‘Lost World’ Emerges Slowly From the Brink of Extinction
Technical wizardry isn’t the only tool necessary to restore a film. In fact, when Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of the motion picture department of the George Eastman House, lectures students, the first thing he tells them is that restoration is a time-consuming exercise. “Behind all the technical expertise are patience and luck,” he offers.
Case in point: the Eastman House restoration of the 1925 classic “The Lost World,” which screens Friday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The Rochester, N.Y.-based archive spent 12 years restoring the dinosaur epic based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel.
There were several reasons why the restoration stretched out for more than a decade, including the fact that the film was in terrible shape with nearly an hour of footage missing. The Eastman House had to track down the vanished sequences, overcome technical challenges and raise enough money to finish the project.
When “The Lost World” premiered at the Astoria Theatre in New York 75 years ago, the running time was 105 minutes. The version available since 1929 runs approximately 55.
According to Cherchi Usai, a producer brought the remake rights to “The Lost World” in 1929 and destroyed all the prints of the film--save one negative--so it would not compete with his planned remake.
“At the same time, this person made a deal with the Kodascope Library to distribute an edited version in five reels lasting about 55 minutes,” says Cherchi Usai. “This was for home use and school use and is in 16 millimeter. This is the version that survived. So all in all [there was something] between 45 and 50 minutes of disappeared footage.
“It was when it appeared that additional footage could be found that the idea of a more complete version of ‘The Lost World’ became a reality.”
“The Lost World” can’t be compared to such silent film legends as “The Big Parade,” “Intolerance” or “The Wind,” but the rousing action-adventure is a crowd pleaser. Bessie Love, Lewis Stone and Wallace Beery are the stars, but the real scene-stealers are the impressive stop-motion animated dinosaurs created by special effects giant Willis O’Brien.
The most important discovery in the “Lost World” restoration was a 35-millimeter element of the film found at the National Film Archives of the Czech Republic.
“We found a print where there was a lot of footage we did not have,” Cherchi Usai explains. “It was not exactly in good shape.” Still, he notes: “This was really the find that made it possible for us to think [the preservation] could be done.”
‘Close Approximation’ to the Original Film
Other elements began turning up. Eight minutes of outtakes and discarded footage were unearthed in a stock footage library in New York. Several hundred feet of footage were found at the Library of Congress in Washington.
“Nobody can be completely sure how the film looked when it was first shown in 1925,” he explains. “What we can say is that this is a very close approximation to the way the film looked in 1925. We are still missing about four minutes. I don’t know what’s in those four minutes, but we never stop searching. It might be that we will find better material of the shots we already had.”
For example, there’s a pivotal shot at the film’s conclusion featuring a dinosaur swimming, with a boat seen in the distance. “It was a shot that combines animation and real footage,” he says.
“It was found in the Prague print and is in such bad shape that even with the best technology we could use, it is still heavily scratched. We decided to put it in anyway to show that it is there. We have not given up hope to find a better version.”
* “The Lost World” screens Friday at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tickets are $5 for general public and $3 for academy members. For more information call (310) 247-3600.