Lost Horizon (1937)

21 May

Synopsis:

Before returning to England to become the new Foreign Secretary, writer, soldier and diplomat Robert Conway has one last task in 1935 China: to rescue 90 Westerners in the city of Baskul. He flies out with the last few evacuees, just ahead of armed revolutionaries.

Unbeknownst to the passengers, the pilot has been replaced and their aircraft hijacked. It eventually runs out of fuel and crashes deep in the  Himalayan Mountains, killing their abductor. The group is rescued by Chang and his men and taken to Shangra La, an idyllic valley sheltered from the bitter cold. The contented inhabitants are led by the mysterious High Lama.

Cast:

Ronald Coleman – Robert Conway

Jane Wyatt – Sondra Bizet

H.B. Warner – Chang

Sam Jaffe – High Lama

John Howard – George Conway

Edward Everett Horton – Alexander P. (lovey) Lovett

Thomas Mitchell – Henry Barnard

Margo – Maria

Isabel Jewell – Gloria Stone

David Clyde – Club Steward

Commentary:

The first time I saw Lost Horizon I was a child watching the movie on a local television station. I was wide eyed at the prospect of an adventure in a foreign land and wished Shangra La was a real location.

Directed by Frank Capra, screenplay by Robert Riskin and produced by Capra for Columbia Pictures, the film is based on the book by James Hilton.  Lost Horizon was the most expensive film ever produced up until that time and was problematic  for Capra. The film’s cost overruns and artistic differences between Capra and Columbia boss Harry Cohn are legendary and cost Capra his friendship with screen writer Riskin as well.

Cohn budgeted the film at $1.25 million the highest sum ever for a movie in those days. Capra wanted Coleman for the lead from the start but had to wait for Coleman to become available. After filming Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Coleman became available and the project began. Capra’s first compromise was that he wanted to film in color but since the only stock footage of the Himalayan mountains was in black and white he had no choice but to abandon the technicolor which would have proved to be much more cost prohibitive based on budgetary constraints imposed by Cohn.

Principal photography began on March 23, 1936, and by the time it was completed on July 17, the director had spent $1.6 million. Contributing to the added expenses was the filming of snow scenes and aircraft interiors at the Los Angeles Ice and Cold Storage Warehouse, where the low temperature affected the equipment and caused lengthy delays. The Shangri-La set, designed by Stephen Gooson, had been constructed adjacent to Hollywood Way, a busy thoroughfare by day, which necessitated filming at night and heavily added to overtime expenses. Many exteriors were filmed on location including the Sierra Nevada Mountains, adding the cost of transporting cast, crew, and equipment to the swelling budget.

In the end the film’s budget soared to $2,626,620 keeping the film unprofitable until its re-release in 1942. When finished the final cut of the film was six hours long and the studio considered releasing it in two parts. Not being possible to release the film at the six hour length Capra with the help of  editors Gene Havlick and Gene Milford manged to cut the film down to a three and a half hour running time. The film was previewed in Santa Barbara to a lukewarm reception. People just didn’t want to sit through a three and a half hour epic story.

Following the disastrous preview, Capra made extensive cuts and, on January 12, 1937, re shot scenes involving the High Lama which placed more emphasis on the growing tensions of the world at the time. Still unhappy with the film’s length, Harry Cohn intervened; he cancelled the February 1 priemier and edited the film himself. When it finally premiered on March 2, it was 132 minutes long. During the film’s initial release in selected cities, it was a limited release, with only two presentations per day and tickets sold on a reserved-seat basis. Because the box office returns were so low, the studio head deleted an additional 14 minutes before the film went into general release the following September. Due primarily to the cuts made without his approval, Capra later filed a lawsuit against Columbia, citing “contractual disagreements,” among them the studio’s refusal to pay him a $100,000 semi-annual salary payment due him. A settlement was reached on November 27, 1937, with Capra collecting his money and being relieved of the obligation of making one of the five films required by his contract. In 1985, the director claimed Cohn, whom he described as the “Jewish producer,” trimmed the film simply so theaters could have more daily showings and increase the film’s chance of turning a profit.

There are actually three endings to the film that can be interpreted as different approaches to Conway’s return to Shangra La.

1. Capra’s Ending written by Riskin:

EXT. SOMEWHERE IN TIBET – NIGHT

352. CLOSE-UP

MOVING IN FRONT OF CONWAY – as he walks forward with a steady step – his head held high – his eyes sparkling – snow pelting his face.

353. LONG SHOT

Over his silhouetted back.

As he walks away from the CAMERA, and we STAY WITH HIM a long time as he approaches a hill.

DISSOLVE TO:

ANOTHER LONG SHOT

He has now ascended to the middle of the steep hill – his gait unchanged. THE CAMERA PANS UP to the summit of the incline – and we see that beyond it the horizon is filled with a strange warm light. Conway’s figure – in silhouette – disappears over the hill – bells ring – and as the music begins to swell.

FADE OUT:

THE END

2. Cohn’s ending he required of Capra:

  1. Medium shot of Sondra standing at the railed mountain pass, with the lamasery visible in the distance behind her. Suddenly she seems to notice something.
  2. Long shot of Conway making his way over a snow-covered mountain.
  3. Close shot of Sondra, who joyously waves, calling out “Bob.”
  4. Medium shot of Conway looking up and waving back.
  5. Medium shot of Sondra, as two Tibetans join her from behind, and Sondra says to them: “It is he. It’s Mr. Conway. Go, tell Chang.” They hurry away.
  6. Close-up of Conway.
  7. Close-shot of Sondra, waving and calling out: “Bob, Bob,” then rushing out of frame.

These seven shots are followed by a montage sequence which includes bells ringing in a steeple, the façade of the lamasery and the words “The End.” This was the ending on the prints of the film seen in major U.S. cities during the first half of March 1937.

3. Capra, Riskin and Cohn’s compromise for an ending:

  1. Long shot of Conway, making his way over a wind-swept glacier.
  2. Medium shot of Conway, leaning on an ice axe and looking up at something (off-screen) that has caught his eye.
  3. Conway’s p.o.v.: the familiar stone archway with its wooden railing and the lamasery visible in the background.
  4. Close shot of Conway who visibly reacts to what he sees, finally breaking into a smile.

Cohn wanted a pat Hollywood ending that would bring in the audience but Capra wanted the audience to imagine what happened to Conway as did Hilton in the ambiguous ending to his book.

This classic film was restored by A.F.I. (The American Film Institute) starting in 1973 and the process took 13 years to complete.  Although all 132 minutes of the original soundtrack were recovered, only 125 minutes of film could be found, so the seven minutes of the missing footage were replaced with a combination of publicity photos of the actors in costume taken during filming and still frames depicting the missing scenes.

The film is available on DVD, Netflix and is occasionally shown on TMC (Turner Classic Movies).

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