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Submitted by on October 5, 2010 – 8:43 pm3 Comments

“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.

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  • Michael Dean says:

    I have to say, you’re covering my favorites quite handily. The remaining popular ones, of course – Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You – are well known. American Madness would be one to look at, as well. Platinum Blond would be another choice. His silent work also is good. As for other directors, I’m afraid I’ve only recently paid much attention to directors. Only last year did I actually realize Capra had directed so many films that I enjoyed. Cuckor’s name did not ring a bell, but I have seen a lot of his work. He would be a good choice. As would John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock (another favorite of mine). While I’ve long enjoyed classic films, I always paid more attention to who was in front of the camera, rather than behind. I’m still learning about the people on the other side.

  • ceo says:

    Michael, any other Capra films you would like to see us focus on? How about other directors – we were thinking about featuring George Cuckor next.

  • Michael Dean says:

    “Lost Horizon” is one of Capra’s attempts to make a more adventurous film. I like the story Capra tells of the original premiere and how the audience laughed throughout. He went back to the studio and burned the first two reels of film. The next showing, the audience reaction was completely different and the film was much better received. Another Capra film – like “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” – I wouldn’t necesarily deem essential, but still a top ten pick.

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