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Lost Horizon Movie Review

capra conway film columbia

1937 – Frank Capra – 3

Frank Capra's pacifist parable from James Hilton's novel drops a planeload of Westerners fleeing a revolution in China into a snowy Tibetan valley. They trek over mountainous trails to Shangri-La, an idyllic society that lives by a philosophy of moderation. After the dramatic opening scenes, the film settles into a more leisurely pace in which the passengers, Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) in particular, discover the riches of the landscape and its philosophy. All but Conway's brother George (John Howard) replace their worldly concerns with the openheartedness of their new environment. The semi-comic transformations of Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell are handled well. But the middle section fails to do justice to both Conway's spiritual yearning for the simplicities of utopian life and the ongoing mystery of the detention of this group in Shangri-La against their will. These two concerns lead to some abrupt shifts. One minute George is firing shots at the Tibetan attendants and the next Conway sits in docility at the feet of the High Lama (Sam Jaffe) to hear about the one rule, “be kind.” The final twenty minutes return to a more hectic speed than even the first part, as if Capra had glanced at his watch and decided it was time to wrap things up.

Sometimes the misfires of a gifted filmmaker can be as interesting as his greater accomplishments. After Capra's Oscar-sweep in 1934 with It Happened One Night and the subsequent success in 1936 of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, he used his cachet to make this curious, meditative film. This choice calls attention to the similarities between the director and the character Conway. Both are serious-minded men who desire more meaning from life but who can't seem to make up their minds how to find it.

Capra's biographer Joseph McBride reports that the initial cut of Lost Horizon ran about six hours, that the first previewed version at Santa Barbara's Granada Theatre was about three and a half hours long (and was met with some laughter in the audience), and that with more cuts by Columbia studio head Harry Cohn the length at the official premiere was 132 minutes. McBride discovered Capra's own misgivings about the film by examining the oral history Capra contributed to Columbia University: “Although it's been said that [Lost Horizon is] one of my better pictures, I thought that the main part of the film should have been done better somehow. I got lost in the architecture, in Utopia, in the never-never land, and it was only toward the end of the picture that I got back on the track with human beings … This is common for one who wants to exploit a theme, and gives the theme too much a part of the story. I wavered several times. I shot several endings before I decided how to end it.”

The film was a more respectable failure artistically than financially. The box-office threatened the solvency of Columbia (where profit margins had rarely been very big), strained the director's relationship with Cohn, and all but ended his partnership with screenwriter Robert Riskin, by far his best collaborator. (All failures are relative, of course; compared to Ross Hunter's embarrassing remake in 1973, Capra's original looks pretty good.)

Cast: Ronald Colman (Robert Conway), H.B. Warner (Chang), Edward Everett Horton (Alexander P. Lovett), Thomas Mitchell (Henry Barnard), John Howard (George Conway), Sam Jaffe (High Lama), Jane Wyatt (Sondra), Isabell Jewell (Gloria Stone), Margo (Maria), Chief John Big Tree (Porter), Wyrley Brich (Missionary), Beatrice Blinn (Passenger), Hugh Buckler (Lord Gainsford), John Burton (Wynant), Eli Casey (Porter) Screenwriter: Sidney Buchman, Robert Riskin Cinematographer: Joseph Walker Composer: Dmitri Tiomkin Producer: Frank Capra for Columbia Running Time: 138 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1937: Film Editing, Interior Decoration; Nominations: Picture, Sound, Supporting Actor (H.B. Warner), Score Box Office: Did not break even until the 1942 re-release of this 1937 film.

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