Film Friday: Frank Capra's 'Lost Horizon' starring Ronald Coleman

By Daniel S Levine,

English author James Hilton's novels provided Hollywood with three sentimental stories, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Random Harvest and Lost Horizon. The first two were turned into charming films by MGM in 1939 and 1942. The last, written in 1933, was turned into a film by Frank Capra in 1937. Capra was undoubtedly the hottest director at the time and was given nearly unlimited funds by Columbia Pictures to adapt the ambitious story of the paradise known as Shangri-La.

While Capra is best known for patriotic, all-American films like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Meet John Doe, Lost Horizon is a very different animal. It stars Ronald Coleman as Robert Conway, a high-level British official in China during the time of local revolution. His duty is to help other British subjects out of the chaos and is successful at saving his brother George (John Howard), a paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), a con artist (Thomas Mitchell), and an American prostitute (Isabel Jewel). He is under the impression that they are safe on the plane, but they soon discover that they're not being taken to Shanghai. Instead, they are taken to an isolated place in the mountains of Tibet.

This is a place of paradise, perfectly embodying the peaceful society Robert spoke about at the beginning of the plane ride. Called Shangri-La, the mysteries surrounding it are revealed by Chang (H.B. Warner). While Robert is enamored with the place instantly, especially after spotting Sondra (Jane Wyatt), the others are skeptical. George is especially nervous about the place and cannot wait to leave. The others slowly learn to like it, but George never does.

Robert eventually meets with the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), who he learns is the 200-year-old priest who started Shangri-La. The Lama tells him that he was not brought here just by accident. Robert's pacifist books lead the Lama to believe that he would be the perfect successor to lead Shangri-La. It's a story George, who is in love with Maria, a Russian girl at Shangri-La, can't swallow. Robert is left with the choice to leave or stay in a place that embodies his dreams.

Lost Horizon is, unfortunately, one of those movies where the production is far more interesting than the film. It's a movie that most audiences never got to see in the form that Capra envisioned. For decades, film fans were stuck with a World War II print that cut some of the best acted scenes in the film. Coleman's eloquent pacifist speech at the start of the film and parts of Sam Jaffe's performance as the High Lama were cut for obvious reasons as we were in the middle of the war. Other cuts are astonishing, such as a fantastic conversation between Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell.

The version on Sony's 1999 DVD (the last home video release of this, unfortunately) is from a restoration that is as close to the 132-minute cut Capra and Columbia premiered in 1937 as possible. By seeing that, Lost Horizon reveals itself to be an early Hollywood epic that is a little too slow and talky, but still filled with fine performances. Somehow, Capra keeps the film moving by injecting well-directed scenes of action, despite the drama-free nature of Hilton's novel. After all, how much drama can there be in a perfect society with no war, crime or worries?

Still, the one mistake Capra made was picking John Howard to play George. Howard just can't stand up to Coleman and fails to perform when needed. He is literally the only source of drama in this film and anybody could have done better than a guy whose only other notable role is playing second fiddle in The Philadelphia Story.

Lost Horizon will always be a flawed epic, especially when the Oscar-winning art direction often overwhelms the action. Capra never really directed a film like this again, instead opting to continue with his string of immensely successful All-American films. He followed Lost Horizon with one of my favorite films, You Can't Take It With You and was likely disappointed to see how poorly Lost Horizon did. Seeing the film today, it's easy to see why it hasn't aged well, unlike Capra's better-known works.

If there is one thing Lost Horizon teaches us, it's that a perfect world is as much a dream in reality as it is in film.

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