How 1925's Silent Classic "The Lost World" Hatched The Age of Dinosaur Movies Long Before Jurassic Park

Thursday, June 21, 2018

It may seem like the animatronic and CGI dinos of the Jurassic Park franchise have been lumbering along for eternity. But long, long before all the running and screaming began, an epic achievement in silent film featured herds of stop-motion dinosaurs for an astounded public.

The Lost World premiered in theaters on February 2, 1925, and carried with it some of the most jaw-dropping visual effects ever displayed on the Silver Screen. It was the first full-length monster movie unleashed in America to integrate live-action and artificial, rampaging dino models. Every single dino-centric movie debuting over the past 93 years owes a colossal debt of gratitude to this seminal Hollywood hatchling.

This silent film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic 1912 novel, The Lost World, was produced by First National Pictures and starred Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger. Upon release, the 106-minute fantasy epic was a bonafide smash, collecting $1.3 million in box office receipts off an estimated $700,000 budget. In 1998, it was declared "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and chosen for restoration preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Directed by Harry O. Hoyt, it was a showcase for revolutionary stop-motion special effects by Willis O'Brien, who later went on to animate the great ape and Skull Island denizens for directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack in the original King Kong (1933).

The film's themes of mankind's blind hubris, science overreaching its grasp, and our responsibility to the myriad living creatures that inhabit the same Earth are at full force here. Its special effects technology might be considered quaint when judged by today's photo-realistic CGI standards, but the messages remain relevant to this day and have since been explored time and time again across genre.

The Lost World's still-engaging story centers around the ambitious scientist Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery), who ventures to a remote South American plateau in the dark heart of the Amazon jungle where primeval creatures still roam.

He foolishly captures a massive Brontosaurus in a bog and hauls it back to the bustling city of London, where the enraged beast predictably escapes and goes on a rampage, knocking down buildings, stampeding frightened citizens, and defiling national monuments. The finale depicts the dinosaur reaching the Tower Bridge, which collapses under its weight, allowing the beast to escape by paddling away down the Thames River toward freedom.

Nothing like this had ever been attempted at such an ambitious level before. Innocent 1920s audiences were astonished by the sight of triceratops, allosauruses, pteranodons, and stegosauruses parading across the theater screen.

Doyle himself screened early test footage of the dinosaurs for an audience at The Society of American Magicians in 1922 without revealing the source of its origin. In attendance that remarkable evening was the legendary escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini. A notice in The New York Times the following day recounted that "Conan Doyle’s monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces.”

Hoyt's mega-hit dinosaur movie also holds the curious distinction of being the first movie ever shown aboard a commercial airplane, in this case, an Imperial Airways flight from London to Paris in April 1925.

The Lost World 1925 - film poster

For you modern purists and cinephiles who want to experience The Lost World in all its original (but remastered for the 21st century) glory, Flicker Alley released an all-new 2K restored edition of The Lost World on Blu-ray last September. It's packed with deleted scenes and extras in a sparkling 110-minute presentation that hasn't been available since the film's original exhibition.

So before you corral the clan in the family truckster and trek over to see any other dinosaur movie in cinemas, pay homage to the past by absorbing the work of silent film-era masters with The Lost World.