Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lost Horizon (1937)

Director: Frank Capra


Somewhere in the world lies a land secluded by great mountains where people live in peace and harmony, where troubles and sorrows are foreign ideas, this is the premise of Frank Capra’s surprising epic motion picture Lost Horizon. For years Colombia would be just a minor studio where Frank Capra brought creditability and honor. Here he takes a turn in his style of films, producing a large fantasy adventure picture based on a recently popular novel. A film filed with mystery and intrigue, Lost Horizon would be different in genre and greater scale picture that came to hurt Capra’s relationship with his studio, though in the long run added to his legacy in cinema.

Lost Horizon is a fantasy drama about a group of people that discover a strange, almost mythical, utopian land hidden in the mountains of Tibet, and how they react to its overly peaceful nature of its existence. Fleeing an uprising in China, a group of westerns make their getaway by airplane, which is hijacked, crashing into the Himalayan Mountains. There they are rescued by a man named Chang (H.B. Warner) and his men, taking the crash survivors to their home of Shangri-La, a valley sheltered in the mountains from the outside world where its inhabitants live in a utopian society.

At first all of the survivors are weary of this strangely perfect world where everyone contributes to society in harmony. Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), the leader of the westerners, is made known to how they were brought to this land was no mistake, but that Conway holds similar values as the lands founder, the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), whom wishes to pass on the duties of watching over Shangri-La to Conway upon his death. The remaining survivors come to embrace the land and its inhabitants, except for Robert’s brother George (John Tiomkin) who persuades his brother to leave with him to return to civilization, only to have George shortly after leaving go mad upon learning that Shangri-La is in fact utopia on Earth, and all the legends they learned there was true. Robert alone makes it back to England, but is only drawn to get back to Shangri-La on his own, where his destiny has led him.

The picture is a remarkably progressive film with enormous scope and intriguing ideas for a plot. It is a real surprise to see a film of this size and quality to come out of “poverty row” Colombia Pictures. It is evident that Lost Horizon was a picture of great excellence in production and vision. With the film comes a story that carries heavily socialistic themes in the mysterious Shangri-La. In a time before the Cold War and World War II such strong depictions of a socialism-like style of living as a perfect society would not be as much of a problem as the production would see years later. Lost Horizon would be a new benchmark for Frank Capra and Colombia in filmmaking value, but due to its high costs and struggle on returns it would create a rift between director and studio head Harry Cohn.

The picture is presented as a mystery, fantasy style of film. We, the audience, discover the mysteries of Shangri-La alongside the cast of outsiders brought into this new land. Led by Robert Conway, played by Ronald Colman, his demeanor is calm and cautiously interested, supplying as the main character we follow throughout. Despite being anchored to Conway, part of our natural interest and mistrust in this utopia being too good to be true, we parallel with the remaining outsiders. The bickering characters of Alexander P. Lovett and Henry Barnard, played respectfully by common supporting actors Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, provide comedy and manifest the turn from suspicious mistrust to acceptance of Shangri-La. The even more minor character of Gloria, played by Isabel Jewell, provides an interesting idea that Shangri-La cures here of her terminal illness, making her find a new passion for living. The only person suspicious of Shangri-La throughout is Robert’s brother, George, played by John Howard in his first real major role. George holds suspicion throughout, never accepting the perfection that makes the land work, and when he frees himself of Shangri-La only to discover that what was taught in this land was true, it drives him mad in panicked disbelief, killing himself. The characters provide the full kaleidoscope of emotions and viewpoints of how this mysterious land would affect people.

What really makes the story work is how the people of Shangri-La act and their effect on the “regular” characters. Initially they are introduced to the land by Chang, played by gentlemanly and proper British actor H.B. Warner. He provides as the guiding hand, but leaves our heroes, and the audience, wanting to learn more, as if Chang is holding back an awful truth. Conway becomes smitten by the beauty of Sondra, played by the Jane Wyatt in her first great role, and perhaps most memorable film role, Sondra is the reason Robert starts to believe Shangri-La is perhaps for real and not a facade where something will go wrong. The mysterious High Lama would be played by the Sam Jaffe is heavy make-up that took many attempts at reshoots to get right for Capra. The High Lama is the founder of the community and leader of the people, but is never seen outside of his little room during the picture. This adds extra mystery, but as he passes away from the age of over 200 years old, and hands the reigns to Conway to watch over Shangri-La, once again the audience is beginning to believe in the city. Despite all the buildup of positives, it is the character of Maria, played by Mexican born actress known simply as Margo, who keeps the suspicion alive, claiming she was kept from leaving and that the myth of people not aging in Shangri-La is just a lie, eaming with George to escape Shangri-La. We end up discovering that Maria was the one not telling the truth as she dies of old age after rapidly aging once outside of Shangri-La. The whole motion picture keeps you on your toes, not knowing what is to come next with all these characters and perceptions.

It is quite a mystery how Lost Horizon could have ever been made by Frank Capra. After his major successes of It happened One Night, which swept the Oscars, Lady for a Day, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra gained his power to decide his own next project, choosing the popular 1933 novel by James Hilton. Capra would make many creative decisions that add to the story on film that where not seen in the novel and few would find such minor changes to be bothersome to the overall theme and mystery. Originally given a budget of $1.25 million, an enormous sum for Colombia, the final cost of total production would be over twice as much, totaling over $2.6 million after it was finally finished, but this was no ordinary motion picture to be produced.

The large set of the lamasery.
The set for Shangri-La and the lamasery would be the largest set ever constructed in Hollywood, taking up an entire street corner on Hollywood Way, so large that it would be a tourist destination that people loved to pass by during production. For scenes in the freezing cold of the Himalayas Capra went for authenticity in the frigidness, renting a large commercial freezer to use as a sound stage. This allowed the use of real snow (crushed and blown ice) and authentic breathe vapors to be used, which is visible of screen, valuable details commonly looked over in productions. That freezer alone would be an extensive cost, but the extreme cold would cause production equipment to malfunction, costing precious time and made for a valuable loss. The production would be kept in Southern California, but in many different locations to present various settings, creating the costliness of moving large crews to many locals. To attempt to cut time, Capra used multiple cameras to capture moments from more than one angle simultaneously, but even so the schedule went long, and costs were very high.

Upon completion of principle photography the first cut of the picture would be over six hours. That would obviously be whittled down, producing a cut of three and a half hours, with Colombia considering releasing the picture in two parts. After a disastrous previewing of the film Capra refilmed scenes, including all containing the High Lama, and continued to cut away parts of the picture, including the bookended beginning and ending (which alone shaved off 10 minutes). To studio head Harry Cohn’s disgust the release date was pushed back until Capra got it down to the 132 minutes, deeming it completed.

Originally the film was released show in a roadshow format, where reserved seating for limited showings to create a more prestigious atmosphere to the picture, but in this matter it produced low returns at the box office. Cohn would take control of the picture, cut out 14 minutes of the film, and released widely to attempt to make some money back. Capra would file suit over the mishandling of his film as well for unmet payments due to him by the studio, which led to a major quarrel between he and Cohn. Capra would only make two more films for Colombia to fulfill his contract, leaving the studio he had worked for since 1928. The film would not make a profit for five years when it was rereleased, and due to World War II the film was cut down more to skirt around political issues around wartime. By the 1952 rerelease of the Lost Horizon, the film was only 92 minutes long. Further cutting was done so in order to not create as much sympathy for Chinese characters and to downplay as many Communist themes in a socialist utopia.

Due to so many cuts through the years, it was believed that much of original film was lost. A preservation effort began in 1973 that would attempt to bring Lost Horizon bake to the original glory of its initial release reclaiming much of the lost footage.  Of the original 132 minutes reassembled with the aid of the original full soundtrack found as the blueprint, the full film was reconstructed with reels in condition ranging from good to very poor. However, seven minutes of footage are still missing from the rots of time, with preservationists only able to recreate the scenes with still images and the soundtrack playing behind it. It is sad to think that a once great film can be cut up and partially destroyed, but it serves as a testament to the history of a filmmaker, a studio, a film, and the time in which it was produced and released.

Despite all the devastating limitations put on the original film by Harry Cohn Lost Horizon would still be praised by many critics. At that year’s Academy Awards Lost Horizon would be found all over the list of nominations. Taking home the awards for best art direction and editing, two awards very well deserved for a production of that size and detail, the film was also nominated for best picture, best supporting actor (H.B. Warner), best original score, best sound, and best assistant director.

It is clearly seen how much time, money, and care went into the production of Lost Horizon by Frank Capra, and it would be unfortunate to see him not appreciate it to the fullest. Contemporary audiences would appreciate the picture years after, even in its mangled up state. Imagine what Capra would have done if he had more time and money. He could have filmed in magnificent color, with finer detail instead of being forced to photograph in common black and white and relying on stack footage for Himalayan hiking scenes. One may be able to see just what kind of a visionary Capra was with such a picture that was far from his common everyman films, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or It’s a Wonderful Life.

You do not hear much about Lost Horizon, though it clearly left an impact, even a musical remake in 1973. Shangri-La would become a name in the American lexicon as a city of utopia, a name whose origin is lost by the younger generations. For a short time Camp David, the Presidential getaway in the wood s of Maryland, would be named Shangri-La by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Adaptations to the story on radio, Broadway, and television would resound in time, but it is Frank Capra’s visionary film that sparked the imaginations of many to see the wonders of Shangri-La.

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