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Lost Horizon (1937)

by Glenn Erickson Oct 10, 2017

It’s a wonder movie from the 1930s, a political fantasy that imagines a Utopia of peace and kindness hidden away in a distant mountain range — or in our daydreams. Sony’s new restoration is indeed impressive. Ronald Colman is seduced by a vision of a non-sectarian Heaven on Earth, while Savant indulges his anti-Frank Capra grumblings in his admiring but hesitant review essay.


Lost Horizon (1937)
80th Anniversary Blu-ray + HD Digital
Sony
1937 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 133 min. / Street Date October 3, 2017 / 19.99
Starring: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Margo, Isabel Jewell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe, Noble Johnson, Richard Loo.
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editors: Gene Havelick, Gene Milford
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Musical director: Max Steiner
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Robert Riskin from the novel by James Hilton
Produced and Directed by
Frank Capra

 

Frank Capra had a way with actors and comedy that made his films stand out from others; he seems to be one of those magnetic personalities that can inspire others to be as positive and exuberant as he is. He also did serious fare well, as seen in the remarkable The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which is artistically innovative as well. In his autobiography Capra recounts how he purposely turned to ‘important’ subject matter, deciding that he needed to use his powers of cinematic persuasion for meaningful ends. Even as they excite and charm audiences, Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe feel like homegrown propaganda. They manipulate audience emotions more strongly than Steven Spielberg ever did, creating paper villains and corn-fed ‘natural’ heroes.

The Capra movies are important stars in Columbia Pictures’ crown, and it’s wonderful that Sony’s current regime takes such good care of them. A new special edition Blu-ray has appeared yearly for some time now. This movie was not in good shape for the longest time, and this presentation is a great improvement.

Reportedly not a success, 1937’s Lost Horizon was Frank Capra’s first super-production, harnessing every scrap of studio resources at Columbia to bring to life a book that Capra clearly fell in love with, James Hilton’s fantasy about a magical place ‘far away from war and strife and hunger and suffering.’ Capra’s instinct for casting and direction enable him to make an interesting concept so attractive that its essential poverty of spirit (yes) isn’t immediately apparent. Capra’s master screenwriter Robert Riskin has no trouble fashioning a sensational first act, and a suspenseful third. But the middle third is mainly static exposition and talk, with a hero that must repeatedly explain why he isn’t doing anything.

Among ‘lost world’ fantasies Lost Horizon is one of the greats. Certain sections are beautiful in and of themselves. The movie has always been called Thoughtful and Inspiring, yet it didn’t catch on the same way Capra’s comedies did. Are fantasies like this one necessarily limited in appeal? Or were audiences disappointed by a movie that wants them to think, instead of regaling them with the delightful, earthy characters that were so beloved in his It Happened One Night?

The film was originally longer, with an involved introductory prologue and a main story told in flashback. English diplomat and political troubleshooter Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is evacuating British subjects from a civil war in a Chinese province. He takes the last flight out with a motley handful of Anglos: his loyal brother George (John Howard), nervous paleontologist Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), fugitive stock manipulator Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and Gloria (Isabel Jewell), a consumptive, suicidal prostitute. But the plane is hijacked and taken deep into the Himalayas. It crash-lands in a snowy wilderness, and just as things are looking hopeless the travelers are rescued by a group of natives led by Chang (H.B. Warner). He takes them on a perilous hike (“it’s not far, but it is very difficult”) to a seemingly impossible oasis among the freezing peaks: Shangri-La. Nestled safely in the Valley of the Blue Moon, Shangri-La is an agrarian Utopia of complete harmony and peace, where strife and conflict are unknown. The castaways are, however, completely cut off from the outside world, which is of course why Shangri-La has survived unchanged for hundreds of years.

 

The ‘guests’ make themselves at home, and most overcome their initial suspicion of Chang, who is clearly withholding relevant information about where they are and how they got there. The scientist Lovett can find fulfillment as a gentle teacher of children, and the criminal industrialist Barnard can make a fresh start improving Shangri-La’s irrigation and plumbing. Gloria’s health improves, and Chang says that she will be cured, as there is no sickness or disease in Shangri-La. George is the only castaway that wants to leave, and he wants to take with him Maria (Margo), a local. The ‘non-problem’ is that the weary Robert Conway is inspired by his new surroundings. He was tired of fighting a hopeless crusade to save the world, and the more he learns about Shangri-La the more he likes it. He also likes Sondra (Jane Wyatt), another local that Chang says ‘he will get to meet later.’ When Chang thinks Conway is ready, he lets him visit the High Lama (Sam Jaffe) to learn the real secret of Shangri-La, in the hope that Conway will take on an even bigger responsibility.

Lost Horizon opens in great noise and panic in a burning Chinese airfield; it then moves to a supremely exciting and realistic plane ride to disaster, followed by scenes of mountain climbing in howling winds. Capra makes each of these sequences the best of their kind to date, with terrific special effects, rear-projection tricks and even filming the snowbound scenes in an icehouse, so the characters will have real frost on their breath. He then pulls off the arrival at Shangri-La with great aplomb. Few words have to be spoken. Conway looks in one direction, and the exit of a tunnel is a freezing hell. Through the other can be seen a sunny valley, as peaceful as can be. The High Lama’s pavilion is an Art Deco wonder, all in white and surrounded by cheerful gardens. The words Peace, Security & Calm are unnecessary.

Had film composers been appreciated back then, Dimitri Tiomkin should have won multiple awards. His music for Lost Horizon elevates Orientalist clichés to delirious heights, expressing the ethereal and spiritual element without need for further elaboration. The mad plane ride is pitched to high jeopardy, and heavenly choirs greet the first sight of The Valley of the Blue Moon. When Robert follows Sondra on a horse ride in the hills, the playful themes underscore the weary diplomat’s feeling of liberation. The music is inspiring in extremis, especially the main theme that seems to have no ending, like a perpetual prayer. Shangri-La apparently wants to be a generic place of spiritual harmony, vaguely Christian yet vaguely Eastern. I have to think that John Patrick Shanley had Shangri-La in mind when he invented Waponi-Wu for his Joe versus the Volcano, an island culture with Celtic and Jewish influences!


Lost Horizon needs to be appreciated for what it is, without much examination . . . or perhaps it needs examination if we’re to understand the lack of clarity in Frank Capra’s ‘important’ movies. Shangri-La is a bedtime fairy tale, and we don’t expect such stories to be entirely logical. But a movie must have a visual reality, and what we see is pretty scary. We accept that a movie from the 1930s, especially one about Englishmen, is going to have ‘white man’s burden’ attitudes — the very first thing we see is an opening note explaining that Robert Conway is rescuing only whites from the falling city of Baskul. True, some recovered long-version dialogue has the good Conway addressing this very injustice with regret. Not until we reach Shangri-La do we find out what kind of outrageous über-Colonial fantasy James Hilton had in mind. Anticipating hardships, the Anglo castaways instead find themselves in a veritable Club Med, with their every need waited on by dutiful, grateful native servants. The citizens of Shangri-La are ‘simple people’ happy to do all the work. With no disease and no war for hundreds of years, all the forces that oppress them should be gone, yet they’re still subsistence farmers. Many seem to speak English. We’re not sure if they’re Christians. Chang is in charge of a monastery, yet we see little Christian imagery.

Hilton (and Capra) have imagined a Colonial paradise, with anointed white V.I.P.’s living in a palace and thinking deep thoughts with their fellow wizards. Everybody else is kitchen help or works down in the rice paddies. The view here is that peons slave their lives away because they want to, rather than because they’re starving or somebody is pointing guns at them.

Lost Horizon is of course a fantasy of escape, of getting away from the evils of society. In the postwar years it was called White Flight. Robert Conway deserves a good vacation, and if he wants to quit the Foreign Service, that should be his right as well. But the inference built into the concept of Lost Horizon is that the world doesn’t deserve him, that isn’t worth saving, and that it’s headed toward an unavoidable apocalypse. It’s no use doing anything to stop this doomsday, so smart people will just find a cozy spot to hunker down and wait out the storm. For all his love of life and affinity for human goodness, Capra’s movies repeatedly promote openly offensive ideas like this. There’s every reason to be positive about humankind, in 1933 and even today, when there is no such thing as a hiding place from what a war might bring. Lost Horizon is a pipe dream of a person that is already reasonably secure and privileged, who would prefer that the teeming, suffering masses of have-nots would just go away. It’s essentially the story of the rich woman in A Night to Remember who is concerned only with matters of personal convenience. When her ship sinks, she is given a lifeboat almost to herself. It’s dreadful: couldn’t all those people in the freezing water stop making so much noise?

For the life of me, I don’t see how Frank Capra could be so insensitive, even in the politically scrambled 1930s. A self-made man, he rose from humble beginnings and put himself through college. Yet his populist Capra-corn classics consistently condescend to his beloved ‘little people.’


Ronald Colman is indeed a natural for this role; before he opens his mouth he already embodies all the noble qualities of Robert Conway. The rest of the characters are less interesting. Lovely Jane Wyatt is charming but her Sondra is ‘the cute girlfriend,’ an Earth Mother on tranquilizers. Maybe if Sondra marries Conway, she will tell him what’s really on her mind. Thomas Mitchell’s Barnard seems an apology for white-collar swine of all kinds — he didn’t mean to cheat anybody, and he didn’t profit personally, either. Why must everyone hate him? The screenplay has great fun letting Barnard bait and tease professor Lovett, who being a standard Edward Everett Horton worrywart-chatterbox, comes off as effeminate. Barnard first calls the professor ‘Lovey’, and then ‘Sister’ and finally ‘Toots,’ and suggests a game of Honeymoon bridge. Dr. Lovett then fusses over a prehistoric animal bone he carries around in a cardboard box.

Did Howard Hawks decide that a gay paleontologist was the funniest thing he ever heard of? Cary Grant’s unassertive, ineffectual David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby seems inspired by Lovett, and is always mumbling nonsense about his ‘inter-costal clavicle.’

I guess Shangri-La’s magical waters revive Barnard’s all-male ego too, for he soon takes the lost lamb Gloria in tow. She’s no sooner stopped coughing and trying to kill herself than she’s sitting in his lap. At least that’s better than Gloria’s outburst about dying, the one that Isabel Jewell reprised almost identically for Val Lewton in The Seventh Victim.

Things get a little sticky when the adorable Margo is cast as Maria, the dark haired woman who leads George and then Robert astray. Maria appears to be more self-deluded, than an actual femme fatale, but the fact that a dark foreign woman is the agent of Evil in The Garden is not pleasant. All the Western Anglos find their better natures in Shangri-La, so why should Maria become malign, or mentally ill? Maria’s lies deflate the harmony Conway was just beginning to accept — that people in Shangri-La live inordinately long lives, and that the High Lama is hundreds of years old. I don’t believe anybody ever properly explained all of those superannuated men in The Bible, but the notion resonates with the cultural retro-logic presented here . . . it’s Crosby Stills & Nash, man. Carry On! We gotta get ourselves back to The Garden, where everything will be swell.

Chang’s cute little homily about good manners in romantic disputes is pretty annoying too; he likes to answer serious questions with useless anecdotes. Competing male suitors should defer to each other out of politeness, a rotten solution that assumes that the woman has no say in the matter. Does Chang’s passive control of events extend to regulating who sleeps with whom? Did he ask Sondra to ride off for a nude swim, as a ruse to entice Conway to hang around longer? And if Chang really wanted Robert to stay, he should have taken more time to win over brother George, whose complaints seem wholly justified. George is humiliated for being a doubter, a wet mop, and a non-believer. And only because he’s in a crazy place with no exit, a cushy prison preaching love and kindness.

 

The High Lama’s own philosophy is a stack of platitudes about being good to each other. The heaviest message he has is ‘Be kind.’ I’m with him all the way, but even Longfellow Deeds couldn’t sell that for one of his greeting cards (Although Spielberg’s E.T., I believe, warmed hearts with, ‘Be Good.’) And when Chang suggests that we Westerners are committing suicide with our violent lifestyles, it sounds like more evasive, change-the-subject Shangri-La propaganda. Nope, Lost Horizon is one of those stories about goodness and faith that doesn’t require a leap of faith: Eden exists, and its magic is real. But the magical haven depicted, really isn’t so benign.

Oops, my soapbox time ran out paragraphs ago. Time for a meaningful tangent.

We need good, intelligent men like Conway to steer the world in the right direction. But is Conway being seduced by a cult? Sci-Fi author Nigel Kneale revisited the Conway-Lama relationship in his impressive teleplay The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. Val Guest’s film version seems very much a meditation directly inspired by the Conway-Lama conflict in Lost Horizon, and the central conflict is almost identical. Peter Cushing plays a scientist looking for the Yeti. A Tibetan Lama appears to be his friend, but has a secret agenda to keep the Yeti a secret. The Yeti are actually benign aliens, patiently waiting for mankind to destroy itself with nuclear war. Then the gentle, noble Yeti will come down from their Himalayan snow caves and make the Earth into the peaceful Eden it ought to be. At the end of that show, we don’t know if Peter Cushing is voluntarily helping the Lama, or if the Lama has used hypnotism to brainwash him. That’s exactly what George Conway thinks is going on with his brother in Lost Horizon.

Lost Horizon still plays like a genuine classic, carried by its music, some fine acting and a plot that finally kicks into gear for some highly emotional scenes — we only wish that the bond between Conway and Sondra was more deeply felt. The flight from Shangri-La in that enormous pavilion set during a funeral pageant is a terrific production set piece. I would imagine that the lack of compelling activity during the middle act, plus several very long dialogue scenes, dampened audience excitement — they found the movie interesting, but not for a full 133 minutes. I’m still transported by the sense of Awe and Wonder in Frank Capra’s ‘little fable of hope’ — even if its politics leave me cold.


 

Sony’s 80th Anniversary Blu-ray of Lost Horizon is a vast improvement over their DVD from 1999, which was a good encoding of an earlier UCLA Film Archive restoration. The movie was one of restorer Bob Gitt’s most persistent technical challenges. As detailed in Jeremy Arnold’s thorough program notes, Lost Horizon was treated terribly by the studio, cut several times and finally hacked down by as much as 37 minutes. With the original negative lost and its various versions not protected (incredible!), by the time we were seeing it on TV there was hardly anything left. When Sherman Torgan showed Columbia’s studio print at his Beverly Cinema in the 1980s, it was a mess of spliced footage with a new title, ‘Lost Horizon of Shangri-La.’ The DVD couldn’t do much about some of the frustrating problems in UCLA’s photochemical reconstruction. Several minutes of missing sequences were illustrated with photomontages. We could finally appraise the show for what it was like when new.

The new 4K restoration throws the technical might of Sony’s digital resources at the problem, and the result is a massive improvement. Although even the best parts of the show are taken from dupe material, or prints, it looks very good — less grainy, more stable, much sharper. Opticals are improved, too. Jumps in quality enable us to tell where missing scenes have been reinstated. The only really bad stretch of picture is the beginning of a dinner table scene. Digital work has stabilized it, but it’s still pretty ugly. This version requires a little less photo- montage work to cover audio passages for which no images have been located.

The audio is beautifully restored as well, which is a boost to the wondrous Dimitri Tiomkin music. The disc also lists audio in four other languages, and I wonder if they’re original from 1937, or retro-mixes done later. Columbia seemingly retained foreign versions of its films, which apparently came in handy when domestic elements had problems. My first VHS tape of Columbia’s Born Yesterday must have had reels sourced from an Italian element. When William Holden looks at a historic U.S. document under glass in a museum, it’s written in Italian!

 

Sony’s special anniversary edition carries plenty of worthwhile features. An audio commentary with reviewer Charles Champlin and UCLA’s Bob Gitt hails from the first disc; a thoughtful disclaimer reminds us that some of what is said has been superseded by developments in this new restoration. Also repeated is a vintage photo documentary with narration by Kendall Miller. Bob Gitt’s presence is felt on some of the visual extras, which are presented as straight content, not reformatted into featurettes. We see an alternate title sequence for the wartime version ‘Lost Horizon of Shangri-La,’ and an alternate finish in which Jane Wyatt appears. Repeated but looking much better are three takes of unused action, marching monks with their torches inside the Lama’s pavilion. They were retrieved from Columbia’s stock footage department in the 1990s, by Wayne Schmidt. Bob Gitt explains that these shots are the only original negative of the film still in existence. The improvement is significant, but not extreme.

Very welcome is a production history & movie legacy essay by Jeremy Arnold, who has been Sony’s go-to home video writer for several years now. Printed in a handsome 30-page fold-out booklet in the disc packaging, Jeremy’s heavily researched piece gives us the facts regarding how Frank Capra attempted such a huge project, working good production anecdotes into the timeline. I didn’t know that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was filmed while Lost Horizon was interrupted. Jeremy explains the historical significance of the wartime re-titling of the movie, and breaks down the frustrating story of how the finished film was continually being carved into bits, and the pieces apparently thrown away. The essay does film history a service by not repeating Frank Capra’s old claim that he fixed the movie by literally tossing the first reel into a furnace. The ink on Capra’s autobiography wasn’t dry before his collaborators accused him of making up whoppers like that.

Jeremy explains that the effort to repair Lost Horizon began back in 1986. Columbia exec Rita Belda adds another essay on Sony’s digital restoration, which re-scanned French 16mm prints to obtain better results. She’s particularly proud of the improvement to a piece of the long scene with the High Lama, ‘which meant a lot to Frank Capra.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lost Horizon (1937)
80th Anniversary Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good, and an Excellent restoration.
Sound: Very Good English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Supplements: Commentary with Charles Champlin and Bob Gitt, featurette, unused scenes (1999), 1940s main title, alternate ending, Illustrated 30-page book with essay by Jeremy Arnold and restoration notes by Rita Belda.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English + French, Portuguese, Czech, German, Finnish, Swedish, Polish, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Dutch, Mandarin Chinese, Hebrew, Norwegian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Thai, English, Danish, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, Japanese
Packaging: One Blu-ray in heavy book packaging, with insert booklet and HD download code.
Reviewed: October 8, 2017
(5548lost)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.