“ Genre: Action & Adventure / Theatrical Release: 1937 / Director: Frank Capra / Actors: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt ... / DVD released 26 February, 2001 at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / Features of the DVD: Black & White, Dubbed, Full Screen, PAL „
* Prices may differ from that shown
In these miraculous modern times when the most epic of movie scenes can be created at the touch of a laptop key it is easy to forget that there was actually a time when the easy benefits of CGI were but a dream and if directors wanted to recreate, say, the snowy wastes of the Himalayas without actually visiting the snowy wastes of the Himalayas then they had much head scratching to do.
In 1935 it was celebrated Hollywood director Frank Capra who was doing the head scratching, trying to come up with ways to realistically capture on film the epic scenes he had in mind for a script he'd been given. The script was a loose adaptation of a novel entitled "Lost Horizon" and the film that Capra would shoot the following year would be one of the most expensive ever to come out of a Hollywood studio (It would cost Columbia Pictures almost $3 million, a huge sum in those days).
That shoot involved going on location at Lucerne Dry Lake in the High Desert of California near Mojave, which would double as the Tibetan Plateau, with the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains standing in for the Himalayas. The huge lamasery of Shangri La (see below) was built on the Columbia ranch near Burbank, and it was quite a building: 1000 ft long and 500 ft wide with a central facade (the most filmed part) almost 100 ft high. The site is now (inevitably) a shopping mall. Perhaps the most interesting part of the shoot was the hundred days or so spent in the huge 'Ice and Cold Storage Facility' in downtown Los Angeles. It was in this sub-zero environment that Capra was able to generate an authentic chilled-breath effect from his cast. He also used some stock scenes from the 1930 film 'Storm Over Mont Blanc' to give himself some contrasting long-distance mountain shots.
The film begins with celebrated British soldier and diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman) helping to rescue foreign nationals from civil unrest in China. Our hero finds himself on a plane he thinks is heading east to Shanghai but is in fact mysteriously heading west towards the mountains. He is accompanied by his younger brother George (John Howard) and a trio of unlikely travelmates: brash businessman Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell); uptight geologist Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton); and a sassy Jean Harlow look-alike called Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell).
The pilot has locked them in the cabin, so with trepidation the reluctant passengers await their fate. The plane crashes in the mountains, the pilot is killed and our group is rescued by some porters led by a man named Chang (H. B. Warner) who turn up almost immediately and proceed to lead the survivors on an arduous trek to a hidden valley called the Valley of the Blue Moon.
Once there, the bemused quintet find a mild, fertile and populous valley that is dominated by an airy lamasery called Shangri La. They are fed and watered sumptuously and they take to dressing in silken robes. Conway speaks at length with Chang and begins to find out more about the curious valley and its history. He also meets one of the long-term residents, Sondra (Jane Wyatt), and the pair slowly fall in love. After a while, Conway is granted a rare audience with the High Lama (Sam Jaffe) who explains the history of the lamasery and the creed the residents live by and during the course of their conversations Conway begins to suspect that his arrival was no accident and that the residents of Shangri La live a very long time. He slowly comes to feel he has found his spiritual home.
The same can't be said for his brother George, who is eager to return to 'civilisation'. As the days unwind George becomes increasingly agitated and lies to his brother about the Lama's motives for bringing them to the valley, a lie calculated to poison his brother's mind. Conway senior is reluctantly persuaded, so the brothers, together with a (seemingly) young woman called Maria (Margo), who has fallen for George, latch on to a group of porters and escape from the valley. But George and Maria both perish on the journey and Robert realises he has been deceived. Alone in the snowy wastes he is desperate to return to the valley and to Sondra, but can he find his way back to Shangri La, to peace and to his one true love?
Superficially, 'Lost Horizon' is a movie with a message; that message being a sweet purée of old chestnuts: be kind; the meek shall inherit the Earth; moderation in all things; seek and ye shall find. These pearls of wisdom are delivered by Chang and the High Lama with a lofty authority, hands tucked in sleeves Confucius-style, and were probably originally intended to provoke some lazy nodded assents from a Midwest audience little expected to give them much thought. And that is because being a Capra film the main action expected and the main action delivered was between two unlikely leads who fall in love. Everything else was just window dressing, although impressively staged.
And it is because these two leads are so endearing and so convincing that this film is an absolute treat for sentimentalists of all ages. Ronald Coleman and Jane Wyatt are superb as the unlikely lovers thrown together in unlikely circumstances. Both are extremely good-natured and sympathetic and despite the age difference between them their relationship is entirely believable. It may be Chang and the High Lama who get all the clever lines but it is Conway and Sondra who get all the smart ones. Sondra it is who really gets to the nub of Conway's problem. He is a man of action, an empire builder, lauded and revered around the world, yet he is empty inside and yearns for some real meaning to his life. Sondra tells him all this; she tells him what he really is and what he really needs and he slowly comes to agree with her assessment. He slowly finds his Shangri La.
Ronald Coleman dominates every scene he is in, and that means most of the scenes in the film. He is witty, urbane, self-effacing and hugely likeable. He is the dapper Englishman abroad, world-weary and pathologically tolerant. He sports a natty pencil moustache and wears his fedora at a jaunty angle, yet is also as hard as nails. But he has class. If anyone has a problem he will simply offer them a cigarette and a whisky and soda and say: "Sit down, old chap, and tell me all about it." It is easy to understand what the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, meant when he said Coleman had the "greatest voice in movies". The voice is beguiling, strong-but-sympathetic, grainy-but-smooth. They don't make 'em like Ronald Coleman any more, more's the pity.
The rest of the performances are a mixed bag. John Howard was hopelessly miscast as George Conway. He was twenty three years old during filming, half the age of Coleman, and their relationship is not at all believable. It doesn't help that he is as unmistakeably American as his older brother is unmistakeably English. What is more, Howard's character is the 'baddie', a self-centred and wholly unsympathetic man. The character required a careful performance to prevent it dissolving into lazy cliché, but as all Howard does is stomp around whining, complaining and threatening, and doing so in a comical, over-dramatic fashion (and only occasionally remembering he is meant to be English) a cliché is all he is. John Howard just wasn't a very good actor (but he was a very good-looking one and that, most probably, was the point of his being cast).
Thomas Mitchell, on the other hand, WAS a very good actor. His name will probably not mean a great deal to the modern viewer, but his face will certainly provoke a reaction from those who have spent a rainy afternoon watching old films on TV: Ah, that's the man who was in 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'Gone With the Wind', 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' and 'High Noon' (and many more). Mitchell's character, Henry Barnard, is a crooked and bombastic businessman escaping justice, whose grasping nature is slowly (and predictably) transformed by the soothing atmosphere of Shangri La. His original plan is to steal as much of the valley's abundant gold as he can but he ends up devoting his time to building a water supply for the villagers and vowing never to leave. His transformation is mirrored by his colleagues, Alexander Lovett and Gloria Stone. Together, this trio provides some light relief from the main drama.
A word or two must also be given about the set interiors. They are lavish and extremely stylish, with the cast wafting around, up stairs and down, in and out, in roomy abandon. At that time (1936) Columbia Studios had just opened the two biggest sound stages in Hollywood and 'Lost Horizon' was the first movie to make full use of them. Although, it has to be said that the movie's Tibetan 'look' is more Frank Lloyd Wright than Dalai Lama. The two stages could be opened out into one huge 23,000 sq ft space and it was here that the two most famous scenes in the film were shot: Ronald Coleman's arrival and departure from the valley, the latter with Jane Wyatt in hot (and tearful) pursuit.
So, if you're in need of some light relief from a crazy world then this movie will do the trick. It's a wonderful slice of old Hollywood, a seventy-one-year-old feelgood gem that will gladden the heart and moisten the eye. Remember too that if it hadn't been for the prompt actions of the American Film Institute in the late 1960s then this movie could have been lost forever. The sole remaining studio negative had deteriorated so badly that a detective hunt was urgently launched to scour the film archives of the world for prints and a complete soundtrack. A meticulous twenty-five-year restoration has given us what we have now, an almost-complete version of the original 132 minute release that only lacks seven minutes of footage. The soundtrack is complete and those still-missing frames are represented here by carefully-placed production stills.
* The fully restored 1937 original release of 'Lost Horizon'. It is presented in the original 1:1.33 aspect ratio that was the standard format for cinemas of the time.
* Languages / Audio Set Up - English, French, German, Italian, Spanish.
* Subtitles - The above languages together with: Dutch, Czech, Portuguese, Arabic, Danish.
* Scene Selection
* Special Features
A US Theatrical trailer.
An alternate ending.
A 'before and after' restoration comparison.
A (fascinating) photo documentary of the film's production with narration by film historian Kendall Miller.
A full movie commentary by film critic Charles Champlin and UCLA film-restoration expert Robert Gitt.
A selection of deleted scenes.
All this for less than £5. Not to be missed!
(Parts of this review are taken from a review posted by me on Ciao some moons ago.)
James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon proposes a perfect hidden community within the uncharted Himalayas, a land where peace reigns and the inhabitants live for hundreds of years. So indelible is this mythical land that its name has entered the culture: Shangri-La. Director Frank Capra, riding high during his mid-'30s hot streak, spared no expense in creating Hilton's paradise onscreen, taxing the coffers of Columbia Pictures and the patience of mogul Harry Cohn. The results, however, are magical: shimmering, seductive, and maybe a bit foolish, truly the creation of an idealist (understandably, the spectacular art direction won an Oscar). And Capra's hero is an idealist, too. Ronald Colman, at his most marvelously elocutionary, plays a wise diplomat whose plane crashes in the snows of Tibet. He and the other survivors are guided to Shangri-La, where they wrestle with the invitation to stay. The young Jane Wyatt plays Colman's love interest, but leaving a more lasting impression are H.B. Warner as the benevolent Chang and Sam Jaffe, in great old-age makeup, as the wizened High Lama. This version has been restored as closely as possible to Capra's original cut; the film had circulated for many years in a trimmed form. Lost Horizon was remade, notoriously and hilariously, as a big-budget musical in 1973 -- it was a complete flop. --Robert Horton