Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Set Design - The Lost World ( 1960 )

Before Irwin Allen became famous for his edge-of-your-seat action thrillers such as The Poseidon Adventure ( 1972  ), The Towering Inferno ( 1974  ), and Flood! ( 1976 ), or his adventure television series ( Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel ), he was famous for adventure thrillers.

The Lost World, released in 1960, was the first of these colorful flicks. The story revolved around an expedition, led by Professor George Edward Challenger ( played by Claude Rains ), to a volcanic plateau in the heart of the Amazon jungle to prove the existence of dinosaurs. Tagging along is Lord Roxton ( Michael Rennie ), a famous hunter and playboy, newswriter and photographer Ed Malone ( David Hedison ), socialite Jennifer Holmes and her brother ( Jill St. John and Ray Stricklyn ), and Challenger's chief rival Professor Summerlee ( admirably played by Richard Haydn ).

Our intrepid group not only encounter dinosaurs ( actually lizards and baby alligators with make-up on ) but come across a missing explorer ( Ian Wolfe ) and a band of hostile cannibals too. 

Willis O'Brien, creator of King Kong, spent several years during the late 1950s making preparations for a big-budget remake of his 1925 version of The Lost World. He made his pitch to producer Irwin Allen and the big wheels at 20th Century Fox, showing them the hundreds of pre-production drawings and paintings he had done. He succeeded in persuading them to make the film -- but Fox refused to let O'Brien do the film's special effects, substituting the stop-motion dinosaurs originally planned with poorly embellished reptiles instead.

The Zoological Institute 

Whether the final film's story bears any resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel we're not sure of, but overall it makes for an entertaining romp into the land of the lost. It starts off at a good pace, lags slightly midway through the film and then picks up again near the end when the expedition team attempt to descend the plateau.

The ticket line to the Jungle Cruise

For this post we'd like to focus on the art direction of The Lost World, which is credited to Duncan Cramer. Most of Cramer's work was for television productions ( he did all of the sets for the television series "Family Affair" ), however he designed a number of good sets for some films as well - Flaming Star ( 1960 ), Madison Avenue ( 1962 ), and Harlow ( 1965 ). 

What a spacious cockpit.

Sharing the art direction title with Cramer was Walter M.Simons, who had a brief but fulfilling career in Hollywood both as an art director and as a production designer ( one of these days we'll write a post describing the difference between these jobs ). Some of Simons credits include Marty ( 1955 ), The Second Time Around ( 1961 ), State Fair ( 1962 ), Fluffy ( 1965 ), I Saw What You Did ( 1965 ), The Omega Man ( 1971 ) and Gumball Rally ( 1976 ). 

Wait! Where did all the people go?

"In the middle of the Twentieth Century, you fall off the brink of time!" was what the poster's tagline claimed. The audience never really does fall off the brink like the lizards do, but the film's characters have a number of great jungle settings to trip their feet over. Let's take a closer look at the individual sets : 

After a helicopter ride takes the passengers to the top of the plateau ( mysteriously described as being "cut off from evolutionary development" ) they bed down for the night only to be awakened by the sound of giant footsteps in the jungle and discover a slinking dinosaur smashed their chopper to smithereens.

With no method of getting down from the plateau they decide to press on into the interior and see what they came to see - the dinosaurs up close. Instead, newsman Ed Malone spies a shapely native in the brushes and chased her through a spider's web....where a giant green-glowing arachnid awaits. Eeek! 

The fauna of the island proves to be especially interesting to Professor Summerlee. And Professor Summerlee proves to be quite interesting to the fauna as well. Once he steps into one of the pods they gentle close upon him. 

Later, the group find a cavern to use as their sleeping quarters ( what happened to all the camping equipment they brought along? ). A cozy fire and some nice fluffy ferns bring them all the comforts of home.... 

...but the good times don't last for long. The headhunters come and get them and carry them off to their Easter island inspired lair. Here plenty of bones gives us the hint of what's to become of our leading players. 

These guys obviously can't wait for supper. Grandpa Longhair likes the large white bones best it seems. 

Through the help of the shapely native girl, they are led away from the headhunters and taken to their old abandoned pal Burton White, who tells them the secret to escaping from the soon-to-be-erupting caverns. 

The skeletons are a nice touch. 
They quickly take the advice of blind man Burton ( why not? what have they got to lose?...except their heads ) and journey to the Cave of Fire, the only passage that will take them out of the plateau. The natives believe this is the altar to their fire god and are too scared to pass it... 

.... but they give them a good chase nonetheless. Here we see the grandest of the sets so far, this one sporting old dinosaur shells, spewing fires, and plenty of sooty smoke. Of course, a passageway like this can only mean one thing...

.....there's a gila monster up ahead!!! 

That is...a dinosaur. This fella seems to enjoy the lava bath that he gets just before the film's ending, unlike Professor Challenger whose hanging on the brink of being boiled. 

Journey to the Center of the Earth, released a year prior to The Lost World was another let's-go-on-a-scientific-expedition classic.  This film was also released by 20th Century Fox but unlike TLW, features sets that bear the quality mark of the studios head of the art department, Lyle Wheeler. 

Nevertheless, in spite of the paper-mache caverns and feather-light boulders, Duncan Cramer and Walter M. Simons' sets feature some creative designs that really do transport us into Challenger's lost world. 


  1. This movie is great. The scenarios are impressive, and I'm glad they are in color. Claude Rains was the only that didn't look good in his makeup...
    The 1925 film, on the other hand, had spectacular effects. The dinosaurs there are incredible. There is no surprise the guy who helped in the 1925 film went on to work in King Kong...

    1. You made a good point there Le....they gave Rains that flaming red hair that just didn't seem to suit him all that well. I wonder if Cecil Kellaway wouldn't have been a better choice for Professor Challenger. I'll have to check out the 1925 version, it has a great cast and I've heard about the special effects in it too.

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