Sony // 1937 // 132 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // November 14th, 2011
"In these days or wars and rumors of wars -- haven't you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?"
James Hilton dreamed up such a place -- Shangri-La -- for the novel Lost Horizon. His Shangri-La is a mystical place, where unique conditions bring not just shelter from the harsh weather in the surrounding mountains, but longevity and good health.
Frank Capra brought that paradise into existence -- at least on film -- with Lost Horizon. However, that paradise was lost, little by little, under various editing knives along the way. Capra started out with more than six hours of film; a preview lasted more than three hours; the initial release version clocked in at 132 minutes. Eventually, it got down to 108 minutes for a 1940s re-release, and got chopped even more in television showings.
Most of the initial 1937 release has been pieced together for the new Columbia Classics release of Lost Horizon. All of the soundtrack is present, although a few scenes are represented only as stills.
Robert Conway (Robert Colman, A Tale of Two Cities), who has written a lot about his dreams of peace, is taken away to a place where a mysterious High Lama (Sam Jaffe, The Day The Earth Stood Still) is trying to make peace a reality, creating a sanctuary against war. Conway isn't alone, however, and there could be trouble from his traveling party, particularly his brother George (John Howard, Arrest Bulldog Drummond), who's itching to escape from paradise.
The opening scenes of Lost Horizon set up the real world as a tumultuous place, finding Robert Conway in the midst of getting foreigners out of China during a rebellion. Everywhere, there's a press of people, and everyone's rushing about. To facilitate the escape, Conway has a hangar set afire to guide the planes in. Even when he's aloft in the last plane out, Conway is still concerned, realizing that there's a lot of bloodshed on the ground, and a lot of innocent Chinese people will get hurt. The path to Shangri-La is a icy, narrow mountain ledge, and wind blows as Conway and a small party are escorted there.
When Conway -- and Lost Horizon -- arrive at Shangri-La, it's all peaceful and beautiful, with majestic buildings amid a sylvan setting. The people there trade with outsiders with gold, which everyone in that nasty world out there seems to want; they have no use for it themselves, since they have no real want, as Conway is told by their host, Mr. Chang (H.B. Warner, The Ten Commandments).
Conway, the idealist, likes the idea of this Shangri-La place instantly. The rest of his party needs more convincing: in addition to Conway's brother George, there's a greedy businessman who's on the run, an archaeologist who's initially scared, and a dying woman. George turns out to be the last holdout, even -- gasp -- brandishing a gun in this land of calm and reason.
Capra may present the situation as a moral choice for Conway, but you can see the change most clearly in another character. Barnard (Thomas Mitchell, It's a Wonderful Life), the fugitive utilities magnate, at first wants to strike a deal to mine Shangri-La's gold and get rich, but soon wants to stay and provide plumbing for the village in the valley. The remaining members of the party, Lovett (Edward Everett Horton, Arsenic and Old Lace) and Gloria (Isabel Jewell, Gone With The Wind), don't have quite that kind of transformation, but they do change. Lovett, the archaeologist, becomes more confident during his stay in paradise, and Gloria, who was depressed because she had only a short time to live at the outset, becomes healthier and happier.
It isn't all about Utopia, though. There's also a romance between Conway and one of the Shangri-La locals, played by Jane Wyatt (Father Knows Best).
What's surprising is that Lost Horizon keeps its idealistic tone throughout. Although most of the visitors fear a dark side to Shangri-La, it never really manifests; the moral shadings come mainly from their reactions. I can see why Capra thought Lost Horizon would immediately capture moviegoers' attention in 1937, with the Depression ever-present and World War II on the way.
Of course, Lost Horizon, despite a cost that ended up around $2.6 million (more than twice what Columbia budgeted), didn't catch on immediately. A mention in one of FDR's speeches got it a re-release, according to the commentary; that helped the concept of Shangri-La along, but it also meant that the movie lost 20 minutes or so for its second chance. That's what UCLA film restoration expert Robert Gitt and others who've worked on Lost Horizon over the years wanted to correct. They've been piecing together bits of found Horizon for years; a full soundtrack found in England gave them what they needed to approximate the 132-minute cut.
Since they couldn't send it to Shangri-La for a miracle, some patches have a lot of problems: flecks, lines, grainy stretches, hard-to-read night footage, and a general softness of the picture -- and that's not even counting the places where they used stills to get around the fact that they only had sound. That can't be helped, though; a look at the restoration featurette shows that there is a lot of improvement. This is as good as it gets -- unless some better original source material turns up somewhere.
Gitt and film writer Charles Champlin very painstakingly take viewers through the changes in the movie and the restoration efforts in the commentary. They also take time to explain generally how a movie gets into bad shape and how they get restored. Even so, they manage to give people a few good tidbits; for example, Jane Wyatt's body double really was bathing topless, but the filmmakers got it in by swearing to censors that they just didn't notice the top in that distant shot.
There's also an alternate ending, which works in a brief shot of Jane Wyatt, and some deleted scenes that turned up, with Gitt reading the dialogue. A documentary narrative by Kendall Miller runs over production photos. It covers things like the two High Lamas (thanks to a dispute with studio boss Harry Cohn, Sam Jaffe and Walter Connelley were both filmed in the role; Jaffe appears in the final movie) and reconstructs the movie's original opening. If that weren't enough, the original trailer is included. It's just a text talking about the "turmoil" of the production. I'm not sure how moviegoers in the '30s took it, but I think that would probably doom a movie today.
If you're not into the sheer joy of film history, the use of stills to fill in the gaps could prove distracting. Columbia could have released a slightly shorter version for anyone who doesn't need every last scrap of Lost Horizon. Either way, though, here's hoping those last few minutes of film turn up somewhere.
A look at Amazon.com suggests that this is a re-release of a 1999 DVD.
Columbia may have aimed this release at film history buffs, but Lost Horizon is not an esoteric picture. It's a great movie about morality and idealism and, thanks to Shangri-La, part of our culture. You should see it sometime.
Review content copyright © 2011 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1937
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Ending
* Deleted Scenes