fossil record?
Enter Oakland native Willis O’Brien, born the same year Doyle conceived Holmes. An erstwhile ranch hand, newspaper cartoonist, boxer, and odd-jobber (including a significant stint helping USC scientists find prehistoric artifacts) he’d stumbled into a career of sorts that made him ideal for the job. In 1915, O’Brien made an eighty-second test reel that convinced San Francisco exhibitor Herman Wobber to fund The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy. That six-minute “clay puppet” extravaganza, animating both comedic cavemen and giant critters, was a striking enough novelty to attract distribution from Thomas Edison’s company. Its success prompted a series of hastily produced follow-up shorts, most now lost.
Increasingly disenchanted by his working conditions and narrowing creative freedom, O’Brien accepted East Coast producer Herbert M. Dawley’s offer to make another dinosaur film in which Uncle Jack conjures a Dream Valley where hermit Mad Dick (played by O’Brien) leads some adventurers to a site inhabited by prehistoric animals. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, released in 1919, became another acclaimed novelty. However, a dispute between O’Brien and Dawley over credit led to a rancorous break.
O’Brien had already found a new employer in Watterson R. Rothacker, who was eager to film Doyle’s story with the combination of animation, models, and live action pioneered in Slumber Mountain, but on a much grander scale. By far the most elaborate special-effects feature made to that point, it would be starry and lavish, delayed over production costs (approaching a million dollars), and done under the cloud of copyright claims made by Dawley. The enterprise was a big gamble both for Rothacker, whose company up until that point provided laboratory services and made advertising films, and for First National Pictures, which was absorbed by Warner Bros. three years later. But it paid off in one of the most spectacular successes of the era.
The Lost World movie hews fairly close to Doyle’s original novel. Bent on proving to a scoffing public and scientific colleagues that he’s no tall-tale-teller, Professor Challenger (the perfectly cast Wallace Beery) returns to the deep Amazonian jungle he’d barely escaped alive before, losing all his evidence in flight. This time taking along skeptical zoologist Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt), gentleman adventurer Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone), and junior reporter Malone (Lloyd Hughes), he relocates the hidden plateau where a quirk of nature has preserved life from ancient epochs. The explorers are stranded in this perilous environ for some time before they figure a way back to civilization.
Marion Fairfax’s screenplay does impose a few significant changes to the novel, most notably a role for top-billed Bessie Love. As a missing explorer’s daughter who hopes to find her father, Love’s character provides Hughes with a romantic interest, and the film with an appeal broader than its manly source material. Cute monkey “Jocko,” another Fairfax addition, winds up playing a key plot role; and a fiery volcano eruption substitutes for the book’s climactic war between primitive humans and savage ape-men.
One idea Doyle merely teased in the novel is altered and expanded in the movie to provide the last act of large-scale action in London, anticipating King Kong’s finale eight years later. An alteration that has aged poorly is the refashioning of local guide Zambo—an imposing, fearless, and loyal figure in print—into a stock, wide-eyed stereotype of “darkie” comic relief, played in blackface by Jules Cowes.
Put together over an unusually long production schedule for the period, The Lost World presaged Hollywood popcorn fantasies of a century later. The photographing of actors (on full sets, fragmentary ones, and sometimes against pre-“green screen” blank backdrops) was just one part of the puzzle. More time-consuming were the ingenious mixtures of “glass shots,” mattes, miniature sets, split-screen effects, stop-motion, and more. To assist, special effects technician O’Brien hired art student Marcel Delgado to make the models of the creatures. (Delgado went on to a healthy career in sound films, including on The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and Fantastic Voyage.)
Released in early 1925, The Lost World was a big hit worldwide, its effects—techniques still new enough that few critics knew how they’d been done—receiving universal praise. Even Arthur Conan Doyle was impressed. O’Brien’s contributions as “Research and Technical Director” were highlighted in publicity for the film and clearly delineated on-screen from Harry O. Hoyt’s “Dramatic Direction” credit.
Despite the acclaim, The Lost World was an exception in O’Brien’s checkered career—hampered by his reputation for budget-consuming perfectionism, a disinclination to joust with studio politics, and the major studios’ disdain of “monster movies” during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Many of his later projects were aborted after extensive pre-production work, or even after shooting had begun.
The enormous success of 1933’s King Kong—on which “Chief Technician” O’Brien was again the star creative—proved another exception. O’Brien was so dismayed by the cheap, hasty resources allocated for its sequel, Son of Kong, that he had his name removed from the credits. Apart from the 1949 quasi-remake Mighty Joe Young, his subsequent contributions were erratic and often thwarted, gradually declining to a trickle of small gigs in “big pictures” and bigger ones on low-budget genre flicks like The Giant Behemoth (1959).
There have been five official remakes of The Lost World (two of them TV movies)—none of which you’ve likely heard of, and for good reason. The 1960 version by future “disaster flick” king Irwin Allen unconvincingly stuck fins and horns onto real reptiles rather than replicate O’Brien’s painstaking animations. On the other hand, onetime protégé Ray Harryhausen faithfully carried on O’Brien’s methods in fantasy classics from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) to Clash of the Titans (1981).
Sadly, the 1925 version was quickly lost, largely because of an unfortunate 1929 agreement to withdraw prints from circulation. For decades the film was available only in worn 16mm dupes drastically reduced to little more (or sometimes less) than an hour. It seemed unlikely that anything like a complete restoration would ever be possible.
Yet beginning about a quarter-century ago, various missing pieces started to surface around the world, principally a near-complete version at the Czech national archive. Combining elements from eleven sources, the 2016 restoration is no amusingly creaky antique. It’s a beautifully tinted, ambitious, and exciting spectacular that more than holds its own against today’s FX-laden fantasy blockbusters. (You may recall that the CGI era began in earnest with 1993’s Jurassic Park, which owes everything to The Lost World. Michael Crichton, who wrote the source novel, knew its origins well, giving his 1995 sequel the same title as Doyle’s book.) Though it may not offer one hundred percent of what audiences saw ninety-two years ago, the restoration is a near-seamless entity whose appeal goes beyond pure nostalgia and remains shockingly in line with modern popular taste.
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by Alloy Orchestra