The Lost World

The Lost World (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. Harry O. Hoyt
viewed: 05/05/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, this showing of The Lost World, the silent film version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about a “lost world” of dinosaurs, was screened with a live accompaniment by the band Dengue Fever.  I’ve been to a couple of live performances now accompanying showings of silent films.   Last year, it was Black Francis of the Pixies performing alongside The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920).  I also caught Sherlock, Jr. (1924) presented with the Club Foot Orchestra last year, and before that it was Jonathan Richman performing with The Phantom Carriage (1921).  So, I’m getting a bit familiar with this sort of thing and gauging from last night’s sold out audience, more of these presentations are to come.

The film I had never seen before, but had seen in clips and stills, mainly the notable stop-motion animated dinosaurs, developed by Willis H. O’Brien, the man most noted for his work in King Kong (1933) and the mentor of Ray Harryhausen, whose films I have been watching with the kids a lot lately.  I’ve always liked “monster movies”, as I used to call them as a kid, so I’d always been interested in this stuff.  The film is something else!

And I mean that in a good way.

Really, The Lost World is sort of a prototypical special effects action film, the kind that are now the summer movie stand-bys that makes Hollywood all their money these days.  And it’s interesting, because if you think about it, this film really is a prototype for a film like Jurassic Park (1993) and its several sequels, and even an inspiration point for the coming summer film, Land of the Lost (2009), adapted from a children’s show from the 1970’s that probably riffed on Doyle’s original concept.  Even all the Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) and their offspring harken back to this concept, a way of visually re-creating the image of living dinosaurs, monstrous creatures that really existed on our planet but who we know only from their fossils.

And the amazing this is that The Lost World is a pretty good, goddam version of the same thing circa 1925.  Certainly the acting and story and comical and campy and anachronistic in its style and age, but the visual effects are really awesome.  Though quite cartoony and less anatomically “correct” than conceived of today, the creatures are lushly detailed and vivified with great personality in O’Brien’s hands.  And there is plenty of action in the jungle!  But perhaps most exciting, we even have a brontosaurus rampaging in London, crashing London Bridge into the Thames!  I posit that this might be the first time a giant creature rampaged in a major city on film.  Though I could be wrong.

And the film uses real animals within the story well, too, certainly exotic, but in featuring real, live animals sort of leads up to the spectacle of the animated monsters.  We see pythons, jaguars, alligators, bears, and monkeys, again with very effective integration in the story.  And I developed a significant soft spot for the animal “hero” of the film, Jocko, the monkey, who performed many a scene and stunt.

The whole thing was great fun.  The Dengue Fever music actually helped propel the film along, keeping a toe-tapping beat through some of what might have been slower portions and really energizing other sequences when the music really kicked in.  The band, whose music is described as influenced by 1960’s Cambodian pop psychedelia, seemed a potentially odd mixture with this film about London adventurers in the Brazilian rainforest, but really, it was great.  Perhaps the most fun of any of the live performances that I’ve witnessed with silent films, odd as it may sound.

Really, very cool, all the way around.

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