Monday, July 17, 2006

Boomer Movie Hall of Fame

Finding the Lost Horizons

What is a film made in 1937 doing in the Boomer Hall of Fame? First, the idealism of Frank Capra, often specifically American but also as universal as the Bill of Rights and the other foundation documents, was part of the 60s spirit. Many of his films were revived in the early 70s and afterwards, but not so much this one--the most universal of them all. Now at last it can take its rightful place, and we can hear the remarkable speech that links it so strongly to the aspirations of the 60s.

Lost Horizon is a famous film I hadn't seen since I was very young, and then only on television. I had only a hazy memory of it, as somewhat mystical but mostly confusing. After that, I don't recall it being mentioned much in the company of classic films, or even in references to Capra, his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and the Oscar winning It Happened One Night being the ones usually cited.

So I rented the DVD, which turned out to be a restored version from 1999. The history of this movie would be bizarre even if it wasn't shared with a lot of less remembered films. Capra was the producer as well as director of this epic attempt to film the best selling novel by James Hilton. His rough cut was something like 5 hours long. The first version tested with an audience in Santa Barbara was 3 hours, and was considered a disaster.

With lots of cuts, some reshaping of the narrative and even new scenes shot, the movie was released in Los Angeles and other big cities in 1937 with a running time of 132 minutes. But the version that went out to theatres across the country was considerably shorter, by about 25 minutes. Even at that it was longer than the usual 90 minute movie, and individual theatres cut even more of it.

Then thanks to an offhand reference to Shangri-la by President Roosevelt, it was re-released during World War II, with more cuts for content reasons-taking out questionable references to allies, and too much of that pacifist stuff. (It is rather remarkable that it was made by the director who would soon be fashioning the Why We Fight "documentaries" ---they were actually mostly composed of pieces of Hollywood films---but then these Capra productions probably saved a lot of Italian Americans from internment camps.) By the time the movie got to television in the 50s, which is probably when I saw it, it was pretty much an incomprehensible mess. A plane wreck, snow, Shangri-la, escape, more snow, an avalanche, and a young woman suddenly becoming old. That was about it.

By the early 1970s, there wasn't a good intact negative of any version of the film anywhere. The American Film Institute, and later the UCLA film preservation project, began a series of restorations. The major finds that made the 1999 restoration possible in particular was an intact 132 minute soundtrack, discovered in British film archives. Several prints and dupe negatives of varying length and quality were located and though they were all shorter than 132 minutes (some considerably shorter), they were missing different scenes, and some had scenes the others didn't.

Two versions were particularly notable: a British dupe, shorter than even the 108 minute version but containing scenes no other version had, and a knarly print cut for Canadian TV, dubbed in French. This version had key moments missing from the others, usually within scenes.The restorers even used some outtakes preserved on a reel shown to film exhibitors at a convention in Ohio before the film's release---in fact, before Capra had finished shooting the movie. With all that put together, they still lacked about seven minutes, but the 1999 restoration uses the complete soundtrack, so still photos are substituted for these minutes (using photos of the scenes where possible.)

Another remarkable fact about this restoration is that in 1999, digital enhancement and repair was still prohibitively expensive, so only a few scenes were given the full digital treatment. Most repair was done by "wet-printing," a technique then new that fills in film scratches with liquid so they fade from the print.

Given all the versions Capra assembled, and the cuts he made at the studio's insistence, it's fruitless to try to establish a definitive version, but this is as close as 25 years of restoration work could come to reproducing "Lost Horizon" as it was seen at its Los Angeles premiere in 1937.

Though not quite the clarification that the restored "Metropolis" was a few years ago, it is still quite a revelation.The film's flaws are perhaps even more clearly exposed. American action actor John Howard was obviously miscast as Ronald Colman's mercurial, weak and prejudiced brother (David Niven was said to be the favorite, but Howard was cast just days before shooting began.) The minor characters, while well acted for the most part, have a certain charm but don't quite jell. This isn't Capra at his characteristic best. Yet at this remove, even these flaws say something memorable.

Today the sight of Shangri-la is not quite as awe-inspiring as it was supposed to be, since it resembles a jumble of Frank Lloyd Wright and a half dozen other styles in a complex that looks like a World's Fair exhibit, or maybe a 1960s housing development crossed with a corporate campus. Some of the doorways and interiors seem borrowed from a Flash Gordon serial.The idea that the heathens of Tibet need to be taught civilization by a European priest, whose natural superiority they recognize by making him their High Lama, is laughable. Yet none of these flaws, not even Capra's uneasy sentimentality about the idea of Shangri-la, completely distort the timeless power of this film, revealed especially and in some ways, for almost the first time, in this restoration.

The heart of the film is in Colman's wonderful performance, but its soul is in Sam Jaffe's haunting speeches as the High Lama. This was the most controversial part of this movie even while it was being made. Columbia Studios demanded Jaffe be replaced, and his scenes were shot with another actor, before test audiences affirmed Capra's choice of Jaffe's portrayal. Then much of the key scene was shortened and reshot again, after the Santa Barbara preview. (Another character was given some of its exposition, which required more shooting.)

Frank Capra monitored the restoration until his death, and requested that in particular the Lama's scenes be restored. This is in fact this version's great gift. It's remarkable how much of it was cut out in the various versions. Some of the most important lines have no existing footage at all, others only the grainy remains of the Canadian TV dupe.

The view of the world expressed here can be understood as coming from the Great Depression era and after the Great War, during the obvious prelude to another World War, just as the censoring of these scenes would be a product of World War II and the Cold War. But in another sense they are, if not timeless, then of our time as well as theirs.This is a film worth seeing. If you've seen it in earlier versions, you probably haven't seen the lovely scenes with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt inexplicably cut from most versions---and without them the movie really doesn't make that much sense. It's worth seeing for Ronald Colman--"beautiful of face and soul, sensitive to the fragile and gentle, responsive to poetic visions and hard intellect," as Frank Capra describes both the character and the actor in his autobiography.

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