TCM's 'Lost World': A Treasure Unearthed
By Tom Shales
The Washington Post, July 20, 2001
Just as there are archaeologists who roam the world looking for dinosaur remains, so dedicated film archaeologists scour the earth for the remains of missing movies.
Since "The Lost World" is an ancient movie about dinosaurs, it's doubly historic. For most of the 76 years since the film was released, it has been unavailable at its original length, but tonight at 8, Turner Classic Movies will show the most nearly complete version yet assembled. The previous "World" was only an hour long. TCM's shiny new edition clocks in at 93 minutes.
No one seems certain exactly how long the movie was when it opened in 1925, but 93 minutes obviously has to be closer than an hour. By combining footage from eight different prints, restorers have produced a version in which most of the images are sharp and bright, and tinted according to the director's original intentions.
One of the best things about cable is the way TCM and the American Movie Classics channel have helped make people aware of the ongoing crisis in film preservation -- that hundreds of films are either partially or entirely missing. Preservation and restoration involve tracking lost movies down, then attempting to restore them to viewable condition.
Some movies are worth saving for cinematic value and some worth saving for entertainment value. "The Lost World" qualifies on both counts. It's important as a very early example of stop-motion photography, the camera trick that gives life to inanimate objects and, in 1933, unforgettably made King Kong move. "World" is also a lot of fun, with its array of monsters, erupting volcano and peppy pacing.
After the repremiere of "Lost World," TCM will air "King Kong" at 10 and "Kong's" sweet-natured sequel, "The Son of Kong" (also 1933), at midnight. Both films, made by basically the same production team, star illustrious oversize gorillas, but they include many scenes with dinosaurs too. A highlight of "King Kong" is, of course, a fight over Fay Wray between the great ape and a bellicose tyrannosaur.
Kong won. Rex was wrecked. Wray writhed.
Tireless, intrepid film scholars David Shepard and Serge Bromberg, members of a noble fraternity, supervised the reconstruction of "Lost World," sniffing out footage around the world. Some came from an archive in Czechoslovakia.
Even though the special effects are primitive by modern digital standards, they represent groundbreaking work. And they have a certain charm. These are handmade, man-made monsters, lovingly animated one frame at a time. Today's dinosaurs are of course much more agile and believable -- those of "Jurassic Park III" seem another step up from those of "Jurassic Park II" -- but you can almost feel the patience and devotion that went into making 1925's.
The human stars of "Lost World" include Wallace Beery before he got fat, playing a scientist, Professor Challenger, who so hates reporters that he bashes them with his cane. Sweet little Bessie Love is the daughter who joins him on an expedition from London to South America where, on a huge plateau, dinosaurs still clomp around and pterodactyls still fly around. There's also a gaggle of weird monkey-men who creep through the forest and throw stuff.
Before it's all over, the explorers have brought a dinosaur back to London, much as King Kong would later be brought to New York. Naturally, like Kong, it gets loose, running riot and wreaking such havoc as only a dinosaur can wreak. The restored "Lost World" lacks a real ending yet still makes a satisfying tale.
Willis H. O'Brien, the genius behind Kong, was also chief technician on "Lost World." On "Mighty Joe Young" in 1949, O'Brien passed the torch to his successor, Ray Harryhausen, a name beloved by fans of fantastic cinema. "Lost World" was remade in CinemaScope in 1960 with Claude Rains as a toned-down Challenger and real lizards dressed up as dinosaurs. The silent version is worlds better.
Both versions are based on a book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but only in the first does Doyle himself appear, sitting in his garden and introducing the film with a poem on a title card: "I have wrought my simple plan if I give one hour of joy / To the boy who's half a man, or the man who's half a boy."
For TCM, "Lost World" helps redeem what's been something of a lost summer. Dubious treats have included an Ann Sothern festival. Oh boy. Unforgivably, TCM aired non-letterboxed versions of the CinemaScopic "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Brigadoon." This is no way for a film fan's channel to behave. Who's asleep at which switches?
These matters may sound trivial, but TCM is entrusted with a great cultural legacy. It's distressing when caretakers appear to get a bit careless.
"The Lost World" brings TCM needed attention and luster. Hours and hours of effort went into finding and restoring the film. Every hour was worth it. Many movies take you back to other eras but this one takes you back to two: prehistoric earth and prehistoric Hollywood. Wondrous realms, both of them.
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