Dir. Frank Capra. Starring Ronald Colman, H.B. Warner, Thomas Mitchell
While watching this movie, I couldn’t help but ask myself what device they were going to use to make sure Bob (Colman) left Shangri-La so we’d get our big finish. What they eventually choose is not bad on its face—Bob’s brother George (John Howard) has been restless for a long time, and finally sees his chance to escape—but it’s badly muddled from the first and by the end is totally anticlimactic. George finally prevails on Bob, who has been tapped to be the next High Lama of the joint, by bringing in a surprise witness. His girlfriend, Maria (Margo), cries that she has tried to escape for years, that she has been ill-treated, that she has been imprisoned for stretches by Chang (H.B. Warner). Bob is convinced by this story, runs off during the funeral of the previous High Lama (Sam Jaffe), and promptly discovers that the Sherpas are treacherous (and reckless), that Maria really was born in 1888, and that his brother’s fuse has a limit. It’s a great big rush to nowhere, as if we’d piled into the minivan together, crabbing at each other all the way, and then realized that, wait a minute, the party is next weekend. We’re totally absent a payoff.
The movie’s final act features the almost entirely off-screen antics of Bob Conway: he is rescued from the Himalayas, loses his memory, regains his memory, flees the grasp of a well-meaning English adventurer many times, and returns, at long last, to Shangri-La. (There’s some controversy as to whether or not Bob actually gets back; personally, I think it’s fairly obvious that he makes it back given a shot of the lamasery, but beyond that, this is a Capra movie from the ’30s. It would be far more interesting if Bob left Paradise and found the angel with the flaming sword on his return journey, but there’s no way that the movie could have taken that bold step given its time and makers.) It is a badly miscalculated ending, and probably has its roots in the movie’s tortured production history. Capra, inevitably, made one of those numbingly long pictures, ignored the lessons of what happened to other directors who brought six-hour cuts to the production company, and saw the thing cut down to a little over two hours while basically eviscerating the tail end of the plot. The movie before Bob’s “escape” is pretty good even if it gives ample time to scenes which just aren’t very interesting. The early scenes before anyone knows about Shangri-La are tense; the plane Bob and his comrades are flying on is hijacked without any reason given, and of course there’s the added threat of the Himalayas aside from whatever damage the pilot might intend to do to them; After a little time in Shangri-La, the movie starts to pull at its seams. The romance is no good, with the possible exception of one couple to be mentioned later. One has no idea what Isabel “that white trash Emmy Slattery” Jewell is doing in this movie after about twenty minutes. Perhaps worst of all, Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton fall out of the movie’s focus and we start to understand just how white bread our hero is compared to his somewhat earthier buddies. After Bob’s “escape,” there are no redeeming qualities to the picture whatever.
It’s a shame, because even if it’s not Capra’s best work, it’s certainly the one with the clearest political message of any Capra film until, maybe, It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie takes great care to show us that its protagonist is being called back to London after a daring escape from an unfriendly Chinese city in which he has masterminded the airlifting of ninety “white people,” a phrase which is used more than once and which just feels totally bizarre. (Who else would an Englishman rescue? Who else would the Americans airlift out of Saigon or Phnom Penh?) Despite the fact that he is something of a popular hero in England—no small feat in the mid-1930s—he is deeply dissatisfied with his life. He can’t help but feel that his life is leading up to nothing much at all; he can feel the maw of forever creeping over his shoulder, ready to devour him without having left anything meaningful behind. Mercifully for him, Shangri-La presents centuries of peaceful living unmarred by war or greed, cruelty or poverty. It is a place where the emptiness of life falls away into splendid bliss. If men work, it is because they feel ashamed not to. Sondra (Jane Wyatt), a longtime resident, teaches music. After a period of great paranoia because of the “mysteriousness” of the place, the paleontologist professor Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) decides he wants to teach geology in order to give back. The sometimes swindler and full-time plumber Barnard (Mitchell) discovers the gold in the mountains around Shangri-La but eventually decides to forego his prospecting to set up modern plumbing in the village. The High Lama (Sam Jaffe) tells Bob at one point that the underlying philosophy of Shangri-La is to “be kind.” In a place where everyone has been socialized with that mindset and there are no external threats, it’s not hard to believe that it’s possible. (One still takes issue with the fact that the white people choose to work, while one assumes the native Asians are doing the hard work of farming and upkeep.)
Lost Horizon is maybe the Orientalist fantasy of the 20th Century. As the West changes, experiences the Great Depression and breathes deep before World War II, Shangri-La is a place which hasn’t changed in so many decades that it has practically lost historical context. Before being kidnapped alongside Bob, Lovie expects to be knighted for the purely scientific work he’s done in paleontology; coming to Shangri-La is primarily disturbing for him because of its great mystery and its seeming distaste for rationalism. Bob finds what he’s looking for in the simple, pared down wisdom of the East; meanwhile, everyone falls over themselves to modernize the place which appears to be doing just fine without any of those modern touches. Nor does Barney, who out of all the Westerners come East tries to do the most useful thing for the people of Shangri-La, seem to consider that indoor plumbing might have some small connection to the woes of the Western world. Admittedly, Lost Horizon fails to engage in the sexual imagery that otherwise exemplifies Orientalist thinking, although we may have been “saved” that based on the old-fashioned racism of the ’30s. Nor is there any serious excuse for the backwardness of the movie’s vision of the East, considering that Shanghai Express beat it to theaters by five years and was about a million times more insightful.
The movie’s great saving grace is the buddy comedy played out by Lovie and Barney while the Conway brothers are sniping at each other about geopolitics and snapping up every fertile white girl in sight. Lost Horizon isn’t a Celluloid Closet movie, but all the same there’s chemistry between Mitchell and Horton’s characters. Barney teases Lovie about his supposed womanliness, from the surname transformed into a girlish term of endearment on down to Lovie’s propensity to worry about every little thing. Barney works in finance and plumbing, two significantly earthier professions than Lovie’s hoity-toity professorial gig. In return, Lovie scolds and berates Barney like the shrewish caricatures of talkative wives from the period. There may not be a scene for the two of them intended to be romantic, but then again the heterosexual affection in Lost Horizon is pretty weird on its own merits. (Bob and Sondra have their first kiss after Sondra’s pretended to be an annoying little girl, complete with falsetto, and Bob pretends to “wring her neck.” It’s, uh, really something.) If Lovie and Barney do fall for each other, neither man is going to admit it. Barney appears to strike up a relationship with Gloria that has, in terms of age and interaction alike, something more paternal than romantic. Lovie writes in his diary that he feels good enough to sow a wild oat or two and gives himself a rakish glance in the mirror, as if to convince himself that’s what he’s really after! No matter. Presumably the two of them will live long enough and happily enough in Shangri-La to figure out what they really want.