MIGHTIEST OF ALL MOTION PICTURES!
A short while after the premiere of Lost Horizon in 1937, Columbia Pictures realized that spending over two and a half million dollars on a movie that was originally budgeted for $1.25 million would mean the possible demise of the studio. The movie also destroyed the partnership between director Frank Capra and studio head Harry Cohn, whom Capra sued for more money. The original three-and-a-half hour cut was canned after a disastrous preview. Still, after all this negativity, the final version of Lost Horizon matured into a screen classic. Sometimes, all the hassle and financial risks of moviemaking pay off in more ways than one.
The year is 1935. Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is a British diplomat, slated as the next Foreign Secretary, who’s currently in China. There he helps orchestrate the rescue of 90 Westerners in the city of Baskul. He joins a few of them on an airplane headed for Shanghai. Eventually, the passengers discover that the plane is not headed east but west; it has been hijacked by a man who looks Mongolian and everybody on the plane have no choice but to wait and see where they are going. When they reach the Himalayan Mountains, the plane crashes. The hijacker is killed, but the survivors are reached by a group of men who take them to Shangri-La, a mysterious place surrounded by mountains.
The people of Shangri-La have created a paradise where no one seems to long for the so-called civilization, an idyll where death and illnesses seem exceedingly rare. But it is not for everyone. Robert’s younger brother George (John Howard), who was also on the plane, can’t wait to get back to London and prepares to escape…
A fascinating paradise
The term “Shangri-La” was invented by novelist James Hilton and has become part of the English language. The particular paradise portrayed in this film is still fascinating to behold. Shot entirely in California, the movie still makes a convincing case that events take place partly in the Himalayas, partly some otherworldly location. Both Shangri-La and the mountains tickle our imagination, the former as perhaps the archetypal version of Eden, the latter as a harsh reminder of the troubles of the outside world.
As for this paradise, it shouldn’t take a political scientist to view it as largely a Socialist haven, a place without money, army or police, where no one has to work or suffer. The filmmakers recognize both the value of such an existence (as understood by Robert Conway who has no desire to leave Shangri-La) and the problems inherent in the concept (as understood by George Conway who can’t find peace in a society without competition and conflict). The fantastical aspect of it is of course the fountain of youth; Shangri-La is the place to live if you want to reach the age of 200. But do we really? The conflicting nature of the issues is reflected in the character of Robert.
Fans of the director will appreciate his returning theme of the power of decency (especially considering the instabilities of the 1930s), but it is also a thoughtful, intelligent film about the meaning of life, featuring good performances and moments of tension, romance and comedy. Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell are terrific as two very different characters who become friends against the odds.
Watching the movie 70 years after its premiere requires patience. Even though the soundtrack is complete, some of the footage has been lost and replaced by stills; other scenes are in pretty poor technical shape. Lost Horizon may be banged-up, but we have to be thankful for what we’ve got. Of all Capra’s brilliant films, this is his most thought-provoking.
Lost Horizon 1937-U.S. 132 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay: Robert Riskin. Novel: James Hilton. Cinematography: Joseph Walker. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Editing: Gene Havlick, Gene Milford. Art Direction: Stephen Goosson. Cast: Ronald Colman (Robert Conway), Jane Wyatt (Sondra Bizet), John Howard (George Conway), Edward Everett Horton, Margo, Sam Jaffe… H.B. Warner, Thomas Mitchell.
Trivia: Remade as Lost Horizon (1973).
Oscars: Best Film Editing, Art Direction.
Last word: “I wasn’t sure of the picture, until we had previewed it and were certain that it was headed for success. Tibet seemed a long way to ask people to go find a solution of their problems, whatever they were. And, of course, that’s about all the answer the picture gave to the situation it posed. I was relieved to have the solution of my next picture, ‘You Can’t Take It With You’, occur nearer home. In fact, the title gave the solution to the whole problem.” (Capra, “Frank Capra: Interviews”)