Few directors have created films that have survived the test of time. Sometimes films are so much a product of their time that later generations are just unable to relate to them. Frank Capra was one of the most innovative and motivated directors and producers of his time. His films were commercially and critically successful, but Capra’s career was not without its challenges. Lost Horizon debuted in 1937, starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. Though the film was well received, the experience of producing it nearly wrecked Capra emotionally. Capra was a visionary director and it was hard for him to compromise on his vision. For example, the film was originally over 6 hours long. Capra trimmed the movie down to 3 ½ hours, but it was still too long to show in theaters. Much to the dismay of Capra, Columbia Pictures removed even more footage so that the final running time was 132 minutes. In 2013, Sony Colorworks restored the black and white film. There were a few places in the film where the actual footage is missing and photo stills were used to fill in the gaps.
Lost Horizon is an adaptation of James Hilton’s novel of the same name. The movie wastes no time getting into the action. British diplomat Robert Conway (Colman) is tasked with evacuating 90 Westerners from the city of Baskul before the armed revolutionaries arrive. Robert and his brother George (John Howard) just barely make their escape. Also aboard the aircraft are three civilians anxious to return to England: the paleontologist, Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), the swindler, Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and a very ill woman named Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell). They believe they are heading back to England, but hours later they realize their aircraft has been hijacked. While George is ready to attack the pilot, Robert remains calm and manages the situation so as to prevent the passengers from erupting into madness. In fact, throughout the entire film, Robert Conway is the epitome of spiritual Zen. There isn’t anything that seems to faze him. Rather, he views every incident as part of a journey that he’s supposed to experience, which drives his younger brother, George, nearly insane.
After a long and arduous journey, the five captives arrive at a beautiful valley, completely shielded by the tall snow capped mountains. Everything is plentiful in this peaceful village. Yet, everyone, except Robert, remains suspicious. It is not until Robert speaks to the founder of this town (Sam Jaffe) that he understands that their arrival was no accident. Shangri-La is a paradise where there is peace and prosperity. The inhabitants live for hundreds of years, and they do not suffer from illness or poverty. Almost immediately, Gloria makes a complete recovery from her illness due to the magical properties of Shangri-La’s medicine. Sondra (Jane Wyatt), one of Shangri-La’s inhabitants, is familiar with Robert Conway’s work, and she believes Robert is a valuable asset to Shangri-La. Robert develops feelings for Sondra. Unfortunately, Robert’s brother, George, and one of Shangri-La’s other residents, Maria, can’t wait to escape Shangri-La. Lost Horizon perfectly demonstrates why peace on earth is so elusive. Some people become uncomfortable and lose their sense of direction even when there’s unadulterated peace. Most humans crave and therefore seek drama because it gives them a sense of purpose and identity. Robert is torn between his love for his brother and this newly discovered bond for Shangri-La and Sondra. He learns that sometimes life’s journeys are not always linear, but that he will ultimately end up where he needs to be.
Frank Capra never did anything on a small scale. Lost Horizon cost so much money that it was financially in the red for several years. When I was in a high school, I had a film teacher who said that it was the editor for the film, Jaws, that saved Steven Spielberg’s career. The editing can make or break a film. In its original form, Lost Horizon would have been far less successful because it was much too long and slow. Every artist sometimes gets so caught up in their vision that they don’t see exactly what is in front of them. Capra was a genius, but he was also human.
From the moment Capra decided to make Lost Horizon, he had decided that Ronald Colman would play the role of Robert Conway. Capra even delayed production for Colman because Colman was contractually obligated to work on another film. Jane Wyatt went on to enjoy one of the longest careers in Hollywood. Most people probably know her best as the mother from the television series Father Knows Best. Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell were also very successful character actors. Mitchell played Scarlett O’Hara’s dad in Gone with the Wind. Dimitri Tiomkin, who composed the music for many of Hollywood’s epic films like The High and The Mighty and Giant, wrote the musical score for Lost Horizon. During his career in Hollywood, the legendary composer was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music twenty-two times.
In his works, Capra inserted some fantastical elements to explore life’s most complex questions. In Lost Horizon, Capra places his characters in Shangri-La to show that human nature is always capable of good and evil despite being in a magical paradise. Each character responds differently to Shangri-La. Some find contentment, while others feel anxious and angry and are prone to starting drama. Paradise isn’t a place, but a state of mind. People dream of immortality and peace, but, unless they are already at peace with themselves, no paradise can save them from their own discontent. While making this 1937 film was no easy feat for Capra or for Columbia Pictures, Lost Horizon earned its rightful place in Hollywood as a cinematic masterpiece.