Teachers of film 101 classes always prattle on about D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as the creators of the great early cinematic epics, but I will take Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon over them any day. Lost Horizon is not the first adventure drama film, but is one of the best. There is no swashbuckling and many scenes that contain nothing but long stretches of dialogue, but its exotic locations and magnificent, grand-scale set make it the predecessor of later action flicks such as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Capra read the novel by James Hilton while making It Happened One Night, and wanted to turn it into a film immediately. When he learned that Ronald Colman, his only choice for the lead, was not available, he cranked out Mr. Deeds Goes to Town while he waited for Colman to be free. Capra’s vision extended far beyond his choice of leading man. Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, who would be both Capra’s collaborator and antagonist during the production and far after it finished, approved a budget of $1.25 million, more than had ever been spent on a single film up until that time. The filming broke new ground and set records in other areas. Capra was the first director to use huge dual sound stages separated by a wall that could retract to form one enormous stage. The director, who studied chemistry at what later became Cal Tech, loved what he called “movie weather,” and was obsessed with trying to get visible breath on film in his earlier film Dirigible, prompting him to put tiny cages filled with dry ice into his actors’ mouths, which meet with disastrous results. He finally achieved this effect in Lost Horizon by filming in a giant refrigerated warehouse. The DC-10 airplane used for the flight scene could not fit into into the bellow-freezing warehouse, so a slightly scaled down version was made and carefully shot from angles that made it look bigger. Huge sets, rear production screens and bent mirrors were employed to suggest a trek of a thousand miles over ice and snow. Capra loved these kinds of technical challenges, and in still photographs taken on the set, the director is glowing.
The original rough cut of Lost Horizon was somewhere between 4 to 6 hours, depending on which account you go by. The original edit shown to test audiences was around 3 and a half hours—significantly longer than what survives today. I believe if Capra was not working with Harry Cohn, but a more sympathetic producer at another studio, such as Irving Thalberg at MGM, Lost Horizon would have been an even greater epic than it is today. Even in theory this is impossible, as Thalberg died an early death while Capra’s film was being edited, but if Capra had been working with a more understanding producer, some of the best of Capra’s idea wouldn’t have been thrown out.
The director recalled decades later that he took the film in its original 3 and a half hour cut for a test screening, as was the custom at the time. Capra said they choose San Barbara as the place of the screening, because “if those snobs down there liked it, than anyone would.” The screening was as disaster, with laughter erupting during some of the more serious moments. Capra walked out of the screening and spent the next three hours pacing up and down the street, stopping in a drug store to get a soda. When he came back to eavesdrop on people as they walked out, they were mocking the “Fu Manchu thing” they had just seen. Capra had rightly believed that Lost Horizon would be his biggest film yet, but after this preview he was so distraught that he fled to secluded Lake Arrowhead and hid out there for several days as he thought over what to do with the film. It is at this point that Capra should have had a better producer. The test screening was shown to an audience who had just seen Theodora Goes Wild, a risqué screwball comedy starring Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas, and they were not in the right mindset to see a dramatic epic. A producer with more faith in the film would have simply packed up the film and taken it to another theater for a preview. But Cohn was concerned that the film was too long and was not supportive of the director. Capra later said that he simply removed the first two reels of the film and burned them, a claim that has been disputed since the nitrate film would have caused an enormous explosion.
In any case, Capra did cut the framing device which introduced the story in an innovative way. Originally, the film opened with in the London office of the Foreign Secretary, where an eagerly-awaited telegram report that Robert Conway, the recently-appointed Foreign Secretary, has been found in a Chinese mission and is being returned to England. The action then moves to the steamship that is transporting the important man, who has completely lost his memory of what happened in the year since he went missing. When he enters the ballroom of the ship, he is surrounded by autograph seekers, who are quickly herded away. A pianist playing a Chopin piece catches his attention, and it seems for a moment that his memory may be coming back. Conway sits at the piano and begins playing a beautiful piece. When asked what it is, he casually remarked that it is an unpublished study he learned from one of Chopin’s students. “Impossible!” cries the man who is ushering the politician back to London. “If that were true, the student would have to be 120 years old!” “What of it?” replies Conway, and his memory comes rushing back. He tells an unbelieving audience of Shangri-la, the paradise hidden in the Tibetan mountains where he has spent the last year. The film then picks up as we know it today, with Conway and others being kidnapped and brought to Shangri-la against their will. Finally, after the long flashback, we return to the ship, where Conway is still telling his fantastic tale. Concerned that the great man has lost his mind, his attendants lock him up, but he escapes and makes a desperate flight back to his paradise.
I for one think the film would work better with this framing device. Removing it was not a simple matter of throwing out the first two reels of the film, but actually entailed deleting a total of around 10 minutes from the beginning and end. But this was made after interference from Harry Cohn lead to the Capra losing a whopping six reels (around one hour) from his masterpiece. While it was probably best to cut the roughly 40 minutes of slow conversation between Conway and the high lama, Cohn made several cuts in footage that established the lavish (and expensive) set that had been built to represent Shangri-la, although the commissions reduced the running time by only a few minutes. The relationship between Capra and Cohen became so antagonistic, that the director was able to successfully sue the director.
Today, Lost Horizon survives only in a lovingly reconstructed, but flawed print. Nearly 7 minutes of shots are missing, and have been reconstructed with publicity still and freeze frames. Nevertheless, it is a masterpiece of filmmaking. However, the ideology presented in the movie is pretty problematic when examined today. The Eden-like Shangri-la, surrounded on all sides by the high Himilayan mountains, was founded by a Belgian priest, who stumbled into the valley half-frozen to death. Although it is its unique geography and natural bounty that make it paradisiacal, the European serves as the “shrewd, guiding intelligence” who “teaches” the native inhabitants how to build his utopia. The second in command is Chang, a Chinese character played by white actor H. B. Warner (who would go on to play the druggist Mr. Gower in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life). When the priest, who has now become the High Lama of Shangri-la is ready to die, he bestows control over paradise not to Chang, but the Conway, a European who was brought in against his will. On the other hand, some of its ideas were ahead of its time. Conway’s ant-war speech to his shocked brother, for example, and scene that was cut when the film was re-released during World War II, lest the film appear unpatriotic.