Saturday 24 February 2007

Lost Horizon (1937)

Every time a film turns up from the Home Theater Forum's Top 100 Films of the 1930s list that I haven't seen, I make sure I record it. I'm further through that list than any other, even genres like horror and science fiction that I've known well for years. This has a few added bonuses, in that it's also something of a sf film in itself, a Frank Capra movie (my fifteenth) and beyond the star Ronald Colman, it also features favourites of mine like Edward Everett Horton, Sam Jaffe, H B Warner and Thomas Mitchell.

It's 1935 and some place in far eastern China called Baskul, is in turmoil. Some new war is sparking off and daring Robert Conway, England's 'man in the east', is evacuating ninety English citizens before they're all massacred. The last plane is sparsely and intriguingly populated, just like Ford's Stagecoach two years later and with one man in common: Thomas Mitchell as Henry Barnard. There's also Conway and his brother George, a paleontologist called Alexander P Lovett and what appears to be a barroom floozy. They're all taken for a ride by a mysterious pilot who holds a gun on them and takes them west instead of east. The mystery builds when they take on fuel somewhere on the border of Tibet, but eventually the propellors freeze up and they crash in a snowbound wasteland in the middle of nowhere.

Robert Conway is of course Ronald Colman, so tailor made for the part that he hardly even had to change his name: he's half thirties style action hero and half dreamy pacifist, with great potential to become the next Foreign Secretary. Thomas Mitchell looks strange in the character building glasses he wears but he sounds just like Thomas Mitchell, and he's a more restrained version of a number of similar characters he'd play in the year to come, including in Stagecoach. Edward Everett Horton plays the paleontologist exactly as you'd expect Edward Everett Horton to play anyone: intelligent, but flustered, dithering and touchy. The two of them work wonderfully against each other, Mitchell's blind optimism and Horton's paranoid pessimism. John Howard is something of a waste of space as George, but Isabel Jewell is fun as Gloria Stone. She's already living on borrowed time. The doctors gave her six months to live a full year ago but she's still going pretty strong, a brief period of hysteria on the plane notwithstanding.

Anyway, they crash in the middle of nowhere and the pilot dies on impact. As they decide what to do about it, they are amazingly rescued by a bunch of locals, the leader of which speaks English. He's Chang, played by the wonderful H B Warner with his subtle facial expressions and dancing eyes, who welcomes them all to Shangri-La, a cultured paradise nestled in the midst of shrieking winds and snowy mountains. The plane crash looks great, especially for 1937, but Shangri-La looks better, sumptuous and utopian. Warner appears very similar to the character he played a year later in The Adventures of Marco Polo, the only decent thing about that film.

The only down side is the lack of a complete print but the AFI did a great job of ensuring that we can see as much of the film as possible. It originally ran 132 minutes long, but was soon chopped down to 118 for general release and even to 95 minutes for television. The acetates that constitute the extra footage, which would restore the film to what we would nowadays call a director's cut, was destroyed, though a full copy of the score survived, so the AFI had to check the rest of the world's archives to find replacement footage. There are now only seven minutes of visuals missing and there are stills to punctuate the gaps.

The film is intelligent but doesn't feel the need to be blatant about it. The whole concept of Shangri-La comes with a lot of questions, that are asked not just by the characters thrown into it, especially Bob Conway, but also by us, the viewers. We consistently wonder about how real any of this is, whether we should take it at face value or whether it's all a dream by the dying Conway or even whether it's some sort of fractured Philip K Dick reality. Everything we learn merely leads us to new questions. It may not be the undying classic I'd been led to expect, but it's certainly an excellent and thought provoking film.

1 comment:

teddy crescendo said...

Dont laugh Hal but i actually think the 1973 musical remake was better than Capra's film and one of the most ludicrously under-rated films of the 70`s.