[box cover]

Lost Horizon

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton,
John Howard, and George Conway

Written by Robert Riskin
Based on the novel by James Hilton

Directed by Frank Capra


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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    


One of the reasons why I am fascinated with DVD is because there are so many classic films that have fallen into disrepair, while prints of others — especially those on early nitrate stocks — continue to deteriorate, mostly because there is little profit to be made by their owners to undertake costly restorations. Some films in recent years have undergone the restoration process (Gone With The Wind and Vertigo, to name two), but it's a scarce few that get such lavish treatment. Meanwhile, it has been estimated that as much as 80% of all Hollywood films made before 1920 have been lost forever, and many made before the 1950s could suffer a similar fate.

Of course, serious film preservationists don't regard DVD as part of the preservation process. To them, the film must be accurately restored on celluloid so that it can be shown in its original context: projected on the large screen. And I wouldn't disagree with that. But DVD is at least a step towards saving films for posterity, because — as the first all-digital, mass-produced home-video product — when an older film is encoded with the MPEG-2 process, it ceases to be a product on fragile nitrate stock, and instead becomes a string of ones and zeros that can be perfectly reproduced. And the growing numbers of DVDs flowing into the marketplace means that enormous copies will exist, rather than a few decaying prints (or VHS editions, which also have a limited shelf-life). We will have these DVDs forever. It may be only 480 lines of resolution best-suited for a mid-sized television, but when classics are committed to disc, the deterioration stops. Titles such as Psycho, 2001, and The Philadelphia Story are now suspended in time, and Columbia TriStar's DVD edition of Frank Capra's 1937 Lost Horizon can also be added to that list — but unlike many other classic films, it is still incomplete, and parts of it may be lost forever.

Part of this is due to the fact that Lost Horizon has appeared in several different versions over the years. During its nearly two-year production it was Columbia Pictures' most expensive project to date, and Capra's first rough-cut ran six hours, which he chopped down to three-and-a-half for its first test screening. Finally, his preferred 138-minute edition was shown at the film's premiere, but Columbia cut this down to 118 minutes not long thereafter. When the film was re-released during World War II, its length was further reduced, and small changes were made to lend to the propaganda of the times (the title was even changed, briefly, to The Lost Horizon of Shangri-La). And as these cuts and alterations were made, the original footage started to disappear. In the 1960s, Columbia discovered that their own nitrate negative was highly unstable, and they made one last print from it, which they then turned over to the American Film Institute. The restoration process of Lost Horizon began in earnest in 1974, with the goal of restoring Capra's 138-minute edition. The entire soundtrack was later discovered in Great Britain, but after a tireless search for missing footage, seven minutes of Capra's original could not be found. In the current restored version, still photos are imposed during these segments while the soundtrack is heard.

Lost Horizon is a fascinating DVD, and one of the best yet to come from Columbia TriStar, who appears to be invading Criterion's cinephile turf. However, I can't lavish as much praise on the film itself. Capra was always a controversial director who often traded substance for sentiment (some members of the press nicknamed his films "Capra-corn"), and Lost Horizon is one of his flawed gems. Based on the novel by James Hilton, the plot concerns five westerners who flee from an Asian revolt, but find that their airplane has been hijacked by a mysterious Mongolian. After crashing in the Himalayas, they are rescued by a group of locals, who take them to their society — Shangri-La, a fertile valley enclosed by mountains on all sides, where there is no crime, no illness, and seemingly eternal life for all who remain. The various characters react to the Utopian paradise in different ways. British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is a writer and philosopher who has theorized about Utopian states, but is unsure what to make of Shangri-La, which appears to embody all of his hopes for humanity. However, his brother George (John Howard) only wants to return to England. Boisterous American Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell) immediately tries to see how he can turn Shangri-La into a profit-making enterprise for himself, while English paleontologist Alexander P. Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) hates uncertainty of any sort and is suspicious of the placid mountain paradise. Their lone female companion, Gloria Stone (Isabell Jewell), is also wary of Shangri-La and is mostly withdrawn, suffering from poor health.

Capra's $2.5 million budget, enormous for the time, is all on the screen, and the immense amount of effort that went into the sets and scenic backgrounds of Lost Horizon are astonishing. But the story that binds these parts together is decidedly weaker than most other Capra films. After the exciting escape-by-air, plane crash, and arrival at Shangri-La, the plot goes into slow motion, as Robert falls for Sondra (Jane Wyatt), who has lived in the community since she was a child, and George strikes up a tenuous relationship with Maria (Margo), a Russian woman who seems to be keeping a secret. Meanwhile, the others slowly fall under the Utopian spell and become more agreeable personalities. Only the conflict between the Conway brothers provides any real narrative thread, but it's infrequent. And while the final sequence is compelling, taken as a whole, Lost Horizon is a long hike, and it's inferior to It Happened One Night or Mr. Smith Goes To Washington or It's a Wonderful Life — excellent films that Capra made for a lot less money.

But as a DVD, Lost Horizon is outstanding. The commentary track with film critic Charles Champlin and film preservationist Robert Gitt is easily as entertaining as the film itself, as the two discuss the fine details and anecdotes of the restoration. Gitt also narrates a short documentary on the restoration process, which includes several deleted scenes that were recovered by the American Film Institute but not incorporated in the 138-minute cut, along with an alternate ending. An insightful behind-the-scenes photo-essay is narrated by film historian Kendall Miller, and even the original teaser trailer for Lost Horizon is included. If you're an admirer of this neglected classic, this DVD will probably be one of your favorites. And if (like me) you're not as fond of it and are more interested in film preservation, you will still find the supplements on Lost Horizon to be an illuminating experience.

— J. Jordan Burke



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