Friday, August 16, 2013

LOST HORIZON (1937)



(March 1937, U.S.)

One of the slightly less interesting things about discovering classic black and white films in your adulthood is suddenly realizing the inadvertent manner in which you may have been exposed to them as a child. Here's what I mean - when I was a kid, there was this particular episode of THE FLINTSTONES in which Fred and Barney's family share some of their camping trip time with the Bedrock scouts at a place called "Shangri-La-De-Da" Valley. Of course, as a kid, that sort of homage reference meant nothing to me. Only when I finally saw Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON did I finally get the little joke. Well...ha, bloody, ha!

This is a very spiritual film about not only finding one's self but finding peace and serenity in a part of the world seemingly cut off from the rest of our violent society. To make that point right from the beginning, we're introduced to a time of war during occupied China in 1935. Writer, soldier and foreign diplomat Robert Conway (played by Ronald Colman), before returning to England to become the new Foreign Secretary, has one last task to perform in rescuing 90 Westerners in the city of Baskul. He flies out with the last few evacuees, just ahead of armed revolutionaries. On board the plane, unbeknownst to all the passengers, the pilot has been replaced and their aircraft has been secretly hijacked. Eventually running out of fuel, it crashes deep in the Himalayan Mountains, killing their abductor. The group is miraculously rescued by Chang (played by H.B. Warner) and his men and taken to what is known as Shangri-La, an idyllic valley sheltered from the bitter cold. The contented inhabitants of this valley are led by their mysterious High Lama (played by Sam Jaffe) who is well over 200 years old. Greed, famine, crime, misery and despair simply do not exist in the Shangri-La. While Robert Conway is very quick and eager to adapt to its physical and spiritual symbols of peace and goodness, other in the group, including his own brother, are very anxious to treat the entire event as if they're being kept their against their will and only wish to get back to the civilization they're aware of. This is probably considered a traditional paradox in the story, otherwise how interesting would it be if everyone simply adapted to the norms of their new society. However, it can actually be pleasing to the viewer to watch slowly as some of these characters come around eventually and replace their original cynicism and suspicions with a more embracing attitude toward the beauty of Shangri-La that surrounds them.

In keeping with the point that I just made, the female character of the prostitute Gloria Stone (played by Isabel Jewell) who's seemingly terminal with some sort of illness at the beginning of the film and is just downright nasty to everyone around her. Later in the film, she not only warms up to her new surroundings, but appears to be slowly recovering from her illness, presumably from the magic and power of Shangri-La. I can't help but wonder if this concept from LOST HORIZON was not later adapted for the ABC-TV series LOST. Those who watched the show know that there were several characters who arrived at the mysterious island either sick or incapacitated, only to later discover that they could walk again and that they were no longer dying. I suppose if you're going to copy somebody, the great Frank Capra is about as good as anyone else.

At its best, LOST HORIZON can be called a grand adventure film that is beautifully photographed, magnificently staged and played out. For this particular golden era of Hollywood film making, there's no denying the great opulence of the production, the impressiveness of the sets, the richness of the costuming and the satisfying attention to the small and large details of the story. There are screen moments that are swift, vivid and brilliantly achieved. One may consider the final conclusion of the film a bit disappointing, but perhaps that's inescapable, for there can be no truly satisfying end to any elaborate fantasy we watch on the big screen, can there? Frank Capra may be guilty of one or two directorial clich├ęs, but otherwise it's one of the best films of his outstanding career. The film (unquestionably) has some of the best black and white photography and sets you're likely to see in the history of classic cinema outside of an epic Cecil B. Demille film. Here's a sample...


Finally, for those of you who have only managed to experience Capra through the eyes of repeated stars like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, by all means, check out this one! These films are called CLASSICS for a reason!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Lord Gainsford: "Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Here's my hope that Robert Conway will find his Shangri-La. Here's my hope that we all find our Shangri-La."

Mine's in the Hamptons!

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