Saturday, March 10, 2012


“Here’s my hope that we all find our Shangri-La…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
With the publication of his novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1934, a book penned by author James Hilton a year earlier, Lost Horizon, also began to garner attention from the public and soon would obtain the similar success of Chips. In fact, it became one of the first and best-selling “mass-market” paperbacks as well as one of the 20th century’s most popular and beloved novels. The story concerns a British diplomat who stumbles onto a utopian paradise known as “Shangri-La” — a civilization free from war and want, where its inhabitants are able to live long, peaceful lives well past the usual life expectancy. The title, “Shangri-La,” refers to the lamasery in the novel but soon was adopted as shorthand for any sort of utopian existence; Franklin D. Roosevelt even borrowed it for the nickname of the presidential retreat in Maryland (that we have come to know as Camp David).

Motion picture director Frank Capra read the novel while he was making his Academy Award-winning comedy It Happened One Night (1934), and vowed that Lost Horizon would be his next picture. Capra knew precisely whom he wanted for the protagonist of the novel: actor Ronald Colman. Colman wasn’t available, so Capra made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in the interim and when he finally cemented Colman’s participation he convinced Columbia studio head Harry Cohn to pony up a hefty $1.25 million to finance his production — the largest amount ever allocated to any Columbia film at that time. Beginning in 1936, the filming of the movie that was released to theaters 75 years ago on this date would run over that amount by more than three-quarters of a million dollars and though it would be another five years before the film finally recouped its initial cost, it also provided audiences with another outstanding work from one of the greatest of American film directors.

It is 1935, and in the Chinese city of Baskul, diplomat and foreign secretary candidate Robert Conway (Colman) has been assigned the task of rescuing 90 Westerners before civil war breaks out in the region. Conway manages to catch the last plane out along with his brother George (John Howard) and three disparate passengers: tubercular prostitute Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), fussy paleontologist Alexander P. Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) and Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell) — whom we later learn is the alias of fugitive embezzler Chalmers Bryant. The plane on which these individuals are traveling is hijacked by an Asian pilot and flown toward the Himalayan Mountains, where it runs out of gas and crashes, killing the man at the controls. The group is rescued by a mysterious man (H.B. Warner) who identifies himself as “Chang”; he and his men take the travelers to a lamasery known as “Shangri-La,” an idyllic paradise remotely separated from the outside world.

Perplexed by their surroundings at first, the members of the group gradually are enchanted by Shangri-La and find themselves becoming as content as its inhabitants — particularly Robert, who learns from Chang that the paradise was founded by a priest named Perrault, who accidentally stumbled upon the lamasery in the 1700s. Conway also is introduced to the de facto leader, the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), who is revealed to be Father Perrault himself! The High Lama announces to Conway that despite the longevity bestowed upon Shangri-La’s inhabitants because of its relaxing atmosphere (temperate climate, healthy diet, etc.) he is dying, and on the recommendation of Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt), a native resident who has read many of Conway’s writings, has decided that Robert possesses the wisdom and knowledge of the outside world to continue on as his successor. He then expires in a manner later described by Conway as “peacefully as the passing of a cloud’s shadow.”

The offer to remain in Shangri-La is quite tempting to Robert, who also is in love with Sondra, but there is dissension in the ranks in the form of brother George, who has been distrustful of Shangri-La since the moment he arrived — despite having fallen for young Maria (Margo), a resident who was brought to the lamasery as the survivor of an expedition in the late 1800s. George convinces Robert, who is still a bit shell-shocked from the High Lama’s passing (and is loyal to his brother), that the tales told to him by both Chang and the Lama are lies and that they have an opportunity to escape the confines of Shangri-La with the help of a team of porters if they leave in the morning (the remaining members of their party have elected to stay). Both Conway brothers and Maria experience several days of travel in grueling conditions and, succumbing to the elements, Maria falls face down in the snow and expires. George learns to his horror that what Chang had told his brother — that Maria was much older than she appeared and was “preserved” by the magical properties of life in Shangri-La — is indeed true, Maria’s countenance is that of an old woman…which causes George to go mad and leap into a ravine. Robert manages to continue on through the horrific weather to be rescued by villagers from a nearby hamlet.

In an epilogue to the adventures of Robert Conway, an explorer named Lord Gainsford (Hugh Buckler) relates to members of his club in Old Blighty that Conway’s experiences had been wiped from his memory as a result of amnesia but that the recollection of Shangri-La returned while Conway was returning by boat to England. Jumping ship, Conway obsessively made it his mission to return to the tranquil paradise, and Gainsford informs the club members that his ten month attempt to pursue Conway resulted in failure. But in the film’s final scenes, it is apparent that Conway “has found his Shangri-La.”

The characters of Sondra and Lovett are not present in Hilton’s original novel, but were added merely as romantic interest and comic relief, respectively. In the case of Lovett, the addition of the persnickety academic added a touch of humorous whimsy to what would otherwise be a dreary fantasy excursion; Horton — the silver screen’s embodiment of what was then known as the “sissy” — was a perfect choice for the role, and director Capra wisely let the actor improvise much of his onscreen business (including the scene with the lacquer box mirror). Horton’s rapport with Mitchell’s “Barney” Bernard also is priceless; Bernard refers to him as “Sister” and “Toots” before finally deciding to call Lovett “Lovey,” a nickname that soon is adopted by some of the children in Shangri-La as well.

Capra, as a rule, hated screen tests…and made it a point to develop the characters in his films around actors he already had in mind for the roles. But this wasn’t always set in stone; he tested both Louis Hayward and David Niven for the part of George Conway before deciding upon John Howard two days before shooting was to begin, and he cast the part of the High Lama twice before deciding on Sam Jaffe (the other two actors he had in mind, A.E. Anson and Henry B. Walthall, passed away before he could utilize their services). As stated, Colman was his first and only choice for the movie’s protagonist, Robert Conway (changed from Hugh in the novel), and though Colman was hesitant about Capra’s methods of film direction the two men eventually were able to form a rewarding collaboration.

The final cost to make Lost Horizon was $2,626,620. Its production history was a troubled one, which goes a long way in explaining why Capra went over budget and why ultimately his partnership with Columbia studio head Harry Cohn suffered a tremendous strain (Cohn’s insistence on edits to the film resulted in Capra’s filing suit against the studio that same year, charging “contractual disagreements”). Horizon’s snow scenes and aircraft interiors were shot inside the Los Angeles Ice and Cold Storage Warehouse, where the low temperatures wreaked havoc with the camera equipment; cinematographer Joseph Walker would discover to his horror that the extreme cold often damaged the film stock. The Streamline Moderne sets designed by art director Stephen Goosson had been constructed near the busy thoroughfare known as Hollywood Way, with the daytime activity forcing the production to shoot at night and accelerating overtime expenses. Other film locations included the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the cost of transporting cast, crew and equipment expanded the budget’s waistline as well.

There also were problems related to casting — Cohn hated Sam Jaffe as the High Lama (he thought Jaffe was too young and the makeup used to make him appear older unsuitable) and demanded that Capra replace Sam with Columbia stock thespian Walter Connolly. Capra succumbed to re-shooting all the Lama’s scenes (an additional expense was added in that Cohn also insisted on constructing an expensive new set to accommodate the switch), only to discover that Connolly-as-Lama simply didn’t work (Capra would remark later that Connolly was too hefty to play the part of a 200-year-old character who was supposed to be an ascetic). So Capra had to re-shoot the High Lama scenes upon the return of Jaffe and of the footage he shot, only 12 minutes of the Lama made it into the actual film. Overall, Capra’s insistence on shooting scenes using multiple cameras to cover multiple angles resulted in multiple zeroes being added to the final budget tally.

Capra’s “director’s cut” originally was six hours long, and though the studio toyed with the idea of releasing Lost Horizon in two parts, it was eventually whittled down to 3½ hours (by Capra and editors Gene Havlick and Gene Milford) for a 1936 preview in Santa Barbara, Calif. The audience reaction to that preview was disastrous (though in all fairness, it followed a showing of the comedy Theodora Goes Wild — a film Capra’s crew worked on during the delays in making Horizon) and Capra continued to hack away at his film, becoming more and more distraught in the process. By the time of its official release, Lost Horizon’s official running time was 132 minutes…and in its early engagements was promoted as a “roadshow release,” meaning that tickets had to be purchased in advance and that presentations were limited to two screenings per day. Capra would later argue that Cohn’s continued slashing of Horizon was perpetuated because the studio head wanted to guarantee more daily showings and generate the needed revenue for the expensive production. In its initial theatrical release, the critical response to Horizon was mostly positive despite its poor showing at the box office; the prestige surrounding the picture allowed it to snag seven Academy Award nominations (including best picture), winning for Goosson’s art direction and the best editing trophy for the team of Havlick and Milford.

Horizon only managed to pay for itself upon its re-issue in 1942, when it was re-titled The Lost Horizon of Shangri-La. Since it was being re-shown during wartime, Columbia cut a scene of Colman’s character drunkenly railing against war and diplomacy on the hijacked airplane — something the studio felt wouldn’t go over well with the pro-war sentiment at the time. A further re-trimming saw a slimmed-down version of the film in 1952 at 92 minutes, with the attitudes displayed toward the film’s Chinese characters muted (due to tension between the U.S. and China following World War II) and the “Communist” elements of the utopian society dissipated. The slicing and dicing of Lost Horizon over the years came back to haunt Columbia in 1967, when the original nitrate camera negative of the film has found to have deteriorated and no copies of the full length version of the film were known to survive.

The American Film Institute, beginning in 1973, conducted an exhaustive combing of film archives from around the world in an attempt to locate the missing elements. Their efforts resulted in the finding of a complete soundtrack of the 132 minute film, and all but seven minutes of the visual portion of Horizon. To compensate for the missing video, Columbia and the UCLA Film and Television archive filled in the gaps with freeze-frame images from the movie and surviving production stills, and the resulting product (which was completed in 1986) was made available on DVD in 1999. The disc, in addition to commentary on the preservation of the film, also contained an “alternate ending” which director Capra wisely chose to excise from the finished product (it makes the established ending less ambiguous with regards to Conway’s rediscovery of his paradise, but doesn’t quite “sync” with the rest of the film). Interestingly, in that same year that the AFI's restoration mission began, a musical remake of the movie made the rounds in theaters, produced by Ross Hunter (his final film) and starring Peter Finch, John Gielgud and Liv Ullmann. Despite tuneful songs by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, the production was an unmitigated disaster — its disappointing box-office earned it the nickname “Lost Investment” and film critic John Simon famously suggested that the movie “must have arrived in garbage (cans rather) than in film cans.” Despite its inclusion in Michael Medved’s The 50 Worst Films of All Time, the 1973 Horizon developed a kitschy reputation among moviegoers that a MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD of the film was made available in October 2011.

As for the original, critical acceptance of Lost Horizon is somewhat split in today’s quarters, with classic movie fans on both sides of the fence as to its merits. Speaking only for myself, the realist in me is inclined to dismiss Horizon because I know that the utopian society depicted could never come to pass, owing to man’s innate venality and stupidity. But the idealist in me has an equally powerful opinion, and finds that watching the film is every bit as idyllic as the paradise that is its subject matter; in addition, I love the performances (it’s my favorite Ronald Colman film) and the cinematography, and think screenwriter Robert Riskin is in peak form (Sidney Buchman also worked on Horizon, taking no credit for rewriting much of the High Lama’s dialogue) — it’s a shame that the movie’s problematic history created a rift in the fruitful alliance between he and director Capra. “In these days of wars and rumors of wars — haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” the movie famously posits in an opening title…and each time I visit the cinematic environs of “Shangri-La,” I respond with a most emphatic “yes.”

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Splendid piece on this Capra film, Ivan. Well done.
Nice job, Ivan - very great movie of a special piece; though my favorite Colman is If I Were King....
Ivan, this is a fascinating and thorough history of a movie I have always loved. It's hard for me to understand why it had and still has detractors, although I suppose everything does. The book was wonderful, and the movie surpassed my expectations. I thought Sam Jaffe did an excellent job as the wisp-of-smoke High Lama, although Walthall could have been good as well. Whenever I think of that movie, I remember most fondly a quiet little scene with Colman and Wyatt, where he describes himself as like the shadow of the airplane on the ground, running here and there, up and down, always looking for a place to rest. It's a beautiful soliloquy. I believe Shangri-La exists, if only in the hopes and dreams deep in our souls.

This is one of the best reviews you've ever done, Ivan. Kudos!

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