I am ridiculously happy to have lived long enough to see some of the new restorations being done on older films. I love older films! Companies like Shout! Factory, Kino-Lorber, Universal, the Criterion Collection, Film Detective, and Lobster Films are all owed a debt of gratitude that none of us film lovers can ever really repay. Lobster Films’ new restoration of that reliable silent chestnut, The Lost World, is second on the list of what I’ve most been looking forward to this year. (At the tippy top of the list is Film Detective’s 4K scan of a little film called The Old Dark House, due later this week. More on that one coming soon.)
Well, RKO’s then-new King Kong bears more than a passing resemblance to this older, silent film, and by “bears a passing resemblance to,” I mean “is a direct copy of.” Kong apes (ha!) every aspect of the older film: structure, story, characters, climax. Oh, one crucial difference: it’s a brachiosaurus that gets loose and destroys a major city during the climax of The Lost World. Other than that, it’s practically the same movie, and RKO did not want the source material lying around where anyone could find it and claim plagiarism.
Joining Challenger for the foolish, laugh-in-the-face-of-death-by-dinosaur second expedition are Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father died in the first expedition; Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone), a resourceful and respected big-game hunter; newspaper journalist Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes); and comic relief ichthyologist, Dr. Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt). Will this plucky group encounter big dinosaurs and high adventure? You betcha!
Now, I am a purist, and I am happy to have the complete, original film, but there is a question here of presentation and intent. I compare this to the series of restorations done on Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis. After releasing what was thought to be the definitive version to theaters in 2002—a beautiful print with a beautiful score—still more footage was discovered. The new footage was badly damaged, but restorers decided to incorporate it into the next definitive version anyway. This subsequent restoration received a theatrical release in 2010. I was happy to see the missing footage; one specific subplot in the film, long excised, was back and now made sense. But the earlier, incomplete restoration was the more satisfying theatrical experience. That 2002 print was pristine from beginning to end (the then-missing footage was explained in additional title cards.) The viewer was free to simply experience Metropolis as a work of art—just as audiences would have in 1927—without the jarring reminders of age, and damage, and the other vagaries of time.
Theatrical exhibition aside, I believe disc releases could offer us a happy compromise. In the case of both Metropolis and The Lost World, I wish the discs offered a pristine “narrative” version, with the compromised found footage provided as a bonus supplement. For purists, a seamless branching option could re-incorporate that footage back into the presentation. Viewers could easily have it both ways, and enjoy the best of what this important restoration work provides in the format that satisfies them most.
So, F-Heads, which version would YOU watch more: the “purist” or “escapist” version? Would it simply come down to whichever version was the disc’s default? These are the questions that keep me awake at night. These questions… and giant dinosaurs!
(Wonderful escapist narrative/Outstanding Willis O’Brien effects)
(Scary stuff, including Bull Montana’s mischievous “missing link” character and Jules Cowles’ very problematic blackface performance as “Zambo.”)
(Wallace Beery’s character doesn’t like newspapermen, so he wrestles one to the ground and throws him bodily out of his house—Fake news. Fighting dinosaurs are still mighty impressive, considering the age of the film.)