The Lost World (1925)

Image

  • directed by Harry Hoyt
  • starring Lloyd Hughes, Wallace Beery, Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Arthur Hoyt, Alma Bennett
  • Maverick scientist Prof. Challenger claims that dinosaurs still exist on a remote Brazilian plateau, and to prove his assertion he leads an expedition up the Amazon. 

“My elephant gun might as well be a bean-shooter! We’d need a cannon for that baby.”

The star of The Lost World and the man most responsible for the film’s enduring, iconic status is not billed in the credits above, nor does his name appear in those of the movie itself. The cast was just fine, effectively conveying all of the adventure-by-numbers beats and individual plot threads. Sure, sure. Harry Hoyt for his part is probably a better writer and thinker than director, but he did oversee a great thrill ride of a movie. OK. The only reason a lot of the roads of cinema lead back to The Lost World, though, is the stop-motion and model animation work of special effects innovator Willis O’Brien.

Before WETA, ILM, Cameron, and Trumbull could advance the ball in the modern era, there was the work of Willis O’Brien in The Lost World. Well, technically not, because in this movie he merely established the work that would be polished and perfected eight years later in his true masterwork, King Kong, but still. If an extra boost to his legacy is needed, his stop-motion techniques and principles were carried into the 50s and 60s by a protege, the highly influential Ray Harryhausen.

I would contend that, aside from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it wasn’t until four decades after O’Brien’s work in The Lost World and King Kong that the next bullet point on the timeline of technological breakthroughs in film, was placed with 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were countless narrative, structural, genre, and stylistic leaps in those passing decades, and cinematography and acting went through enormous evolutions. Yet special effects and films that planted a flag in the sand signaling a bold new way took only gradual steps forward. Only a few movies in history seemingly came out of nowhere, technologically speaking. 2001 did thanks to the marriage of Douglas Trumbull’s one of a kind effects and the thoughtful and meticulous direction of Stanley Kubrick. Similarly, the borderline insane scope of James Cameron’s ambition mixed with ILM’s ingenuity helped usher in the age of the modern blockbuster with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We’re still playing on Cameron’s field two decades later believe it or not. Cases can be made for Star Wars, a good chunk of Spielberg, Toy Story, or The Lord of the Rings, but I see them as standing on the shoulders of the giants before them rather than untethered revolutionary works.

Back to the forefather, The Lost World, something very interesting happens along the way as you watch. The production itself acts as a bridge between two eras of possibilities. In one half you have the team of adventurers reaching the plateau confirming the presence of the dinosaurs. These scenes, I cannot imagine how dazzling to witness in 1925, act more as a showcase of O’Brien’s work than a part of the narrative. There is very little integration between the dinosaurs and the human characters, so instead we see the creatures being observed from afar, grazing, flying solo, or fighting each other to the death as the human characters carry out their human side stories—Paula’s quest to rescue her father, Challenger’s for vindication, and Malone’s to achieve true heroism. The danger of being so close to the beasts is implied but really the biggest threat to the group, as long as they remain semi-intelligent and keep their distance, is a pesky carnivorous ape—a person in an ape costume with an actual chimpanzee sidekick—that is actively trying to kill and eat them.

Somewhere along the course of production, leading to a major shift in the movie, O’Brien develops a way for his animated models to share the same frame as the actual film footage, as opposed to being split side by side. And so we are afforded a great, but more crude version of a Kong-New York City-like rampage of a Brontosaurus let loose onto the streets of London, ruining buildings, crashing his head into a window and interrupting a poker game, and demolishing Tower Bridge, before casually making his way out of the city via the River Thames.

Witnessing the destruction of some of London followed by the quiet path of “the monster” down-river, our human characters, having satisfied all of their romantic and professional pursuits over the course of the journey into and out of the Amazon, are borderline serene and content about such an unexpected end. It was personal fulfillment they were after all along; it just took conquering treacherous elements and a bizarre ape-man, and transporting one of the dinosaurs halfway across the world to realize that.

In the case of The Lost World, the distinct split between narrative and technology makes it easy to attribute who was responsible for what. It was an Arthur Conan Doyle novel changed rather dramatically by screenwriter Marion Fairfax, directed and acted not quite remarkably by Hoyt and his cast, with mesmerizing animation work by Willis O’Brien. It’s all easily compartmentalized on screen and slightly disjointed because of that. For all of its modest strengths outside of the dinosaurs, nobody would talk about it after 1925 without those monsters living, breathing, and inhabiting natural space on the screen.

Chess Fever (1925)

Image

  • directed by V.I. Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky
  • starring Vladimir Fogel, Anna Zemtsova, Jose Raul Capablanca
  • With an international chess tournament in progress, a young man becomes completely obsessed and frustrated with the game.

“Chess has made me hate the world.”

There’s an old quote of Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin’s that says that the foundation of film art is in the editing. All throughout Chess Fever, my introduction to his work and appropriately his first to be released, I couldn’t help but see those principles in every frame. Through quick cuts, humor, pacing, and score, it was impossible not to get swept away by the rhythm of it all. Nearly every scene of the comedy short did two things: contribute to the overall story and individually build with their own minor beginnings, middles, and ends. In one scene, the boy retreats to the ledge of a bridge after being dumped because of his chess obsession. Pudovkin’s camera and the character’s behavior–throwing his prized game accessories in the water, removing his shoes—suggest suicide, but there is a slow turn that happens throughout the scene, with signals along the way, that tell us that it will instead be a positive turning point for our hero.

Most of the humor and lightheartedness of Chess Fever came from Vladimir Fogel’s performance which borrowed heavily from Hollywood comedy film stars of the time.  He was the doting underdog with eccentric mannerisms and daydreams, or hallucinations, of a world other than his own. Just as funny as our chess-obsessed hero, though, was the director himself. When it comes time for light entertainment, the first place you go to browse for titles may not be the Early Russian Cinema shelf, but in this 28 minutes Pudovkin crams a lot of winks, nods, and all-around cleverness. Notice the checkerboard articles of clothing or the giant chessboard that the boy stumbles through at the height of his mania. The cuts were lightning fast. I would guess that the average shot length was something like four seconds. Pudovkin would show all necessary action yet simultaneously explore elsewhere to show anything—kittens playing, passersby, actual footage of Moscow’s 1925 tournament of chess—that would enhance the narrative and contribute, abstractly or not, to the whole.

One year later Pudovkin began what would be his crowning achievement, his “revolutionary trilogy” of films, consisting of Mother, Storms Over Asia, and The End of St. Petersburg. Those films, of the historical, patriotic, and oftentimes devastating variety, would align a lot closer to the tendencies of Russian film in these years. In 1925 Sergei Eisenstein struck first, utilizing the same lyrical and montage-driven style and putting a deep, dark stamp on the map with Strike and The Battleship Potemkin. For all of its charms, Chess Fever amounts to a minor start to the career of Pudovkin, but still a very valuable one in showcasing the techniques he would soon bring to heftier material.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Image

  • directed by Sergei Eisenstein
  • starring Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
  • A dramatized account of a Russian naval mutiny and the resulting street demonstration, which brought on a police massacre.

This was a lot more in line with what I expected from Eisenstein than what I saw in Alexander Nevsky, with a focus on the hard realities of its hundreds of characters and extras instead of the almost cartoon versions of good and evil that I noticed in the latter.

Divided into five parts—the seeds of unrest onboard, the uprising itself, the transfer of chaos from the sea to mainland, the brutal and fictional Odessa sequence, and the final confrontation that keeps the torch lit for the future—the film eschews the concept of main characters, instead following the idea of the revolution and its many iterations as its focal point. It starts small with rumblings of the social unrest spreading throughout the country and a realization that conditions on the ship were approaching intolerable—cruel treatment from higher-ups, maggots in their food (“Those aren’t worms, it’s dead fly larvae. They wash off with brine, the meat’s perfectly fine”). The tension then boils over into a confrontation between the crew and commanders, resulting in a bloody, successful mutiny.

From there the ship heads for shore, bringing to the beaten-down public lessons of action against Tsarist oppression and the exciting taste of victory. It’s this sense of excitement that leads the many soldiers and Odessa citizens to converge on the steps to demonstrate. Eisenstein’s camera finds the faces of seniors in the immense crowd, mothers with their young children, beggars, a double amputee. All people who have seen their share of struggles, with expressions that gradually morph from hopeful to panic-stricken as the squadron descends the stairs taking down anyone and everyone. There were many brilliant technical choices and haunting images throughout this scene, including the leaning baby carriage; Eisenstein limiting what we see of the police force so as to present a faceless, absent-of-humanity mass of guns and marching feet; the distraught mother who watches on as her dead child is trampled by the crowd; the woman whose utter devastation can be seen through her broken, blood-soaked glasses; and the many quick cuts to scenery pieces that heightened the atmosphere, my favorite being the three consecutive lion sculptures outside of the headquarters building, each expressing a different shade of grief or fear.

As well done as the scene was, I do have some questions as to how this horrific and fictional massacre scene, jammed into somewhat of a historically accurate if slightly skewed account of the Potemkin and the Russian political climate played with audiences at the time. Never one to mask his allegiances, it’s clear to see why Eisenstein took this path, but I wonder how much was clear to audiences, especially internationally.

I don’t know how many more Eisenstein films I’ll go through from here on out, but I have come to enjoy his style. He is the not-too-frequent case of a guy with visionary talent who finds himself in an era of political and cultural strife that’s impossible to ignore. There are no side plots in his films that I’ve seen. He depicts his characters caring about nothing at all except their deteriorating status and the eventual healing of Russia the only way possible; his way.

The Gold Rush (1925)

Image

  • directed by Charles Chaplin
  • starring Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale
  • A lone prospector ventures into Alaska looking for gold.

That’s it right up there; my very favorite scene from this 1925 masterpiece. It had a lot of competition–the storm, the first dance, the gorgeously shot and iconic “Oceana Roll” dance, the house on a cliff, on and on and on–but nothing is as memorable for me as when he boils his shoe on Thanksgiving night and goes to town on it, eating the laces like spaghetti and the sole nails like chicken bones. I’ve grown up with vague memories of most of Chaplin’s great works and I’m glad to see that I am as entertained as ever seeing them once more. I could excitedly watch these every year or so from here on out.

There’s really no way to break new ground here by reviewing Chaplin, but I do want to say that I’m equally as enchanted by his emotional side just as much as the comedic. I realize I’ll be seeing that even more with some of his other titles, but even here, his face and entire body can darken with unhappiness, loneliness, and even hunger like no other. I didn’t know that one can physically appear hungry, but leave it to the master to communicate every possible emotion through movement alone. In contrast to the belly laugh that’s always seconds away, The Tramp’s sentimental side–in this film provided by the fish-out-of-water plot and his lovesickness for the radiant Georgia–always packs an extra punch.