My fascination with Lost Horizon began some years ago. I saw a documentary that tracked the retrieval, reconstruction and restoration of the movie by the American Film Institute. Begun in 1973, the project took years to complete, as most of the available prints had been edited (first by the studio and then, by local TV stations) beyond recognition. A massive search was launched to find a complete print, or at the very least, the missing footage. In the end, all but 7 of the film’s 112 minutes were recovered, with the irretrievable sections replaced by a series of production stills.
As luck would have it, the search also turned up a complete soundtrack that had survived unscathed. Using the track as its base, AFI’s restorers painstakingly put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Adapted from James Hilton’s 1933 best selling novel, and directed by Frank Capra, Lost Horizon centers around Shangri-La, a mythical Utopia where there is no pain or poverty, it's always fair weather, greed and crime are a non-issue, and youth is yours, as long as..
I'm not going to spoil it for you. You’ll have to see the film to find out.
The story begins in the dark of night at a small airport somewhere in China, as a group of refugees and expatriates are being pursued by an onslaught of bandits. Five of the chased find refuge in a small prop plane headed, they believe, for Great Britain. But at first light, a quick look out a cabin window confirms that outside forces have intervened, and they are headed in the opposite direction.
Though the plane crashes at the base of the Himalayan Mountains, the passengers survive. Among them, a smart, calm and internationally-recognized British diplomat named Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman), his younger, somewhat impetuous brother George (John Howard), Gloria Stone, an embittered prostitute dying of TB, (Isabelle Jewell), Alexander P. Lovett ("Lovey"), Edward Everett Horton’s prissy paleontologist, and Henry Bernard, (Thomas Mitchell)― a con on the run.
Rescued by a small but sturdy caravan of Tibetans, the survivors are lead over the treacherous terrain under extreme blizzard-like conditions. At long last, and seemingly out of nowhere, they come upon Shangri-La, a sparkling, Garden of Eden, protected from the harsh climate, politics, problems and dangers of the outside world by the mountains that surround it. The air is fresh, the sun is warm, the food is good and plentiful, the architecture is striking, and the population is gracious.
It is about as perfect as a place can be, but what is one man’s paradise, is another man’s prison, and almost from the beginning there is a great divide between the captives, with some desperate to remain, and others, to leave.
Within days, it becomes apparent that fate, happenstance or luck had nothing to do with the circumstances surrounding their arrival. The whys and wherefores of their kidnapping and transport are ultimately revealed when Robert Conway is granted an audience with an aging High Lama, portrayed by a then, middle-aged Sam Jaffe.
Rounding out the cast is a fresh-faced 19-year-old ingenue by the name of Jane Wyatt. Best known today for her role as Margaret Anderson in the 1950's TV sitcom Father Knows Best, she is lovely here as Sondra Bizet, the Shangri-La native who wins Conway's heart.
The film is an interesting study in human behavior, its characters well-drawn and artfully portrayed. Production Designer Stephen Gosson's sets―which drew from the Streamline Moderne architecture of the period, are equally impressive, and earned him an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
But beyond the acting and art, it is the story that draws you in, and the mysteries that surround it. Is Shangri-La all it appears to be? Are the five captives destined to live their lives there, like it or not? And if not, then what? These and other questions keep you guessing to the very end.
Originally more than six hours long, Lost Horizon was snipped, clipped, chopped and whittled down to just under two hours. Small wonder that editor Gene Havlick received an Oscar for his work; awarded, I would imagine in some part, for sheer fortitude. While the film was well reviewed (the New York Times critic at the time included it in his Top Ten list that year), it came in more than a million dollars over budget, and wouldn’t turn a profit until its re-release some five years later. Behind the scenes, all manner of infighting and back-biting ensued. And yet, the film became a classic in spite of itself.
While all of the principal players are gone now, the DVD delivers satisfying commentary and a behind-the-scenes look at the production and restoration process, along with deleted scenes and an alternate ending. It is obvious that much time and attention was spent making sure this exquisite 1937 film would be here for future generations.
It is interesting to note that despite the fact that Lost Horizon had not been seen in its entirety for some fifty years, the word "Shangri-La" stayed with us, legitimized by dictionaries, where it came to represent "An imaginary remote paradise on earth; utopia."
I suppose there are dozens―even hundreds of words and phrases that originated in books and films and went on to become conversation staples. But when it comes to Shangri-La, I suspect that while most people know what it represents, few connect it to Hilton’s novel, or Capra’s film. It is far more likely to be associated with the Robert Maxwell and Matt Malneck tune by the same name. Written and recorded more than twenty years after the film’s original release, the Four Coins rendition made its way to the top of the charts in 1957. A decade later, the Four Freshmen's version introduced the tune to a whole new generation. More recently, the off-Broadway musical Forever Plaid plucked it from the past, dusted it off, and served it up with style and panache.
Shangri-La is alive and well.
For in these challenging times, the idea of finding respite in a world where time stands still, good health and weather abound, material things are plentiful and available to all, and ill-will has been all but eradicated, is heady stuff. Lost Horizon puts the image out there, tosses it around, as ultimately leaves it to the viewer to question whether the good life can be too good. Too sure. Too serene. Too perfect.
It all makes for a thought-provoking, entertaining and agreeably imperfect film. Who could ask for anything more?