Lost Horizon: 80th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)20 Nov, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Romantic Fantasy Adventure Drama
Stars Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard.
In the “specs” section just above here, I had to think a while when designating the genre for this Frank Capra gamble of love, a movie so expensive that it could have sunk Columbia Pictures, which is what its what-were-they-thinking-of? 1973 musical remake (consider the possibilities with George Kennedy and Sally Kellerman in love as Bobby Van dances) almost did. One of my favorite Capra movies — in fact, It Happened One Night and It’s a Wonderful Life are the only ones I love more — the original Lost Horizon begins with a hairbreadth airport escape from storming Chinese hordes in which the director’s remarkable flair with crowd scenes is on full display; that’s the adventure part. Later, British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) and an eclectic group of fellow passengers crash-land in reachable distance from a living paradise whose name the movie and James Hilton’s source novel put into the language: Shangri-La. It is at this point — the romantic part — that Conway’s romance with a nature-girl local (Jane Wyatt) takes over and helps the picture sail over its borderline lulls that ultimately don’t matter very much.
All along, however — or at least shortly after the excitingly staged crash sequence — Horizon is also a fantasy because, for one thing, Shangri-La inhabitants don’t show any signs of aging or health concerns in general, which in America, say, would seem to solve all Social Security and health care questions in a jiffy. You can instantly imagine the ramifications here — in this case amid a mystical kingdom where unambiguous oldsters Sam Jaffe and H.B. Warner are respectively the High Lama and the rather lovely lesser lama who carries his spiritual water. Perhaps the most stirring of these possibilities plays out late in the film between secondary players John Howard (as Colman’s hot-headed brother) and Margo for a chilling outcome. I got to interview Margo on stage at the AFI Theater in Washington about a year-and-a-half before her death and was happy I got to tell her how much her performance here had (and has) always stayed with me dating from my first viewing as a teenager. Conveying an effective mix of desperation and conniving, she is — as is Howard — one of the few Shangri-La inhabitants who can’t get with the program. In Trump terminology, she “isn’t a very nice person” — yet is also something of a rebel with a cause, a status the actress makes credible.
In keeping with her character’s dissatisfaction, the story’s appeal is one of emotion over mind because one can make the case that a little of Shangri-La might go a long way — sort of like living in a homogenized world that makes Mayberry seem as kinetic as the newsroom in His Girl Friday and where no one gets on a soapbox to utter political invective. Yet, Capra in his prime (usually, as here, with screenwriter Robert Riskin) did “emotion” as well as anyone, and here they had the first unforgettable screen score that Dimitri Tiomkin composed (which does as much anything to make the movie) and the great Joseph Walker memorably shooting actress Wyatt’s body-double in a nude waterfall frolic (when it came to fun, maybe Mother Knew Best). You’d think that her romp in the water might be enough, just by itself, to keep Conway from wanting to fight the bitter cold of the Himalayas trying to blow the joint.
The ultimate fate of Lost Horizon has almost everything to do with the movie’s spotty box office performance, something that never would have made Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn anything less than apoplectic, even were we talking one of the studio’s subsequent Boston Blackie “Bs.” But according to this bargain-priced Blu-ray’s recycled but splendid 1999 commentary, Horizon’s budgetary expenditures for the picture likely surpassed the combined totals of all the other titles on the studio’s roster for its year. So in addition to spurring legal action and becoming a factor in Capra’s decision to leave Columbia (which in all likelihood hurt his career), the movie underwent what can only be called butchery as a result — with so many subsequent versions with so many running times that one’s head swims hearing UCLA Film & Television Archive maestro/Horizon restorer Robert Gitt rattle them off. Gitt shares voiceover duties here with the late onetime L.A. Times film critic Charles Champlin, and though they occasionally seem to be on other planets, it’s in fairly simpatico fashion.
I used to work with Bob when he began his Horizon restoration labors at the AFI, and my chief memory of these days — aside from his overall good-guy-ness and the great movies he regularly ran in his nearby apartment — was of coming into work well before operating hours and seeing him at a Steenbeck editing machine. He was in the beginning stages of what turned out to be a quarter-century process of cobbling together as much as possible — though a relatively modest amount of picture material still hasn’t turned up — a close approximation of Horizon’s original 132-minute release version. This is significant for the Baby Boomers who for a couple decades had to make sense of TV prints that ran about 108 — a situation somewhat similar to the one that degraded All Quiet on the Western Front for one to two generations. The print quality varies here — in some cases, the restoration employs 16mm blowups — though some of the portions Gitt apologizes for look pretty good. Of course, this commentary was done for the original DVD, and improvements for the Blu-ray include a 4K treatment that definitely makes the transitions noticeably closer to seamless.
Lost Horizon is atypical Capra material — though in its own way, It’s a Wonderful Life gets under one’s skin in occasionally similar fashion, though in that case it’s the theme and string of almost staggering ensemble performances, led, of course, by James Stewart’s. Here it’s the theme to an extent but primarily Ronald Colman’s and Tiomkin’s score, which couldn’t be much more pleasing to the ear as a double threat.