DVD: Lost Horizon (1937)

July 1, 2013 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Sony / Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: August 31, 1999

Genre: Fantasy / Adventure / Drama / Romance

Synopsis: A British diplomat and fellow travellers are taken to a mysterious valley in the Himalayas where no one grows old, and all forms of war, aggression, and human struggle are absent.

Special Features: Audio commentary by writer Charles Champlin and restorationist Robert Gitt / Restoration: Before & After Comparison (10:43) / Alternative Ending (2:37) / Photo Documentary (30:24) / Teaser Trailer

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Review:

Ultimately costing $2 million in 1937 including production time, reshoots, and taking a good five years to earn back its money, Frank Capra’s film was at the time Columbia’s most expensive production, and years ahead of Samuel Bronston’s The Fall of the Roman Empire [M] (1964) it was noted for having the biggest single standing set ever constructed. Exotic mountain scenes filmed inside a giant freezer, and yet within weeks of its release, Lost Horizon underwent a series of lethal cuts which, by the time the film was circulating on TV in the fifties, had reduced its running time from 132 mins. to 85 mins.

Even though Robert Riskin was rewriting the film during production and scenes were sometimes improvised to fill in weak character arcs, this princely adaptation of James Hilton’s popular novel still manages to make sense and stays true to the novel’s theme of creating an idyllic (yet highly implausible) world where art, kindness, and love reign, and the baser behaviour of humans have no practical place.

Capra’s film starts with a bang – a British diplomat flees with a small contingent of white folks just as the small airport in the Chinese province of Baskul is overtaken by bloodthirsty rebels circa 1935, only to find their plane hijacked by a gun-toting pilot with a secret destination – and contains tense mountain sequences as the group are led by local porters to a hidden valley housing Shangri-La, but once the group change clothes and slowly acclimatize to the sedate town of 30,000 mixed Asians and handful of white folks, Lost Horizon’s pacing starts to decelerate, and it’s perhaps easy to see why Capra’s original assembly of 3+ hours had to be whittled down to keep things moving towards the tense finale in which diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman, giving a truly fine performance) must decide whether Shangri-La is a utopia where men and women age ever so slowly, reaching the 200s, or a façade created by a madman who snatches travelers to keep the population robust.

This major conflict doesn’t occur until the finale, and the film’s lengthy middle is spaced out to show the transitions of characters who choose to stay, and the rare rebel – brother George Conway (John Goward) –  who refuses to blend and schemes to escape when the timing is perfect. Not every character, however, is given his / her due.

Captivated by her beauty and nude swim (the stand-in model’s boobery is very obvious, even on DVD), Conway clearly falls for schoolteacher Sondra (Jane Wyatt), the woman who proactively convinced both leader High Lama (Sam Jaffe) and his lieutenant Chang (H.B. Warner) to snatch Conway as a logical successor once the aging High Lama expires, but his bother George just runs around angrily; and Maria (actress Margo), the woman he loves and flees with beyond the valley with tragic results, clearly lost scenes during the trimming down process. (The issue of an undercooked Maria was properly fixed in the otherwise disastrous 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon [M].)

When the film premiered, it featured a studio-imposed finale where Conway was clearly going to return Sondra after an implausible trek back up the mountains, but Capra managed to convince the alternate ending’s pusher, studio CEO Harry Cohn, to reinstate the director’s original and more pleasing ambiguous finale, but once the film had done its roadshow rounds, it was trimmed to a 118 min. general release version, after which it was further trimmed to 108 mins., with new cuts and intertitles that changed the angry Chinese rebels to angry Japanese for a wartime reissue. Further chopping by TV stations continued to transform the studio’s epic into a shadow of itself, and Columbia made a series of preservation masters before the nitrate negatives disintegrated, later donating the pair to the AFI.

From 1970 to about 1998 the AFI and project leader Robert Gitt undertook a massive restoration effort, combing the globe for surviving bits to reconstruct the longest possible version, and the ’98 version that forms the basis of this Sony DVD stems from several sources, including a shorter British print with deleted scenes not present anywhere else, the complete soundtrack to the 132 min. vers., and a 16mm French-dubbed TV print from Quebec.

The ’98 restoration manages to combine footage and stills to create – much like the recent Metropolis (1927) restoration – a complete roadshow version, and the additions return important philosophical discourses held by Conway, his emerging romance with Sondra, and small scenes that fill out the gradual settling in of embezzler / engineer Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), geologist Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), and longer exchanges between the High Lama and Conway.

Still undercooked in the restored version are characters George Conway and thirtysomething lover Maria; a restored near-suicide scene that was also restaged in the ’73 remake augments terminally ill Gloria (Isabel Jewell), but aside from brief scenes that have other characters commenting on her regaining her health, we’re given zero details of her private life or thoughts. (The DVD does offer up a rare deleted scene that indicates Gloria had in fact more scenes, and while never even inferred in the film, according to Robert Gitt’s description of the deleted scene, her original job description prior to illness was prostitute.)

Joseph Walker’s cinematography is lush and arresting in the action scenes, including the staged Himalayan footage that was interpolated from stock shots culled from Andrew Marton’s Demon of the Himalayas (1935) and Arnold Franck’s Storm Over Mont Blanc (1930). Dimitri Tiomkin’s score can also be heard in full, since parts were removed from scenes that were re-ordered for the 108 min. version. The Lamasary set is impressive, but in terms of design it’s blatantly thirties Art Deco and is pure Hollywood balderdash – there isn’t a shred of authenticity in its design, especially since the ruling elders would’ve been exposed to Art Deco (or Art Nouveau, for that matter) to ‘modernize’ their spiritual and bureaucratic headquarters.

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The Extras

Film writer Charles Champlin joins historian Robert Gitt for a full-length commentary track, and while they run out of energy in spots and the conversation gets a bit dry in terms of repeated discussion of print sources, grain, and restoration processes, it’s a fairly solid narrative of how Capra’s epic was filmed, edited, truncated, and ultimately restored, with Gitt serving as chief restorationist over a 25 year period.

In one of the DVD’s 3 featurettes, Gitt goes through the film’s WWII reissue title sequence (the film was rebranded “Lost Horizon of Shangri-La”), and in a second featurette he details a restoration demo of film tears and jitters, comments on rare surviving outtakes of the High Lama’s funeral procession struck from the camera negative to illustrate the differences between high quality and the current surviving source materials, and for three deleted scenes Gitt reads dialogue from the shooting script (a scene between Gloria and Sondra, and Conway briefly conversing with Sondra before his meetings with the High Lama).

In a third featurette, the film’s uber-historian Kendall Miller uses stills and surviving footage to recreate a sense of the original bookend sequences where Colman narratives the story from a ship (footage Capra reportedly destroyed himself because he detested the studio-imposed material that delayed the story’s proper start), and Capra’s decision to film the mountain scenes in a massive freezer to ensure the actors’ breaths would appear on film – an effect he wasn’t able to create in his prior cold weather epic, Dirigible [M] (1931). (Capra recounted his search for an ice house to Dick Cavett in this YouTube clip, after discussing his Oscar-winning It Happened One Night).

With the 1973 remake now available on Blu-ray, fans of the original will naturally ask ‘What about the Capra version?’ and its delayed debut on Blu may stem from its 25 year restoration odyssey. In his commentary, Gitt recalls specific screenings held during the seventies (some attended by stars Jane Wyatt, best known for playing mom Margaret Anderson on TV’s Father Knows Best; and John Howard, star of the 1930s Bulldog Drummond films) which happened whenever new footage was discovered and integrated into what was a reconstruction-in-process.

All of the newfound material was restored in a pre-digital / pre-wet gate process era, and while the 1998 DVD makes use of some digital gear to fix damage and stabilize affected images, the film would arguably look better if specific stages of the restoration were redone using new transfer and restoration technology. A chief problem lies in the 16mm Quebec footage which disappeared soon after it was transferred to 35mm stock, so without those original elements, the 16mm footage may be tougher to fix for an HD medium.

The recent restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – a mix of 35mm and 16mm sources – provides some hope, but the issue is whether Sony is interested and willing to invest funds in a major restoration (unless one is slowly underway).

A wishful Ultimate Edition should include a second commentary track from a Capra historian / biographer. Even better would be an isolated score track, a featurette on Tiomkin’s still-potent score, an audio archive featuring the 1941 Lux Radio Theatre show and the 1950 Decca monodrama where Colman reprised his role, and an archived shooting script of the 3+ hour version and perhaps a seamless branching optional where the film could be re-watched with reconstructed stills of the omitted scenes and dialogue. (In the era of AfterEffects, anything’s possible, right?) Lastly, an archived copy of “Ruining Reissues,” an article where film historian William K. Everson takes the studios to task for butchering their films. (Gitt mentions the piece in the commentary track because Everson sought to find meaning in the studio’s practice of quickly reducing their films after the roadshow engagements for more plays in small cities and towns, while TV stations further hacked up prints for ad placement.)

International film and TV adaptations of James Hilton’s works include Lost Horizon in 1937, 1960, 1973 [M]; Knight Without Armor (1937); Good bye Mr. Chips in 1937, 1959, 1969, 1984, and 2002; We Are Not Alone (1939); Rage in Heaven (1940); Random Harvest in 1942 and 1961; and So Well Remembered (1947).

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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