Saturday, 19 August 2017

Tall tails... The Lost World (1925), Lucky Dog Picturehouse, Wilton’s Music Hall

Dunkirk and superpowered Amazons aside, 2017 has not been a vintage year for blockbusters but in 1925 it was a little different with The Big Parade being a huge $20 million hit followed by the likes of Ben Hur, The Gold Rush and The Phantom of the Opera. Also comfortably in the top ten grossers was The Lost World a science fantasy from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle who swapped Baker Street for brontosaurus in his wildly successful book of the same name

We’re not so different 1925 and 2017, are we? Literary adaptions fuelling Hollywood invention and excess only in this case they knocked the ball right out of the Jurassic Park using techniques rarely seen before and on a scale that was to set the template for the next century of alien worlds from Kong all the way to Skull Island.

Sir Arthur abides... a snip from a contemporary documatary replaces his original intro.
For Harry and Mabel, Frank, Lil, Jenny Wren, William, Jessie and Jim, this would have been their first exposure to prehistoric animation a visual shock on a par with any technological leap seen since although I can’t see our Jessie being that impressed with such frippery.

Directed by Harry O. Hoyt and completely unlike anything he or anyone else had produced before, this was adventure cinema as adventure based on a concept that was far more believable in an age before satellites took some of the fun out of exploration. As recently as twenty years ago an expedition to a huge meteor crater in Africa was touted as possibly revealing a “lost world” of new and previously-extinct species… we live in hope and we want to believe.

But here the brave band of explorers discovers the past alive; mind-blowing wish fulfilment we cinemutophiles can completely relate to. And here in the restored stucco walls of our oldest music hall, we feel the same frisson as, with Emily O’Hara’s intrepid troop of musical adventurers to guide us, we simply connect with a lost world of nitrate wonderment.

The indigenous sounds of the deep Amazonian rain forest.
The Lucky Dog players snuck on stage in character, pith helmets and jodhpurs along with an inflatable tyrannosaurus. Their music is witty and very tightly orchestrated with Emily on guitar, mandolin, cello and musical direction, Christopher Eldred on piano and clarinet, Daniel Tiberius Mays (parents, Star Trek fans?!) on woodwind – a deliciously poignant flute and Nicholas D. Ball on percussion and some very effective dino-sounds!

I loved their playful syncopations and when they were clicked off by Nick’s drums their ensemble playing is a real joy – is dancing allowed mid-film?! They also handled the thematic work well and I was especially entranced by Emily’s Spanish guitar lines and Mr Eldred’s way with the pianoforte: the bedrock of a score which not only included snatches of contemporary songs – the lovely What’ll I do? – but also a few notes from Jurassic Park (or was that just my projection?!).  It’s music that competes sometimes with the narrative but for this film and in this setting, that’s exactly what you need.

Hipsters go mad for silent film!
Wiltons is an interesting silent film gig and it was good to see so many young and unfamiliar faces and an audience who, inspired by the Lucky Dog verve, had a ball with the film: laughter is the gateway response to silents. Not that The Lost World is ever meant to be taken entirely seriously; as with its modern counterparts, there’s a rich mix of humour and action from the relationship between the squabbling professors to the convenient get-out for our main hero at the end: what happened in the jungle doesn’t always need to stay in the jungle!
The Trachodon about to do battle with the Allosaurus!
We shouldn’t underestimate the impact stop motion techniques had on contemporary audiences, just as the CGI from the first Jurassic Park looks slightly awkward compared with Jurassic World over twenty years later, technology moves on and our perceptions follow. The film’s special effects maestro, Willis O’Brien had worked on stop-animation since 1918 and a short test film he made was shown by Conan Doyle a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, which included Harry Houdini in 1922. Doyle refused to discuss the film's origins but the audience and press alike were astonished… the New York Times declaring that if they were fakes they were “masterpieces”.

Sir Arthur is featured on his porch at the start of the film, he looks happy enough and I’m sure a good deal was arranged for the script as developed by Marion Fairfax. The author later declared that it was Lost World’s Professor Challenger who was his favourite character and not the Great Detective.

Wallace Beardy!
You can understand as Challenger is all for pure adventure even if here he’s opposed by the scientific establishment. He’s played by Wallace Beery complete with wildling beard and scatty fringe highlighting wide staring eyes as he’s laughed at by his peers. He’s looking for men to accompany him on an expedition to the Amazon to try and rescue Maple White whose journal suggests that dinosaurs still roam a plateau deep in the jungle. Noted adventurer and game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) offers to join him as does Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt) who wants to prove him a fraud.

A young reporter, Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes) also offers to join up much to Challenger’s disgust – he hates fake news – but Ed has a girl to impress with daring deeds, Gladys Hungerford (Alma Bennett). But, once then young fellow spies White’s daughter Paula (Bessie Love) we and he aren’t so sure of this prior commitment.

A US map of the Atlantic: Britain known by its proper name of Liverpool...
Cut to animation of ship skipping down a map from London to Brazil and the team are soon looking at a huge plateau with only one way up. They climb a rock tower and walk across a tree trunk to the plateau but their route is soon swiped away by the first of many huge new animals: the dinosaurs are here!

The stop motion is still impressive (thousands of movements over hundreds of painstaking days) and O’Brien worked a split screen with increasing confidence as he showed the “tiny” actors against a backdrop of dense forest and battles between Allosaurus, Brontosaurus, Triceratops and Stegosaurus (the last two my childhood favourite dinos). By the film’s spectacular conclusion, we see a Brontosaurus let lose in 1925 London… eight years later, O’Brien had a giant gorilla doing the same in New York.

Very smart split screens
If the story intensity drops on the plateau it’s because the adventure was all in seeing these great creatures live and move again and we’re all so used to seeing dinosaurs now. But there were moments when music and music hall helped us recapture the magic of discovery once again.

The Lost World was so nearly a lost film and is still being restored with a new 110 minute long Blu-ray due from Flicker Alley on 12th September. The version shown was the 93-minute restoration from 2000 used on the Eureka DVD which has perhaps 90% of the original content according to Doyle and Lost World expert, Roy Pilot’s commentary.

Reaction shots are key to believability.
It’s a classic bit of fun – pure cinematic pleasure! Wilton’s and the Lucky Dogs made sure we all had the best of it!

This was part of a short summer season from Lucky Dog at Wiltons including the magnificent Brit-com Shooting Stars and, footage of Irving and Malory’s fateful climb in The Epic of Everest. For details of upcoming show visit their website or follow them on the old social media.


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