Friday, March 02, 2012

Lost Horizon

In the annals of movie history, there have been few film directors whose works have enjoyed the enduring popularity of Frank Capra's.

Maybe that is because you always know what you're going to get when you sit down to watch a Frank Capra movie. The mere mention of his name evokes a mental image of relentless optimism — of Jimmy Stewart waging a quixotic battle from the floor of the Senate or discovering the influence of a single life on everything it touches and, in the process, is persuaded not to throw away his own.

Audiences in the 1930s and 1940s consistently made Capra's movies the top money makers — even when Capra and his movie audiences weren't exactly on the same page.

Yes, you always knew what you were going to get with Capra. Or did you?

Columbia Pictures probably thought it knew what to expect 75 years ago when Capra was making "Lost Horizon," the film that was released on this day in 1937. He'd been money in the bank for Columbia in the past.

But "Lost Horizon" was a financial disappointment. It cost nearly 40% more than its original budget figure of $2 million (quite a lavish sum in 1930s dollars), and it was nearly five years before the backers broke even.

The more lasting damage was done to Capra's relationships with Columbia and screenwriter Robert Riskin, with whom Capra had built his reputation. In the preceding five years, Capra had been nominated for Best Director three times — and won it twice.

He wasn't nominated for his directorial work on "Lost Horizon," although he should have been. It was a bit of a departure for him.

Of course, Capra was mostly known for his work in comedies — and, to an extent, dramas — but "Lost Horizon" was really more of a fantasy.

And, while it would be fair to characterize many of Capra's movies as, at least, dabbling in fantasy, it was never as prominent as it was in Capra's film version of James Hilton's vision of paradise, the fictional Shangri–La, where there is no crime or hate, where wisdom is prized, self–improvement is encouraged and the age of 100 is roughly middle age.

But, of course, such a utopia cannot last, at least not for the outsiders who stumble into it. Consequently, one of Capra's trademark happy endings wasn't possible (as if the title didn't make that quite clear).

It was a challenging and ambitious project for Capra, and he deserved more credit and recognition for it than he received — but the truth remains that it was the only film he ever made that was nominated for Best Picture (or, in its earlier incarnation, Outstanding Production) for which he was not also nominated for Best Director.

That doesn't mean he didn't make a lot of critical decisions, especially in post–production. He cut back on the film's length, jokingly claiming that he merely lopped off the beginning and started the movie where the real action begins.

The truth is, he appears to have done a lot of meticulous editing from the heart of the film. He didn't just lop off the first 15 minutes.

I've seen both the edited and restored original versions, and I think Capra may have done his most skillful work on "Lost Horizon," whichever version was seen. The edited version seemed seamless to me.

It was an atypical entry in Capra's impressive body of work.