FRANK CAPRA – LOST HORIZON
Upon the Lama’s death, Conway is prepared to occupy the Lamasary, until his brother’s girl friend, Maria (Margo), convinces them that the place is a fraud. The three flee through the mountains, where it turns out that it is she who is the fraud. On their first day out, she ages by half a century—the length of time she has been living in the valley—and dies. The crazed younger Conway hurls himself from a ledge; the elder Conway is swept away in a blizzard, from which he is rescued and returned to civilization. But civilization no longer commands his allegiance. As the film concludes, he is struggling against all odds to return through the mountains to the lost valley; and in the final shot, he reaches the elusive entrance.
Capra’s Utopia is barely a Utopia at all. It is more accurate to call it a sanctuary, a negation of the world without, rather than an articulated world unto itself. It operates on an unexamined racial caste system; its system of government is benevolent despotism. The secret of its social organization, the enfeebled Lama tells the supplicant Conway, is that “We have one simple rule here: be kind.” Shangri-La is neither a world unto itself nor a part of the larger world; it is, as the Lama sees it, a museum, a collection of the world’s wisdom of which men can avail themselves as they emerge from the rubble of the war the Lama is certain will come.
However, sanctuary, not Utopia, is Capra’s stock-in-trade (his next picture You Can’t Take It with You, 1938, turns the Vanderhof house into a refuge from the world), and throughout his films of the 1930’s, that sanctuary most often takes the form of romance. It is as much Sondra, the beautiful European schoolteacher, played by a very young Jane Wyatt in her first screen role, as it is Shangri-La to which Conway is trying to return. In the whole valley, it is only Sondra who embodies something more than negation; indeed, Shangri-La can be taken simply as a metaphor for romance. In the mid-1930’s, romance is still sufficient to rouse the Capra hero from his characteristic despair, but in later Capra films, love and family are not enough to deter the heroes—John Doe and George Bailey—from attempted suicide. For that is precisely what Shangri-La is—a refuge from suicide. As the Lama’s assistant Chang (H. B. Warner) explains the mysteries of the valley to the newly arrived Europeans, he alludes to worldly death as “indirect suicide”; he attributes the characteristic longevity-of the valley dwellers to “the absence of struggle.” It is the sudden reimmersion into the world of time and struggle that immediately provokes the suicide of Conway’s brother.
Capra’s is the single most suicide-ridden world of any major American artist. His characters inhabit a fiercely atomistic society where no personal or social ties can ultimately bind them to life. This atomism is the basis of Capra’s cutting and composition; it explains his preference for the individual set piece over the group shot (for example, Edward Everett Horton, in one of Lost Horizon’s all-too-few moments of comic relief, scaring himself silly in a mirror). Capra is a master at the use of the individual reaction shot to help validate a fantastic scene. As Chang tells the Europeans of the wonders of the valley, Capra repeatedly cuts to their expressions of amazement. Their disbelief preempts that of the audience, so that their ultimate acceptance of Chang’s tale makes it easier for the audience to suspend its disbelief.