FRANK CAPRA – LOST HORIZON
“Have you ever dreamed of a place where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?': Thus reads the opening title card to Lost Horizon, Frank Capra’s dream of Shangri-La, the inaccessible Himalayan Utopia to which British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is hijacked, from which he escapes, and finally to which he attempts desperately to return.
It is not, unfortunately, one of Capra’s more successful dreams. Lost Horizon is an exception among Capra’s works, not only because it is one of the two major films of this most American of directors in which he abandons an American setting (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933, is the other), but more precisely because Capra’s vision of life is inextricably rooted in struggle. The first three parts of his four-part autobiography, for instance, are entitled “Struggle for Success,” “Struggle with Success,” and “The Great Struggle.” The point at which struggle is suspended in favor of “lasting delight” is the point at which Capra reaches the limits of his imagination.
Accordingly, the best sequences in Lost Horizon are those that take place far from Shangri-La itself. Among these are the scenes that open the movie: the wartime burning of a Chinese city, from which a few huddled Europeans, shepherded by Conway, Britain’s foreign secretary-designate, attempt to escape. He himself accompanies the last planeload of passengers, who barely elude the hysterical mob only to find themselves hijacked to some unknown mountainous destination beyond Tibet. After the plane crashes, a search party materializes to lead the bewildered passengers over seemingly impassable mountains to the Valley of the Blue Moon, Shangri-La. There, they discover an equable climate, a peaceable native people, a magnificent palace containing all the world’s art and writings, and a two-hundred-year-old Belgian monk (Sam Jaffe) who rules as High Lama of Shangri-La. Aging is retarded in the Valley, and time itself is slowed.
The sets for Lost Horizon were so elaborate by the standards of the day that the film cost two million dollars, four times the cost of any other Columbia production to that time, and half of Columbia’s total production budget for the year. Lost Horizon was, among other things, Harry Cohn’s announcement to Louis B. Mayer and others that Columbia was no longer a little studio on “poverty row.”
Freed from the burdens of work and time, the motley crew of Europeans with whom Conway escapes attains new levels of fulfillment. The consumptive prostitute Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell) takes a cure and becomes a nice girl; the crooked banker on the lam, Henry Bernard (Thomas Mitchell), initiates a public works program; the fussy paleontologist Alexander R Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) teaches the valley children; Conway and his younger brother George (John Howard) each find a young European woman on the premises and fall in love. And, in time, Robert Conway discovers why they have been hijacked to the mysterious valley: the Lama is at long last dying, and he has chosen Conway as his successor.