Classic Cinema #18: Lost Horizon (1937) – By Jason S. Lockard

My Name is Jason S. Lockard and I love the adrenaline rush from a good action adventure film and if there is real drama attached to it, all the better. Well, this month I’m bringing you a film that has long since been forgotten except by film historians and classic film crazies. Frank Capra’s 1937 Classic Lost Horizon.

The great Frank Capra known for directing some of the best films of all time including ‘It happened one night‘, ‘Meet John Doe’ and The Christmas classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘. In 1937 Capra released an epic film entitled Lost Horizon starring Ronald Coleman and Jane Wyatt based upon the James Hilton novel of the same name. That is the film we are going to look at this time, but first let’s take a quick look at Frank Capra the man!

Born Frank Rosario Capra on May 18, 1897 in Bisacquino, Sicily, he immigrated to the United States in 1903 with his parents, Turiddu Capra (later known as "Salvatore") and Rosaria (later known as "Sarah"; née Nicolosi) and his siblings Giuseppa, Giuseppe, and Antonia. In California the family met with Benedetto Capra (the oldest sibling, known as "Benjamin") and settled in Los Angeles. Frank Capra attended Manual Arts High School there. In 1918, he graduated from Throop Institute (now the California Institute of Technology) with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering.

During World War I, Capra enlisted in the United States Army on October 18, 1918. He taught ballistics and mathematics to artillerymen at Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio of San Francisco. While there, he caught Spanish flu and was medically discharged with rank of second lieutenant on December 13, 1918. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1920 as Frank Russell Capra.

Capra’s film career began as a prop man in silent films. Shortly thereafter, Capra moved on to write and direct silent comedies starring Harry Langdon and the Our Gang kids. Capra went to work for Mack Sennett in 1924 and then moved to Columbia Pictures.

In 1937 Frank Capra went into production on an epic entitled Lost Horizon. The story begins with a writer, soldier, and diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) who has one last task in 1935 China before returning to England to become the new Foreign Secretary. That task to rescue 90 westerners in the city of Baskul. After doing so he flies out with the last few evacuees, just ahead of armed revolutionaries.

However, their airplane is hijacked and it eventually runs out of fuel and crashes deep in the Himalayas, killing their abductor. The group is rescued by Chang (H.B. Warner) and taken to Shangri-la, an idyllic valley sheltered from the bitter cold. The contented inhabitants are led by the mysterious High Lama (Sam Jaffe).

Initially anxious to return to "civilization", most of the newcomers grow to love the place, including the terminally ill Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), who seems to be recovering in the utopian paradise. Conway is particularly enchanted when he meets Sondra (Jane Wyatt), who has grown up in Shangri-la. However, Conway’s younger brother George and Maria (a Shangri-la inhabitant) are determined to leave utopia.

Conway eventually has an audience with the High Lama and learns that his arrival was no accident. The founder of Shangri-la is said to be hundreds of years old, preserved, like the other residents, by the magical properties of the paradise he has created, but is now dying and needs someone wise and knowledgeable in the ways of the modern world to keep it safe. Having read Conway’s writings, Sondra believed he is the one, and the Lama agrees. The old man names Conway as his successor and then peacefully passes away.

When George refuses to believe the Lama’s fantastic story Conway reluctantly gives in to his brother and they leave, taking Maria with them. After several days of grueling travel, she becomes exhausted and collapse in the snow. They discover that Maria has become an old woman and died. Her departure from Shangri-la had restored Maria to her true age. Horrified, George loses his sanity and jumps to his death.

Conway continues on and eventually meets up with a search party sent to find him, though the ordeal has caused him to lose his memory of Shangri-la. On the voyage home, he regains his memory; but can he return to Shangri-la? Would he be able to find the paradise again? You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

Edited by the studio to 95 minutes originally, the film was going to be restored to it’s original 132 minute length; the only problem was with the film being preserved on nitrate and all known copies had deteriorated so it seemed restoring the film would be next to impossible until they found the 132 minute soundtrack of the film but seven minutes of the film footage could be found, or some of it is faded and fuzzy. So to fill in the seven minutes of missing film footage, a combination of publicity photos of the actors in costume (taken during filming) and still frames copied from elsewhere in the film is shown while the soundtrack plays.

According to Frank Capra Jr., the director’s son, Lost Horizon would have been filmed in color, but because the only suitable stock footage was in black and white, his father decided to shoot his movie that way. Scenes of the avalanche and the vast frozen landscape of the Himalayas came from a black and white documentary.

The movie garnered Academy Awards wins for Best Art Direction for Stephen Goosson, Film Editing for Gene Havlick and Gene Milford and Nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor: H. B. Warner, Best Assistant Director: Charles C. Coleman: Original Music Score, Best Sound, Recording: John P. Livadary

Lost Horizon was remade as a 1973 musical, which was a notorious critical and commercial failure.

Lost Horizon is one of those must see films…. an essential. It’s a story of finding happiness and contentment. It’s an epic adventure and a romantic love story. It’s is truly one of a kind! So do yourself a favor and go check out Lost Horizon. You won’t regret it!

So until next month this is Jason Lockard reminding you if you want a good movie Check out a Classic!

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Moral Rating: Nothing Offensive
Audience: Family
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 132 min.
Released: 1937
Our Rating: A+