Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"I HEAR THERE'S TROUBLE IN SHANGRI-LA." It's probably just as well that I mention up front that I always preferred the film "SHE" to "LOST HORIZON". Both films are similar in style, mood and setting; both concern a hidden, lost city and eternal youth. However, where H. Rider Haggard's "SHE" (both book and movie) are thumping potboilers, James Hilton's "LOST HORIZON" is much quieter and more lyrical. "SHE" is jam-packed with conflict while "LOST HORIZON" features barely any actual conflict at all. I hadn't seen "LOST HORIZON" for several years and this time around I found myself appreciating it much more. However, I can't help being left with the feeling that the film could have been much more effective than it is. And there's a good reason for that. This isn't really the film Frank Capra made. Studio boss Harry Cohn had SIX REELS removed from the original cut -- then in addition made additional cuts here and there. Then, sadly, the original film negative no longer exists and several scenes in the restored DVD version only exist as a soundtrack; forcing restorers to use still photos in the actual movie while we hear the sound from the missing scenes. With all this going against it, "LOST HORIZON" should be a mess; but it still remains a good film and that's probably down to the skill of Frank Capra. It's not his best but it's well worth watching.
The story, of course, begins in war-torn 1936 China where British adventurer Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is helping to evacuate the last Westerners from a Chinese town while (presumably) Japanese invaders are closing in. The last group of Westerners boards the last plane and our core cast is neatly assembled: Conway's brother George (John Howard: Katharine Hepburn's stodgy betrothed in "THE PHILADELPHIA STORY" and star of the beautiful-looking but rather empty Fox werewolf movie "THE UNDYING MONSTER"), a presumably consumptive prostitute named Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell: of the 30's Bette Davis potboiler "MARKED WOMAN" as well as Val Lewton's "SEVENTH VICTIM" and "THE LEOPARD MAN"), a plumber turned financier named Henry Barnard whose financial empire has crumbled and who is now on the run from the authorities (Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell from "STAGECOACH" as well as "ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS" and Capra's own "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE") and crabby former teacher Alexander Lovett (the irrepressible Edward Everett Horton who appeared in everything from the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant classic "HOLIDAY" to "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show").
Sadly for our little group, their pilot is murdered by a mysterious fellow who essentially hijacks their plane and flies them deep into China and then Tibet before running out of gas and crashing in the snowy Himalayas. Not being a soccer team, the group is saved from having to eat each other by a passing band of folks who just happen to have extra parkas for them all and leads them back to their hidden city of Shangri-La. It quickly becomes apparent that Shangri-La is slightly magical as it is sunny and warm while all around is snowy . . . then there's that little thing about people in Shangri-La living an EXTRAORDINARILY long time. The leader of the band of hikers and a sort-of second-in-command in Shangri-La is Mr. Chang (venerable H. B. Warner who was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for this role; he dates way back to the silent era when he played Christ for DeMille in 1927's "KING OF KINGS" as well as the incredibly moving turn as the drunken druggist in Capra's "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE"). Almost immediately upon entering Shangri-La, Robert Conway catches a glimpse of the lovely, ethereal Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt -- who NEVER looked this good in FATHER KNOWS BEST). We just know that these two are destined to meet and fall in love and they do.
Our group is treated extremely well by the Shangri-Lalians (well what would YOU call 'em?!?) -- in fact the consumptive ho Gloria (who had previously been given only 6 months to live regains her health within the magical confines of the hidden city). However, slight clouds appear as the group realizes that they were essentially kidnapped and brought to Shangri-La and are being shown no real way to leave. When the group confronts him about this, Chang tells them that their leader, the High Lama, wants to see Conway. Quite an honour. Conway is ushered into the chamber and meets the High Lama (superbly played by Sam Jaffe). Conway realized that the Lama is none other than Father Perrault: the same man who founded Shangri-La way back in the 1700's. And he's still alive. Maybe not kicking -- but alive and sitting. The Lama reveals that Conway was purposely brought to Shangri-La because of his writings on utopian societies so they thought he "belonged" here. Everyone in the group slowly begins to like it in Shangri-La and soon forgets about leaving -- everyone, that is, except Conway's brother George who resists the place's charm and sourly grumps around complaining that they're prisoners. Even falling for the hot little Russian number Maria (played by Margo of Val Lewton's "THE LEOPARD MAN") doesn't soften the guy. In fact, Maria doesn't much care for the place either and eggs George on. Another meeting with the High Lama occurs in which the Lama hands over the care of Shangri-La to Conway and promptly dies. Robert tells Chang that his brother is adamant about leaving and taking Maria with him. Chang is aghast; even though Maria insists she's a sprightly 20 years old Chang tells Robert that she's been in Shangri-La since 1888 and will rapidly age if she were ever to leave the city. Robert resists his brother for a while until he and Maria harangue him into believing (or at least HALF-believing) that Shangri-La is an ossified, nasty place. Robert half-heartedly agrees to leave with the pair. Probably the most moving part of the film is when they are just about to leave the city. Ronald Colman's acting is top notch here as he sadly looks back at Shangri-La; the inner struggle between leaving and staying plays over his face with an economy and truth I've rarely seen the actor display. Of course, once out in the snowy wastes the trio has a bitch of a time. Maria naturally was lying about her age and morphs into an aged (and dead) old crone. George sees this, the cheese falls off his cracker, and he runs screaming headlong off a cliff. Robert Conway, now alone, struggles back to civilisation and collapses in a Tibetan town. He is returned to England with no memory of what happened to him in the year he was gone. Eventually, however, he remembers it all, realized what a terrible mistake he made in leaving and tirelessly attempts to get back to the hidden city.
The surviving print of "LOST HORIZON" is incomplete but still manages to stand up. The acting is great across the board with special kudos going to Sam Jaffe's High Lama as well as the previously mentioned Ronald Colman. Thomas Mitchell is given considerably less to do than he usual is given but does the best with what he's got. In fact, the relationship between he and Edward Everett Horton reminded me of a subtle gay courtship; the two start out bickering and soon end up acting towards each other like a married couple. Now, I usually don't read homosexual subtexts into movies as a rule (and if there really IS one here it is done very subtlely and without camp) but I really think the two actors at least half-intended it this way. The notion is helped along by the script (by Robert Riskin) which has Mitchell's character quickly shorten Horton's character's name from Lovett to "Lovey". Lovett first finds the nickname objectionable and annoying but soon comes to like it and even begins insisting others call him "Lovey" too. Later on in the film there is a brief and none-too-convincing attempt to suggest that Thomas Mitchell and the formerly sick prostitute Gloria will become an item but it's only in one scene and I just didn't buy it. The relationship between Mitchell and Horton seems the more natural and real to me. I'm telling you, if these two don't set up house together when they stay behind in Shangri-La, I don't know what the hell's going on! H. B. Warner as Chang was nominated for an Oscar, as I've said, and he is quite good as well but nowhere near as intensely moving as he was in "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE" where he just breaks your heart. Jane Wyatt is the best I've ever seen her in "LOST HORIZON"; although I've never been a fan of the actress here she is extremely likeable -- hey, she even does a nude scene. Although sadly the nude swimming longshots are a body double. Another nice touch occurs when the strange, otherworldly musical sounds we've been hearing in Shangri-La originate from the small little flutes that Sondra has attached to the birds constantly flying overhead.
Frank Capra was apparently very keen to direct "LOST HORIZON"; he apparently outbid King Vidor for the screen rights. The director was also adamant that Ronald Colman should play his hero. Colman was unavailable at the time and studio boss Harry Cohn tried to force "less-expensive" Brian Aherne on Capra but the director bided his time until Colman became available. Capra's first cut of the film was apparently about 5 hours long -- an epic indeed. But as previously stated, Cohn chopped 6 reels out of the movie to release it. Of course, all that removed footage is now lost to the ages; one wonders exactly what a full 5 hour print of the film would be like! With so little action or conflict, I suspect it would probably have been VERY overlong. The print we have now (about 130-some minutes) has been valiantly restored but one can only wish that Columbia had preserved the original negative. A little bit of unused footage HAS survived on original negative stock and they are shown in the DVD's special features -- and they look beautiful: sumptuous, stunning photography by Capra's favourite Joseph Walker. The print we have that's been restored look pretty good (mostly) but the original negative would've looked marvelous. The "LOST HORIZON" we DO have is a singular movie experience well-worth catching -- maybe someone might kidnap YOU and take you to the cinematic world of Shangri-La one of these days. I think you'll be happy they did.

No comments: