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Long before Frank Capra presented us with a wonderful life, he showed us a paradise on earth, and made Shangri-La a household word with his film version of Lost Horizon (1937).
A faithful adaptation of James Hilton's enormously popular novel of the same name, Lost Horizon begins with the rescue of a motley group of refugees from a Chinese revolution. Together, suave adventurer Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), his brother, George (John Howard), swindler Henry (Thomas Mitchell), prostitute Gloria (Isabel Jewell), and scientist Alexander (Edward Everett Horton), take off in a small plane that is secretly bound for the Tibetan Himalayas. When the plane crashes, the survivors find themselves stranded in the snow-capped mountains. Fortunately, they are rescued by a band of strangers led by an ancient Chinese man, Chang (H. B. Warner), who lead them to the Valley of the Blue Moon - a beautiful, sun-drenched landscape where nothing is known of war, crime, or hate.
Convinced that Hilton's novel had all the makings of a great film - fantasy, adventure, spectacle - director Frank Capra convinced Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, to advance him $2,000,000 for the production. Together with scenarist Robert Riskin, Capra researched everything from Tibetan culture, to language, to architecture, to clothing. Ten property men created over 700 props used in Tibetan daily life while droves of crewmen built 65 sets, raising Shangri-La over Columbia's Burbank ranch. When attention turned to casting, however, things would not move along so well. Putting Ronald Colman in the role of the elder Conway was easy enough. But casting the High Lama role would prove much more difficult. They first considered stage actor A. E. Anson, who was declared perfect after a screen test. Sadly, he died just after receiving news he got the part. Then Henry B. Walthall was chosen, but the Grim Reaper stepped in once again, before he could even be tested. After an exhaustive search, and numerous additional screen tests, Capra remembered 38 year old Shakespearean actor Sam Jaffe, who eventually got the role.
Shooting Lost Horizon took rather longer than expected. So long in fact, that the crew shot an entire film, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), during one of the breaks in the Lost Horizon schedule, and yet another picture, When You're In Love (1937), while Lost Horizon was being edited. Most of the production time was eaten up with the special requirements for re-creating the Himalayas in Los Angeles. For example, Capra shot snow scenes and airplane interiors inside a Cold Storage Warehouse, creating real snow and ice. A great move for credibility, but not so great for the equipment, which routinely froze up, cracked, split, stiffened, or shattered due to the cold temperatures of the set. Capra's shooting style also added to the delays. His habit for shooting multiple takes and angles led him to use over a million feet of film, causing constant confrontations with Harry Cohn. Though Cohn was willing to leave Capra alone to make his film, he frequently groused about the escalating costs, and at one point pleaded with the crew not to cash their checks for a week because Capra had used up all the money.. The ending of Capra's Lost Horizon is one of the only glaring deviations from the novel. In Hilton's book, we are left to imagine for ourselves Conway's success or failure. In the film, Capra "relents to hope" and we are shown Conway struggling through the snow, finding the pass that will lead him back to paradise.
After a bad first screening, Capra cut the first two reels of the film completely, which made the audience more receptive. Still, at more than three hours, Cohn knew it wouldn't work, and he took control of the editing away from Capra completely. Though Capra never admitted that Cohn re-cut the film, Variety reported that it was one of the main reasons Capra later brought suit against Columbia as part of a grievance over his pay. When all was said and done, however, Lost Horizon was named one of the 10 best films of 1937 by The New York Times and later won two Academy Awards, for Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction. But much like Conway's struggle to return to Shangri-La, Capra found out that sometimes you have to make great sacrifices in your search for paradise.
Producer/Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin
Production Design: Stephen Gooson
Costume Design: Ernest Dryden
Film Editing: Gene Havlick; Gene Milford
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Principal Cast: Ronald Coleman (Robert Conway), Edward Everett Horton (Alexander P. Lovett), H.B. Warner (Chang), Jane Wyatt (Sondra), Sam Jaffe (High Lama), Margo (Maria).
BW-133m. Closed captioning.
by Bill Goodman