by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Years ago, the Homestead screened The Lost World, a 1925 silent that was likely the first film to use stop-motion animation with scenes involving dinosaurs discovered in a “lost world” in the Amazon basin of South America. Based on a 1912 science fiction novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who proclaimed that he much preferred the main character of Professor George Edward Challenger far more than his more famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, the movie was directed by Harry Orlando Hoyt (1885-1961), also a prolific screenwriter, who was at the pinnacle of his career.
Hoyt was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota as the elder of two surviving children, both boys, to Huldah Hunt and brass and iron manufacturer Alphonzo Hoyt. He was educated at the University of Minnesota, Columbia University and Yale University, where he was said in news accounts to have received a degree in literature in 1910, though a November 1912 article from Norwich, Connecticut covering his wedding to Florence Stark, stated that he earned a law degree (online Yale Law School records confirm this) and that, after the couple’s European honeymoon, Hoyt intended to move to southern California to work as a lawyer.
A 1921 film industry directory stated that Hoyt originally tried his hand at writing short stories and novels and it was reported elsewhere that his entre into film came about as the result of a bet. According to the 19 December 1924 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Hoyt, when still a Yale student, wandered into a theater in New Haven and was so disgusted by the “overdrawn characterizations” in the crude drama that he left while the film was still playing.
After telling his friend how terrible the picture was, Hoyt was purportedly told, “it’s a coming business; you ought to get into it—you can write.” Hoyt angrily answered, “if I couldn’t do better” than what he’d seen and immediately wrote a story called “The New York Hat,” which he submitted to Biograph, one of the early studios in New York City.
For this one-reel scenario, he received the going rate of $5, but it was then stated that the treatment was turned into a short of that name that “served as the very first screen vehicle of a pretty little anonymous ingenue who since has become somewhat known to screen fame as Mary Pickford.” This story, however, appears to have largely been just that, as Pickford was in films for three years by the time the 16-minute movie was released in December 1912 and Anita Loos, a famous screenwriter, is credited with the writing of the picture.
The earliest credit to Hoyt on IMDB is a 1913 short called An Unjust Suspicion and Hoyt’s next credits included stories for nine short films two years later. One of those pictures, For High Stakes, also marked his directorial debut. The earliest mention in local newspapers came in April 1916 when Hoyt was said to be the “chief writer” of the scenario department at Metro Pictures, later part of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and penned The Wall Between, starring Francis X. Bushman, a major early film star.
Hoyt remained in New York City working on writing and directing projects for such companies as World Pictures, but, by 1919 he was in Los Angeles and, at the end of that year, was mentioned as a partner of Frederic Chapin in working a fifteen-episode western serial for heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey (who was to be paid a princely $185,000 for his work) for the Brunton Studios in Hollywood, which later became the Paramount Studios.
For the first few years of the Roaring Twenties, Hoyt tried his hand at a venture in which he was a featured director in the Big Apple and another late 1924 piece in the Times reported that Hoyt began work in 1919 on a picture called That Woman, “but when half finished, the organization blew up for want of financing.”
Hoyt told the paper that three years later, “a fledgling producer bought the negative of the half-completed production at sheriff’s sale for $125 and engaged me finish my production” even finding the original cast, including the male lead who was working as a motorman (which the director claimed “was just the job for him.”)
Another fortuitous circumstance, it was added, was that the women’s skirts, which were short when the film was first shot, happened to become that length again, after a period when they were more fashionably longer, by the time the reshoot commenced. The picture was finally released at the end of 1922.
Hoyt came to Hollywood in April 1923 when First National Pictures decided to make, as well as distribute, movies and he was hired as one of the two executive readers. By the summer he’d become the head of the company’s scenario department and in the fall Hoyt was given the director’s chair for The Woman on the Jury, while he also was the “scenarioist” for the popular flapper film Flaming Youth, a star turn for Colleen Moore (Hoyt was hired to direct the follow-up, The Perfect Flapper, released in 1924, but was replaced by another director.)
With the former film, which included Henry B. Wathall (of the notorious The Birth of a Nation fame), Lew Cody, early film star Hobart Bosworth (as the judge) and Bessie Love, it was reported in a January 1924 Times article that “the Flying Squadron of twelve old gentlemen in assorted whiskers, who for years have dashed from studio to studio to serve as jurors in courtroom scenes” were being replaced by actual actors, including Jean Hersholt and Sylvia Breamer, the lone woman in the title who agonized over the fate of the female defendant in the case.
When Laurence Trimble fell ill in the middle of shooting the western picture Sundown, Hoyt was brought in to complete the film, which starred Love, Bosworth, and Roy Stewart. Towards the end of May 1924, just after wrapping final shooting on that picture, Hoyt was tapped to direct First National’s adaptation of The Lost World.
Meanwhile, his stature in Hollywood was such that profiles about him appeared, including one in the Times of 8 June that featured Hoyt’s passion as a philatelist (that’s stamp collector to us laypersons), specializing in the stamps of Argentina. The feature noted that the director and writer “declares that he can gain more genuine mental relaxation and exercise poring over a postage-stamp album than by any other means” and a photo showed him doing just that. It was asserted that Hoyt was “famous among stamp collectors as a connoisseur” and that other film fraternity philatelists included Hersholt and Adolphe Menjou.
In summer 1924, with The Woman on the Jury in the theaters, it was reported that The Lost World was one of two, along with one to be called The Life of Christ (this may have been terminated when MGM mounted the massive spectacle, Ben-Hur), labeled a First National “super-production.” With the filming of The Lost World spanning the rest of the year and into 1925, articles about Hoyt, like the aforementioned ones about his alleged origins in the industry and his difficult three years in New York working on That Woman and other projects, showed his stature.
In mid-March 1925, however, just after finishing filming on the dinosaur epic, Hoyt was hired by Belasco Productions, Inc., another independent producer in a growing trend in the movie business, to be director of all productions from the new studio. It was stated in the 12 March issue of the Venice Vanguard that Hoyt “has leaped to a commanding position in the industry as the director of what is described as ‘the most startling and fantastic motion picture ever produced . . . in which prehistoric monsters of gigantic size are seen in hair-raising episodes on the screen.”
At that date, First National had sent the film out on a “road show” and it was said that early reviews “are filled with probably the most extravagant praise ever accorded a motion picture.” The piece added that Hoyt would not only oversee all films for Belasco, “but will also personally direct one or two pictures each year, using truly all-star casts in productions which are essentially ‘big.'”
This was because “there has been lively bidding for his services following the sensation created by ‘The Lost World’ in the east and that he refused a number of enticing offers to accept the Belasco affiliation.” The Vanguard article continued that Hoyt “has been actively engaged in motion picture productions since the early days of the industry, as author, editor, director and as a producer in his own right.” Additional studio space was in the works with Hoyt’s direct supervision and two companies were expected to begin filming within a month.
On 21 May, however, the Hollywood Citizen reported that “Harry O. Hoyt severed his affiliation with First National to join the directorial staff of the Embassy [Pictures Corporation] organization. Two of his directorial efforts in later 1925 were The Primrose Path starring Clara Bow before she became a megastar and The Unnamed Woman, featuring Katherine McDonald and Herbert Rawlinson and both produced by Embassy and distributed by the Arrow Film Corporation.
The Lost World was released in mid-June and received mostly lavish praise, especially for the remarkable animated dinosaur action scenes, while stars Wallace Beery, playing Professor Challenger, Bessie Love, Lloyd Hughes and Lewis Stone were generally lauded for their human roles. One review in the Express added “too much praise cannot be given to Harry O. Hoyt, director, and Willis O’Brien, who invented the creatures who appear so lifelike on the screen.”
Audience reactions were said to be particularly striking when seeing those combined scenes of the “prehistoric monsters” and the modern people who stumbled upon that “lost world” as well as when some of the creatures were taken to London and then escaped and rampaged through the British metropolis (prefiguring the Godzilla and Rodan movies of post-World War II Japanese film fame.)
As noted above, The Lost World was truly the apex of Hoyt’s career. He directed seven more films in the Twenties, one in 1933, and then some little-seen shorts between 1947 and 1951, though his writing career was more consistent, though for B-movie productions. In the 1950 census, just released to the public in April, he was listed as an owner of a commercial training films business and rented the back house in the Rancho Park neighborhood, a far cry rom his salad days living in Beverly Hills, albeit in a somewhat modest house in that wealthy city.
It is not known if the portrait, taken by Paul Grenbeaux, was for promotion of The Lost World or concerning his move from First National to Embassy, but it is a notable artifact for a prominent film industry figure during the mid-Twenties, short though his stay at the top of the heap may have been.