Monday, October 16, 2017

LOST HORIZON - Now With More Found Horizons

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt star in LOST HORIZON (1937).
I watched Sony's newly 4K-restored 80th Anniversary Blu-ray presentation of Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON last night, which is now only 6m shy of its initial preview length. While I continue to enjoy the film a good deal, I find myself increasingly unsure of whether the continued effort to restore this early cut is doing the overall work more damage than service. Though the newly uncovered footage is undeniably interesting, it generally only lengthens scenes already doing their duty, so that the film feels more rambling, unfocused and frankly self-enamored than the last time I saw it (probably the very reason prompting the cuts in the first place).

It's easy to see how Capra could have been seduced into the prospect of making the most of what he had, because few directors before him had been more indulged. The budget, including the construction of the dazzling Shangri-La, reportedly ran to $1.5 million (equal to more than $25,000,000 today), and Capra's initial rough cut is said to have run six hours. There is much about it that could not possibly be bettered (Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt particularly), but even if those six minutes (represented here by surviving soundtrack and production photos) were recovered, the film would still be lacking answers to some aggravating questions - like why the Russian woman character played by Margo wants so desperately to escape an apparent Paradise.

Shangri-La, designed by Stephen Goossen.
Among the various extras, the disc includes two further deleted scenes not added to the main feature for lack of audio, but the commentator does a remarkably good job of looping them. There is additional footage of a funeral ceremony culled from the only surviving camera negative - which, despite the commentator's heightened endorsement, looked no better to me than anything in the 4K restoration. But it was all too easy to see how Capra and his cinematographer Joseph Walker could have fallen in love with the visual options at hand and gone completely overboard. There is a wonderful Busby Berkeley-type shot of the torch bearers ascending a spiral staircase, seen from below - and it's eye-popping until you realize, my God, this shot is going to need at least three minutes to complete its design!

Also restored is the Harry Cohn-demanded alternate ending, which was in place for most of the film's theatrical release but has not been generally available for somewhere north of 60 years. The two endings pose a difficult choice; the familiar one supports the film's conception of Shangri-La as a form of faith, while the alternate one makes it more tangible and unambiguous and gives the audience exactly what it wants. I like them both, but only one really supports the ideas carefully woven into the story. 

Another thing about the ending: are we sure that the actor in protagonist Robert Conway's final closeup is actually Ronald Colman? It doesn't look like him to me, and the uncertainty of this - especially coming after so much stock footage of snowy mountainsides - may be the real reason we respond to having Jane Wyatt brought back there.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.