#434) Lost Horizon (1937)
OR “You Can’t Take It With You-topia”
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Robert Riskin. Based on the novel by James Hilton.
Class of 2016
NOTE: This post is based on my viewing of a 2017 restoration, which restored all of the audio of the original runtime, and all but six minutes of the footage. The missing footage is substituted with production photos and still frames.
The Plot: British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) and his brother George (John Howard) help save a group of evacuees (Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, and Isabel Jewell) from a revolution in China. The plane they board, however, is hijacked and after a crash landing, the group find themselves in the mythical, idyllic city of Shangri-La. Lama Chang (H.B. Warner) invites them all to stay and enjoy a peaceful lifestyle free from the worries of their previous lives. When Conway is chosen by the High Lama (Sam Jaffe) to be his successor, he must choose between a new life in Shangri-La, or continuing to help solve the problems of the outside world. Oh, and there’s a couple of ladies thrown in too (Jane Wyatt & Margo).
Why It Matters: The NFR cites “Lost Horizon” for its Depression-era escapism, and its propelling of “Shangri-La” into the cultural lexicon (along with the book). Also praised are the film’s “stunning cinematography and fantastic, extravagant sets”.
But Does It Really?: This is one of those movies where the story behind it is just as interesting (if not more) than the film itself. “Lost Horizon” is Frank Capra’s rare foray into Capra-corn with a big budget, and while the film is a minor classic compared to Capra’s other work, it is still an important moment in his career. The film itself can be slow in places, but is still entertaining and has enough historical significance to warrant eventual NFR inclusion.
Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the slurs against “Chinamen” throughout the film, “Lost Horizon” has a massive YELLOWFACE WARNING as British actor H.B. Warner plays Chang. You don’t know what you’re doing, Mr. Gower!
Seriously, Oscars?: A hit in its day, “Lost Horizon” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. “Lost” lost in most categories to “The Life of Emile Zola”, but did manage to pick up two for its momentous editing (the first cut was six hours!) and its impressive art direction.
- Capra first read the novel “Lost Horizon” while he was filming “It Happened One Night”. Columbia gave Capra a budget of 1.25 million dollars; the biggest film budget at the time. Even with that big a price tag, Columbia still wouldn’t let Capra film in the still-revolutionary Technicolor process. The budget would balloon to a reported 2 million by the time production wrapped.
- I assume David Niven inherited all of Ronald Colman’s roles. They fit the same dapper Englishman mold perfectly. Side note: Production was delayed to accommodate Colman’s schedule, as he was Capra’s only choice for Conway.
- It takes a very long half hour for this movie to get to Shangri-La. I thought I was going to be on that plane forever.
- Edward Everett Horton’s character was written specifically for the movie as comic relief, which explains why Lovett is so…Edward Everett Horton. He even got to improvise bits of comic business.
- I don’t know what my ideal Utopia looks like, but it definitely doesn’t have as many stairs as this one.
- Chang looks a lot like the guy from “American Gothic”. And how much of this movie is going to be him explaining the Shangri-La culture? Did Capra forget that film is a visual medium?
- Also unique to the movie version is Sondra, Robert’s love interest played by Jane Wyatt, aka Spock’s Mom. And once again, the Western cultural appropriation of a generic Eastern culture makes for a tough watch.
- Oooh, Spock’s Mom is going skinny-dipping! Apparently full-frontal nudity is fine in the Code Era as long as it’s really, really far away from the camera.
- Both of Capra’s top two choices for the High Lama died before filming began, so he opted to cast a younger actor (Sam Jaffe) in old makeup. This began Sam Jaffe’s career of playing significantly older than he actually is.
- Edward Everett Horton telling fairy tales? What an interesting idea…
- Where’s Isabel Jewell during all this? She disappears for most of the movie, and her illness plot gets completely sidelined. In a movie that doesn’t care about characters, they really don’t care about her.
- Thomas Mitchell is somehow the first person in Shangri-La to come up with implementing an irrigation system for the valley. As they say in another movie, “Indoor plumbing: it’s gonna be big.”
- Colman’s best piece of acting in the movie is a single close-up of Robert’s face as he struggles with the idea of leaving Shangri-La. There’s a lot of subtle emoting happening in one take.
- The original novel is bookended with other characters relating Conway’s journey, and this film ends in a similar way. So, rather than watch our protagonist finish his arc, we hear about it from a character we’ve never seen before. Kind of a letdown ending.
- Despite being one of the top earners of 1937, “Lost Horizon” was a critical disappointment, and its big budget guaranteed it would lose money. The original 133 version was cut down over the years – by the time it aired on television it was running 92 minutes – but the UCLA Film and Television Archive spent 13 years restoring the film to its premiere length. Thanks to their efforts, the restored version is the most readily available.
- Despite the film’s initial setbacks, Capra’s career wasn’t damaged by it. He bounced back by winning his third Best Director Oscar for his next film, “You Can’t Take It With You”, and still had “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” ahead of him.
- Oh boy, does this movie have a remake. “Lost Horizon” was remade in 1973 as a big budget musical with a score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and an all-star cast including Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, and John Gielgud. It was a box office bomb upon its release, and is still considered one of the worst movies ever made.
- There was actually an earlier attempt to musicalize the novel with the 1956 Broadway musical “Shangri-La”, which closed after only 21 performances. Some things are best left alone.
Bonus Clip: “The world is a circle without a beginning and nobody knows where it really ends.” WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN?