Monday, March 5, 2012

Something from the Dinosaur Family

Kong-blogging, essay 4 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, The Amazing Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' studio in
Sydenham where he created the Crystal Palace
sculptures, circa 1853.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Woodcut of the 1853 celebration dinner in the mould of the Iguanodon,
a dinosaur sculpture by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Hylaeosaurus as copied from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins'
Crystal Palace sculpture.  Illustration from Samuel Goodrich's
Illustrated Natural History (1859).
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Iguanodon sculptures by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
at Crystal Palace Park, from a 1995 photograph.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Part Two, Victorian Dinosaurs

In King Kong (1933), Jack Driscoll and Carl Denham consider the nature of a Stegosaurus:

Driscoll:  What do you call that thing?
Denham:  Something from the dinosaur family.
Driscoll:  Dinosaur, eh?
Denham:  Yes, Jack:  a prehistoric beast.

In 1933, people knew what dinosaurs were.  They had been around for nearly a century.

Dinosaurs are eminently Victorian.  Prior to Queen Victoria’s reign, large fossilized bones were conjectured to be any number of things—remains of giant humans, dragon bones, behemoth bones, remnants of the flood.  Then five years after Victoria was crowned in 1837, Richard Owen studied the bones of Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus and concluded that their were enough resemblances to coin a new suborder of Saurian reptiles, “for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria.”  The name stuck.

We can credit the two key images of the Victorian dinosaur to the brilliant British artist and naturalist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894).  In 1851, Hawkins was retained to create life-size prehistoric animal sculptures for the new location of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham in South London.  Working with some advice from Richard Owen himself, Hawkins created sculptures of fifteen types of extinct animals, including four dinosaurs, several giant marine reptiles, and a pterodactyl.  To celebrate the impending opening of the park in December 1853, Hawkins memorably invited various London notables to a New Year’s Eve dinner party in the mould of the Iguanodon.  Hawkins’ dinosaur exhibit soon drew thousands to the park, creating the first widely-conceived public image of what a dinosaur looked like.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins
standing beneath the articulated
mount for the Hadrosaurus at the
Academy of Natural Sciences.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
The second key image created by Hawkins came 15 years later when he unveiled the world’s first mounted dinosaur skeleton, a Hadrosaurus foulki, at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Nowadays, we expect to see mounted dinosaur skeletons in natural history museums, but this is only because Hawkins showed the world how to safely suspend fossilized bones and plaster casts from a metal armature.  The presentation looks normal to us now, but in 1868, the mounted skeleton was a spectacular sight—something entirely new in the world.

The genre of science fiction has its roots in the Victorian era as well.  Dinosaurs took their time merging into the new literature.  Jules Verne placed the giant aquatic reptiles Plesiosaurus and Icthyosaurus in the interior sea in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864).  Then adventure romances like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1886) created thrills in fictionalizing the great explorations of remote areas of the world (but with no dinosaurs in sight).  It took Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, to merge the two approaches, ingeniously placing an ecosystem of living dinosaurs on an Amazon plateau in his novel The Lost World (1912).

Surprisingly, Conan Doyle’s dinosaurs don’t follow the up-to-date turn-of-the-century dinosaur descriptions coming from the great museums and universities.  Instead, a close reading of his prose suggests that his view of dinosaurs was still anchored in the image of those Crystal Palace sculptures, created nearly 60 years before by Waterhouse Hawkins.  Once a dinosaur image seizes the public imagination, it tends to take permanent root there.

The link to Kong?  Conan Doyle’s The Lost World book is re-imagined as The Lost World (1925) movie and then further developed into the new lost world of Skull Island in King Kong (1933).  The roots extend all the way back to Waterhouse Hawkins and his marvelous sculptures (still standing in London’s Crystal Palace Park today!).

The Allosaurus in King Kong (1933).

Reference Sources
The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius by Steve Archer
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 1, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 2, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner
All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck
Special features on the two-disc special edition, King Kong (1933) by Warner Home Video Inc.
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch King Kong...
Purchase a King Kong DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent King Kong at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2012 Lee Price

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