Monday, March 1, 2010

1937 - Lost Horizon

Less than a week now until the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony, so allow me these musings on how things may turn out.

The four acting awards, as in most previous years, are relatively easy to predict, the supporting categories especially. Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique are all but locks for Inglourious Basterds and Precious respectively. Jeff Bridges is definitely leading the game for Best Actor. And Sandra Bullock currently holds the favourite spot for Best Actress, but don't be surprised if that goes a different way. If there's going to be an upset, this is where it will be.

The screenplay awards are also fairly clear. Up In The Air seems to have Adapted Screenplay in the bag, and I suspect The Hurt Locker will edge out Inglourious Basterds for the Original Screenplay gong.

Best Director and Best Picture are perhaps a little trickier. The media is certainly touting the competition between ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow for the director's award, and their respective films, Avatar and The Hurt Locker, also seem pitted against each other for Best Picture. The Academy's long history certainly indicates that one film is likely to win both these awards, but recently (over the last decade and a half, say) there has been a proportionally significant number of years in which that has not been the case - 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005. So, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Kathryn Bigelow will become the first female Best Director winner, while Avatar will take home the Best Picture prize. Brave prediction, I know. Let's see how it pans out.

Today, I watched another 1937 Best Picture nominee. I was going to comment that, with this viewing, I have culled the list down to 400 films remaining, but that doesn't take into account the current crop of contenders. Once this year's Oscars are in the past, I shall update the tally and the nominee list. For now, though, here are my thoughts on...

Lost Horizon
Frank Capra
Robert Riskin
(based on the novel by James Hilton)
Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Thomas Mitchell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, including Best Art Direction

After its initial release in 1937, Lost Horizon went through some changes, losing several minutes of its running time by the time of its re-release some years later. Fortunately, some film restoration do-gooders set themselves the task of restoring the film to its original length. Unfortunately, there were seven minutes of footage that eluded them, although they did manage to find the film's entire audio track. Thus, in the current DVD release that I viewed, there are a couple of scenes which have been uniquely recreated using the original sound which is played over still images that were made for the film's publicity. The result is surprisingly not as unusual as you might imagine. Not completely seamless, obviously, but neither is it too distracting.

The story begins with British diplomat Robert Conway (Colman) attempting to evacuate several Westerners from war-torn China. Unfortunately, he and four others find themselves on a hijacked plane, which eventually crash lands somewhere in the icy Himalayas, killing their kidnapper/pilot. Fearing for their survival, they are fortuitously met by a mysterious man named Chang (Warner), who leads them to an idyllic village that is somehow immune to the surrounding meteorology. Shangri-La, as it is known by its inhabitants, is eternally warm and pleasant, and nobody there grows old. While Conway settles in, his four companions have a bit more trouble acclimating, especially Conway's brother (Howard), who suspects that all is not what it seems.

Lost Horizon's first twenty minutes or so are utterly captivating. From the urgency of the opening scene at the Chinese airport, through the suspenseful flight and ensuing crash, we are treated to some brilliant story-telling. The ending, too, is full of intrigue and mystery. And while the in-between is not dreary, per se, there is a definite saggy feeling to the film's middle act. The suspense and mystery are replaced by a kind of fantasy - men can live to 200 years old, it never snows despite the geography and everybody is "more than moderately happy." It's the utopian existence that we all wish for but know can never really be. A self-sufficient society in which there is no crime or sadness or dissatisfaction. A Shangri-La, if you will.

While I have no problem at all with imaginatively far-fetched stories (I'm a big fan of the science fiction genre, for instance), I've always been slightly put off by the idea that blind faith is a virtue. And Lost Horizon seems to send the message that, when you have no proof, but it feels right, then you should go ahead and accept it. One character in the world outside of Shangri-La sums it up by commenting, "I believe it because I want to believe it." Really? Is that a healthy way to decide what's real? I recognise, of course, that being rational and scientific is simply not as romantic and, therefore, not as interesting to watch, but there's no need to make belief in magic seem virtuous. If this makes me sound like a crotchety old grumpy-boots, so be it.

Despite those themes, I actually did enjoy Lost Horizon a great deal, mostly due to the aforementioned suspense. Ronald Colman delivers a fine performance, although he perhaps makes Conway too calm - nothing seems to bother him very much at all. Jane Wyatt is adorable as Conway's love interest, Sondra. While effective as the 200-year-old High Lama, Sam Jaffe's missing teeth and wide-eyed gaze occasionally make him seem horror-movie crazy. And reliable supporting actor Thomas Mitchell rolls out another first-class portrayal as embezzler Barnard.

1 comment:

  1. Lost Horizon was another of those older classics (Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Wizard of Oz) that my parents told me about and I had to wait until it was finally shown on Television. I don't remember exactly when I first saw it, but think I was a little older, maybe 12. It has remained one of my favorites of the 30s films.

    While the restoration is commendable and the best one could hope for, the video quality is very erratic which is too bad considering the terrific set design. Still, compared to that dreadful musical remake, thank goodness it still exists.

    Watching it again, I will admit that the entire Shangri La middle is very expository and too drawn out. Its idealistic message is on the heavy-handed side - and would be more acceptable if the immortality issue was just left out.

    The casting is for the most part excellent. Colman, Mitchell, Warner and Wyatt are fine. I like the addition of fussbudget Edward Everett Horton as comic relief ("Mr. Conway, I don't like that man. He's too vague.") The one miscast is John Howard as Conway's brother. In fairness, it's a thankless part - an annoying crybaby that drags down every scene he is in. Perhaps if they'd cast an Englishman it may have played better.

    All and all, Lost Horizon is very good Capra for those who look for less corn in his films.