ARTS

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April 23, 2002

Doc Spotlight

About six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, General Jimmy Doolittle led B-25 bombers off the carrier Hornet on a secret mission to bomb the Japanese homeland. When newsmen asked President Roosevelt from where the bombers had come from, he replied, "They came from our new secret base at Shangri-La." Later, Roosevelt used the moniker "Shangri-La" for the presidential retreat now known as Camp David. Shangri-La is the mysterious and wonderful city of Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton, and Frank Capra's 1937 film adaptation. Capra's film will play at Doc this Thursday at 7.00 pm.

Frank Capra, the influential director of such films as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and Arsenic and Old Lace, wanted to direct Lost Horizon immediately upon reading the novel. The themes of the novel appealed to his sensibilities, and it's difficult to conceive of a better director to adapt Hilton's work to the screen.

Lost Horizon (the novel) presents the story of a British diplomat brought to the utopic society of Shangri-La, nestled high amid the barren and forbidding peaks of the remote Himalayas. In the novel's frame story, Lord Gainsford relates the incredible events as Conway, the British diplomat, relates them to him. Conway has a reputation as a brilliant young diplomat who suffered greatly from the effects of the bloody collapse of civilization between 1914 and 1918. He boards a plane in China on official business, and the plane disappears. When he reappears battered and bruised, weeks later, in a small village below the Himalayan Mountains, he has suffered a complete memory loss. It is not until later, in the company of Gainsford, that his memory returns, and he relates the story of his experience after the plane crash in Shangri-La.

Conway has fallen in love with Shangri-La, a peaceful utopia removed from the problems of the international and domestic world around. The mountains surrounding its valley both afford favorable meteorological and agricultural conditions and make their location virtually impossible to find and impenetrable to outsiders unfamiliar with the single, tiny entrance. A lamasery above exists in harmony with the valley, and a High Llama sits in paternal oversight. The health of every individual benefits from the clean life and environment, and from the absence of malice and stress. Conway's sensibilities agree with the peaceful and pacifistic composition of the society, but he is forced to leave because of another passenger in the plane, his junior in the Foreign Service.

Upon completing his narrative, Conway announces his intention of returning to Shangri-La, despite the difficulties and possible futility of the mission. Gainsford tries to restrain Conway, but Conway escapes from their ship. Gainsford pursues him for weeks, to no avail. Conway has no proof of Shangri-La. Perhaps it exists; perhaps it is a figment of Conway's imagination and a reaction to the modern world. Gainsford himself does not know if he should believe Conway's story, but he knows he wants to believe in Shangri-La, and hopes that all people could also believe.

In his effort to create Shangri-La, Frank Capra brought in the skilled veteran Robert Riskin to adapt the novel for the screen. Fundamentally, the story remains the same as in the novel. The frame story was written and filmed, but eventually removed before the film's release due to poor test-audience reception. Riskin replaced Conway's Foreign Service junior with his brother, George, and introduced a true love interest named Sondra. Riskin also expanded the relative importance of the Conway's fellow passengers brought to Shangri-La against their will and their eventual acceptance of a conflict-free environment. While introducing love stories and tampering with an excellent book often leads to unfortunate results on the screen, Riskin's writing greatly assisted in creating the wonderful film from a book largely consisting of discussions and introspection, and almost devoid of conflict.

Columbia placed great stakes on Riskin's script and Capra's direction. Lost Horizon would be the most expensive film Columbia had ever made. In addition to the Riskin and Capra collaboration (they had already worked on seven films together), Columbia assembled a remarkable and seasoned cast. Ronald Colman takes the role of Conway. He was one of the most talented and accomplished leading men of the period after his big break in 1923, when Lillian Gish chose him as her co-star. He quickly became a favorite of silent romance and action films, including Stella Dallas (1925) and Beau Geste (1926). When sound entered the cinema, many personalities proved incapable of making the switch. Colman's mellifluous speaking voice and theatrical training allowed him to thrive in such films as A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

The captivating actress Jane Wyatt plays Conway's love interest, Sondra. She began her film career in James Whale's One More River, and generally chose only creative roles. In the film, comic relief often comes from the endearing pair Lovett and Barnard, played by Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell. Horton, who had collaborated with Ernst Lubitsch several times, was a stalwart and wonderful presence in many Hollywood comedies. Mitchell is instantly recognizable from his performances as the drunken doctor in Stagecoach, Cary Grant's fellow pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, and the inebriated but noble newsman in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the lamasery, Mr. Chang is played by veteran actor H.B. Warner, who portrayed respectable characters from his role as Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) onward, and Sam Jaffe delvers a magnificent performance as the ancient yet brightly idealistic High Lama.

Filming for Lost Horizon included new soundstages at Columbia, the lamasery location on the Columbia ranch (in Burbank), and at a huge warehouse. The lamasery provides the central architectural feature of the film, and was created as a full-scale building, a much smaller model, and as a painting in process shots. There is nothing Tibetan about the lamasery, but Capra dismissed criticism along such lines with the simple logic that Shangri-La is not Tibet. However, at least one rejected production design had a distinctly more Tibetan look. The final construction is a U-shaped building, with a reflecting pool, stone paths and hanging gardens in the center. The lamasery features rounded colonnades and vertical, wrought iron details, as well as flowering trees and vines. The model and paintings give the impression that this lamasery sits high above the valley, but is still dominated by the mountains around it.

To convey the idyllic nature of the valley, Capra shot around many striking California locations, including Sherwood Lake and Sherwood Forest. One California waterfall provides a wonderful backdrop to a sequence of Conway and Sondra on horseback. Capra and his talented director of photography, Joseph Walker, presented this like an Albert Bierstadt painting, including the stag drinking in the pool at the bottom of the cascades. The Sierra Nevada Mountains doubled as the Himalayas behind flying sequences, and, in one sequence, Victorville (a filming location for John Ford's Stagecoach) became a Tibetan plateau.

Several scenes were filmed in the 13,000 square foot Los Angeles Ice and Cold Storage Warehouse. A frequent complaint of filmmakers shooting films set in extreme cold on soundstages with artificially-created 'snow' had been the impossibility of simulating visible breath. The entrepreneurial owner of this warehouse realized that with his facility, the reproducible lighting and set-ups of a studio could be had, but with the actual cold needed for ice and the visible breath impossible to achieve in a studio. Capra moved in for several weeks, and shot sequences in the plane, the mountains after the plane crash, and Conway's departureĀ— all filmed at 20-24 degrees.

After principle photography was completed, Dimitri Tiomkin set to creating one of the most memorable and appropriate film scores Hollywood had ever heard. Reportedly, Max Steiner offered encouragement and even conducted the final score, but the work is entirely Tiomkin. His Russian conservatory training manifests itself in the deft use of chorus and Tchaikovskian emotion (generally more sweeping and holistic than Steiner's Germanic scoring and marked variance of pieces within a film). The score combined with Walkers photography of the Lama's funeral procession makes that sequence among the most hauntingly beautiful in cinema. Lost Horizon was Tiomkin's first great score in Hollywood, though it was preceded by a very nice work on Mad Love in 1935. His career would continue for almost 30 more years.

The film had gone over budget in production and took years to turn a profit. However, everyone associated with the production of the film was proud of it, and rightly so. It is the magnificent manifestation of a wonderfully noble novel, done with creativity and style, and a very pleasing (if not overly complicated) philosophy.

In 1973, Columbia decided to produce a second version of the novel. Peter Finch, George Kennedy, Michael York, John Gielgood and Charles Boyer starred in the ill-advised outing. Today, this version of the film attracts only fans of Burt Bacharach, who provided the music for the universally panned film. Perhaps utopian philosophy does not translate well into saccharine songs like "Living Together, Growing Together," and "The World is a Circle." However, all is not lost, because it was this same year that the American Film Institute (AFI) began their effort to restore Capra's original Lost Horizon.

The AFI knew that Capra's film opened across the country running 132 minutes, and had subsequently been cut down in several re-releases. They conducted a survey with the purpose of finding a print of this original cut of the film, as the negative and positive donated by Columbia Pictures were not complete. The AFI found no complete prints of the 132-minute version of the film, and to this day none have been found.

The fate of Lost Horizon is by no means unique. Film preservation only represented a priority to studios when a potential profit could be seen. King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game, and many more high profile films from the early 1930s were re-released within the decade, cut and trimmed to suit production codes and because a shorter total run-time meant more shows per day. Occasionally, a studio would sell the rights to a film to another studio wishing to remake that film. Universal sold the rights to James Whale's wonderful 1932 film The Old Dark House to Columbia, who remade the film in 1963. Without the rights, Universal could not re-release the original 1932 version, and it was left to rot in studio vaults. It might have been lost forever if not for the efforts of a few individuals.

President Roosevelt's comment referring to Shangri-La encouraged Columbia to re-release the film during the Second World War under the new title Lost Horizon of Shangri-La. Potentially unfriendly references to American allied nations were removed, as were some of the more overtly pacifistic statements, especially those by Conway in the plane. Only truncated prints like these later releases, running 108 minutes, or ones running up to about 120 minutes, existed in 1973.

When the AFI surveyed the condition of these prints, all shorter than 132 minutes, the numerous and different prints were found to run for various times and to contain different material from the original. The AFI began what would be an on-going 25 year project to restore the film. The target of the restoration was Capra's wide-release print, after the director himself had removed the framing sequences from the beginning and end of the film following a Santa Barbara premiere. They had no intention of "modernizing" film; that is, of altering the film to take advantage of later production development. This includes colorization and re-recording of the sound design.

The AFI did manage to find one complete version of the film, but it was a complete version only of the film's soundtrack. Columbia's British offices had sent the British Film Institute (BFI) a print and a separate soundtrack, and when these were inspected by the AFI, the soundtrack was found to be a complete 132 minutes. The BFI photographic print, however, was incomplete. With a complete soundtrack from a single source, however, the entire restoration has a consistent sonic quality.

The photographic images have come from a variety of prints. Bob Gitt, who joined the project at the AFI in 1974, and other restorers have selected the highest quality images for every sequence from the prints containing that sequence. The majority of the film came from the prints Columbia donated, but additional sequences have come from an old projection print found on Warner Brothers property that had been Columbia's in the 1930s, trims from 1937 found in the Library of Congress, and a pre-release, very short rough-cut of material that Columbia had produced for exhibitors to see. The restorers found one print containing material not in any 35mm prints in a French-Canadian television station's dubbed 16mm print, and a couple of sequences (most notably Conway's pacifistic sentiments during the first night on the plane) come from this less-than-ideal (but welcome) source.

The assembly of sequences from various prints can lead the photographic imagery of the film to appear inconsistent. The nature of the film grain, contrast, and apparent condition of the original material can change between scenes, or even cuts (at one point just one line). While this condition is unfortunate, Gitt and the various restoration experts at the AFI, UCLA and Columbia are to be commended for their efforts. The photographic imagery for a complete 132-minute print may never be found, but the undertaking to re-create the film Capra created, as he created it, though it may be forever incomplete, is the best we can hope for.

When Conway leaves Shangri-La, he knows he might be unable to come back. But he makes his best effort to return to his ideal. Similarly, the restoration team has tried to bring us all back to the ideal of the film's original releaseĀ…the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon. In considering the future of the film, and all films in need of restoration and preservation, perhaps the words of the High Lama should be invoked: "I am placing in your hands the future and destiny of Shangri-La."