THE LOST WORLD initially revealed itself in 1912, with Arthur Conan Doyle taking a break from his Sherlock Holmes stories to introduce the first and most famous of his five ‘Professor Challenger’ adventures, modeled after Doyle’s friend and real-life explorer Percy Fawcett, whose travels in & tales of wild South America gave Doyle template and spur. Thirteen years later, the spectacular 1925 silent starring Wallace Beery, was the 6th most popular show that year: the then-dazzling stop-motion effects of dinosaurs designed by Willis H. O’Brien paved the way for King Kong and myriad oversized food chain competitors we’ve since come to know and love.
Thirty-five years later, canny and ambitious producer-director Irwin Allen unleashed the 1960 version, adorned with CinemaScope, DeLuxe color and a $1,515,000 budget. The outlay was enough for several name actors of good quality—and one notably terrible—but it was not sufficient for veteran make-believe pioneer O’Brien, on board for Allen as “Effects Technician”. His hopes to create new stop-motion magic were scuttled when 20th Century-Fox and Allen opted to go cheap and use live lizards, magnified and outfitted to fake-out little kids in the audience. There were plenty (yours truly one of them), enough to ensure a gross of $7,100,000, the dino-lure besting 1960s other fantasy offerings of actual quality like The Time Machine, Village Of The Damned, House of Usher and The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver.
Renowned and brusque ‘Prof. George Edward Challenger’ (Claude Rains) leads an expedition to a remote plateau in the Amazonian jungle, determined to prove his claims that prehistoric beasts exist in the isolation. Along are big game hunter & playboy ‘Lord John Roxton’ (Michael Rennie), Roxton’s spunky society-gadfly girlfriend ‘Jennifer’ (Jill St.John), news reporter ‘Ed Malone’ (David Hedison), a skeptical colleague of Challenger (Richard Haydn), and Jennifer’s brother (Ray Stricklyn). Leading them into the unknown are mysterious ‘Manuel Gomez’ (Fernando Lamas) and shifty ‘Costa’ (Jay Novello). The group find the hefty Jurassic critters they’re looking for, and more, including a fetching native girl (Vitina Marcus), and a long-lost explorer (Ian Wolfe). Oh, Jennifer brings along her…poodle, because Allen and co-writer Charles Bennett must have felt Jill St.John’s barking and whining wasn’t irritating enough.
Before wiping out this fossil-fooled fiasco with an asteroid of snide, let’s Play-Nice-Like-Mom-Said. For a kid in 1960, this was “neat!” For an adult who was a kid in 1960, it’s still a good time, but in a different way: let’s just say it gets an A-for-Awful. Credit where due, first. Visually, it has some pluses. Thanks to available stock footage, on the way to the destination there are nice fly-past views of Angel Falls in Venezuela, and the tepui-studded landscape between there and Mt. Roraima. That 9,220-foot table-top massif, complete with 1,300-foot cliffs, was ground-zero for Doyle’s imagined throwback playpen. This is after tacking on some obligatory airborne shots of Rio de Janeiro, a mere 3,650 kilometres away—hey, at the time, like who knew? There are a few moments with one of the enlarged, decked-out critters—a monitor lizard—slinking through the prop-tree jungle, whipping its tongue out—that are still kinda cool. A few of the sets are old-school nifty. The sound effects team (take a bow, Harry A. Leonard & D. Clayton Ward) arranged some just plain great roars, using elephant trumpeting and a few other amplified blasts from who-knows-what. Up the pay-scale, Rains, Rennie, Lamas and Haydn play along like the pros they were (Fernando’s syllable-caressing pronunciation of “Santiago” is a delight) and ace character actor Novello is amusing as the sacrificial skank.
Then, there’s everything else. The script, whipped up by Allen & Bennett, is comic-book level (cue Personal Interest Story below *), but much worse is Allen’s abominably clumsy direction, which could have been better handled by the targeted tykes who played with toy dinosaurs in their rooms at home. The laugh-out-loud inappropriate costuming, tacky-gaudy set-dressing, hilariously dorky behavior of the bunga-bunga ‘cannibal’ extras, sloppy continuity and volcano-load of illogic—“give me a hand moving this boulder!”—are all pitiful (though good for unintended comedy). The four or five “dinosaurs” encountered are done up by an iguana, a monitor lizard and a baby alligator: the hapless, uncomprehending reptiles are festooned with glued-on plastic horns, fins, spikes and plates. One pair fights, in a rather icky scene that prompted the ASPCA to lodge a complaint with Fox.
Apart from the woofy script and Allen’s ludicrous staging, the able actors mentioned above still have to keep straight faces when sharing any scene with the force of primordial casting nature called Jill St.John, who proves here (as she would over & over again) that she was, without a doubt, The Worst Actress of Her Time. She couldn’t say her own name and sound convincing. Doubtless, along with the difficulty of speaking people-words and having to also simulate natural movement, we’d bet the 19-year-old ‘beauty’ was irked by the presence of lava-hot starlet Vitina Marcus, three years older, three times more attractive, three times a better actress even though she only had about three lines of ‘native’ gibberish.
As Glenn Erickson points out in his review at CineSavant, one more foul-up tops it off for those watching today on disc: whoever was responsible for color-timing the transfer bungled it so that shots supposed to be occurring at night show up like broad daylight—again, good for chuckles. Waiting for a theatrical re-release to make it all ‘better’ will require patience on a geological scale.
97 minutes long, with footage that Allen would recycle later in his goofy, popular TV series Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel and Land Of The Giants.
* For a couple of reasons, this daft and entertaining oldie holds special nostalgic charm for your faithful scribe. I have a vivid memory (we’re talking sixty years ago, Spielberg B.C.) of seeing this in the theater, sitting next to the older-by-three-years daughter of my parent’s best friends, a girl I had a massive crush on. Later, at the local barber shop, I was overjoyed to find— in their read-before-shearing stack—the Dell comic book put out as part of Fox’s promo. It was still there for the next several haircut visits, but somehow I could never convince Dad to ask the barber if I could have it. I guess my begging skills had already been pushed to the max by always pleading to stay up on weeknights to watch “the scenes from next week” from the end of whatever show signaled bedtime. An eon down the road—1960, Suzie, my folk and their friends, the theater and barber shop, Dell and the movie stars are all gone now. The Lost World was/is a lost cause, but sometimes those are the ones worth fighting for.