Charles R. Knight Retro at BAM


Charles R. Knight, father of modern paleo-art, did for the long-extinct what John James Audubon did for American flora and fauna. The Brooklyn Heights–raised illustrator’s paintings of the 1890s showed not the big, lummox lizards of the Victorians, but real dinosaurs, as a child today would recognize. And they do: Like kids for almost a century previous, I grew up badly reproducing his Leaping Laelaps in colored pencil, wondering how someone half-blind, like Knight, could do that.

To be clear, Knight, subject of a four-film “inspired-by” tribute at BAM, never worked in special effects—but effects men Marcel Delgado and Willis O’Brien would reproduce his dino menagerie almost tooth-for-tooth and scale-for-scale in their models for the movie of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925). With its uncharted, isolated, preserved pocket of Jurassic monsters, and the modern-ancient collision of its climax—a Brontosaurus run amok in London—the film anticipates Delgado and Willis’s most famous collaboration, King Kong (1933).

Atomic testing winds up unleashing a prehistoric monster on the Coney Island Cyclone in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The film was stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen’s coming out, and his “Rhedosaurus” is as impressive as the dialogue is flat—only proving plus ça change when it comes to the effects film.

For a young Harryhausen, seeing Kong and revisiting Knight’s murals of the La Brea tar pits at the Los Angeles County Museum were career-deciding influences; he has praised Knight’s paintings for their “nobility of inspiration and dedication which separates the draftsman from the true creator.” This is surely what elevates Harryhausen’s Saurians above Raquel Welch’s cave-babe movie, One Million Years B.C. (1966), the most dubious and amusing natural-history lesson available outside the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.