Shangri-La

Lost Horizon, written by Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman, based on the novel of the same name by James Hilton, directed by Frank Capra, starring Ronald Colman (Robert Conway), Jane Wyatt (Sondra), Edward Everett Horton (Lovett), John Howard (George Conway), Thomas Mitchell (Barnard), Isabell Jewell (Gloria), H.B. Warner (Chang), Margo (Maria) and Sam Jaffe (High Lama) (1937): Frank Capra’s utopian 1937 epic holds up pretty well today as a populist film of ideas, though women and non-Caucasians are given a bit of a short shrift. The ideas of pacifism and shared property espoused by the perfect society of Shangri-La in this film would give Red-baiting American politicians plenty of reason to accuse Capra of being a dirty Communist. Yay 1950’s!

But in 1937, this was far and away the most expensive movie the young Columbia Pictures had ever made, primarily because of its massive and elaborate sets. And Shangri-La, that hidden utopia somewhere in the Himalayas, still looks striking (and Art Nouveau) today.

Released at 132 minutes in 1937, Lost Horizon lost a full half-hour over the decades. In 1970, a major restorative effort by the American Film Institute yielded all 132 minutes of dialogue but ony 125 minutes of surviving film. Still photographs make up the last 7 minutes, with the dialogue playing. It’s a fascinating restoration because besides the stills, decreased film quality in some scenes clues the viewer in to what got cut over the years. The answer? Well, a lot of Commie stuff and a lot of character development.

While supervising an evacuation of non-Chinese from a revolution-plagued Chinese city in the 1930’s, British renaissance man Robert Conway, his brother George and three evacuees get kidnapped and flown into the Himalayas. There, they’re taken to the secluded paradise of Shangri-La, where workers and intellectuals live in harmony with nature and themselves. Why Conway has been brought there, and what his decisions will be, make up the central plot of the movie.

This really is an unusual big-budget movie for any Hollywood era — there’s action and peril, but the central portion of the film is an idyll and a philosophical parable set in the vast sets that portray Shangri-La as an Art Nouveau paradise on Earth. Ronald Colman is earnest and convincing as the battered idealist, and the supporting cast — including Mitchell and Horton as Laurel-and-Hardyesque comic relief — is also solid. This is, quite simply, a movie that Hollywood would never make today, but in its time it was a box-office success. Highly recommended.

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