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Lost Horizon: The Far Flung Paradise Found Classic (1937)

Lost Horizon
Public domain

Lost Horizon

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Back in the 1930s when cinema style and substance exhibited a populist streak born of immigrant dream factory idealism, director Frank Capra was a one man creative force and film marketing team. Long before the corporate days of movie production by committee, he had almost complete artistic control over his celluloid product. The only captain to steer his auteur ship, he turned Columbia Pictures from a poverty row studio into one of the majors. And after he had proven himself with breakthrough cornball dramas like It Happened One Night, to build upon his track record, he'd and conceive and contemplate a blockbuster.

Lost Horizon, based on the 1933 novel by James Hilton and adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin, was an apt adventure for the times, the story of rescue mission thrill seekers who venture off to the Far East to save stranded westerners only to get lost themselves in the Himalayas due to a hijacking gone bad. Classic leading man Ronald Colman plays the soldier diplomat head of the group, H. B. Warner the guide and Sam Jaffe the High Lama priest who usher and lead them to Shangri-La, a fantasy like realm tucked amidst the bitter cold away from civilization where wisdom is blissfully subtle, life seems eternal and no one ever grows old.

Support for this grand vision picture is well rounded out by a paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), grifter (Tom Mitchell), a sick tag along, (Isabell Jewell), native Jane Wyatt and others, John Howard and Margo, who wish to return home. The conflict arises when it is revealed to Ronald's character that the plane was purposefully hijacked to kidnap him and secure his service to help ancient Lama Jaffe who in passing away taps Colman to preserve the future of the pristine paradise. Those who plan to leave face tragedy in doing so when nature outside the dream world turns Margo her true age and her shocked love Howard does himself in.

Having won Oscar nods for film editing and art direction, it was a high concept epic for its day. Yet the film came in well over budget and had to be cut for length by half when test audiences took it the wrong way. Further turmoil over its final edit release length and Capra's contractual compensation made the background surrounding its red tape debut a trial by fire. But in the long run, after further content cuts and a re-release in the early 40s, it finally turned a profit and evolved into the well received classic that hit movie lovers know today. If destined to be downsized, the end result was saved by a stellar cast and a timeless plot line to survive the ages.

Despite political controversy over utopian subject matter and Far Eastern relations, its quest for a paradoxical perfectionism of humanity held a universal thematic appeal in spite of undiplomatic overtones. Short of becoming his masterpiece due to issues of over cost, overrun and loss of control over the final cut, history treats it as Capra's foray into big budget territory that proved fruitful with the passage of time. That it was able to persevere as too big a project to fail was as much a testament to the source material as the will to maintain Capra's quality trademark. For a treat worthy of leading man Colman, get this on DVD to find his main event horizon.