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Ross Hunter's maladroit 1973 musical Lost Horizon has over the years been the butt of many jokes and snide remarks. Ross Hunter represented old-fashioned Hollywood glamour and scored big with his retro- soap opera airplane jeopardy movie Airport. But when he waded into the dangerous, woefully outdated cultural territory called Shangri-La, his movie and a bushel of talented actors sunk into the quicksand of AMR: Awful Movie Remakes. Lost Horizon has enjoyed a strong video life as an ugly duckling musical, ever since a 1990s laserdisc restored scenes that had been cut during its initial release. It's definitely a guilty pleasure movie.
The storyline of Lost Horizon closely follows Frank Capra's classic Ronald Colman version from 1937, using that film as a virtual storyboard for many scenes. Diplomat Richard Conway's latest peacemaking effort in Southeast Asia has failed, and he must flee with several other Americans on a small DC-3. But in place of Hong Kong, the plane takes them high into "the unexplored region beyond civilization" in the west of China. Crashing on a mountain peak, they are miraculously rescued and taken through the deep snow to an incredible place called Shangri-La, in The Valley of The Blue Moon. There the weather is always pleasant, sickness and need are unknown, and peaceful harmony reigns. Richard immediately feels as if he belongs there, especially when the pleasant Catherine (Liv Ullmann) smiles in his direction. The survivors become guests in the palace of the mysterious High Lama (Charles Boyer), who has not admitted a visitor in years. Shangri-La has little or no contact with the outside world, yet seems to know exactly what's happening elsewhere. The head monk Chang (John Gielgud) affords his guests every accommodation but avoids questions about how they got there, or when they can leave. Richard's younger brother George (Michael York) falls in love with young citizen Maria (Olivia Hussey) but is frustrated by Richard's lack of desire to return to civilization. Engineer Sam Cornelius (George Kennedy), suicidal Sally Hughes (Sally Kellerman) and optimistic entertainer Harry Lovett (Bobby Van) all find reasons to stay in Shangri-La forever. The High Lama divulges secrets about the purpose of Shangri-La, and why Richard was brought there, but his story is so fantastic that Richard is afraid to believe it. The High Lama says that people in Shangri-La grow old very slowly and that he himself is over 200 years of age. Richard has been chosen to be Shangri-La's next leader, to keep it safe until the war-obsessed outside world is ready to embrace its wisdom.
Initial reviewers of Lost Horizon tripped all over one another to fashion the cruelest put-downs in print. Unfortunately, most of what they complained about is true. The production is tacky in almost every respect, with the High Lama's palace a poor revamp of a leftover set for 1967's Camelot. 1 The palace grounds look tossed together by Southern California pool & garden landscapers and the interior sets do indeed resemble generic Holiday Inn décor, with a bland 'oriental' theme. The visitors' casual designer wear is equally flaky. One reviewer claimed that he could see Reader's Digest books in the Lama's library. I think that was a stretch. Speaking for myself, I'm tempted to also have a jolly time thinking up clever ways to criticize Lost Horizon. I'll try to stifle that.
The screenplay by Larry Kramer (Women in Love, The Normal Heart) recycles the same Hilton dialogue used by Frank Capra, with an extra pile of clichés. The script handles exposition well but almost everything else about the characters is very, very thin. The original long cut of Lost Horizon is at least fifteen minutes longer than Capra's version. Since the hero spends most of the story loitering around Liv Ullmann, trying to avoid his brother's entreaties to leave for home, the pace of the movie has a serious drag factor.
Frank Capra had to throw all of his directorial tricks at his original version to make some of his character stuff work. Without the cinematic fireworks (and the rapturous Dimitri Tiomkin score) some of the characters in this remake are left adrift. Peter Finch is the center of attention and fares the best. In her big Hollywood debut, poor Liv Ullmann has nothing to do but smile at Finch and become distraught when he leaves. Michael York and Olivia Hussey have tidy character arcs to play and emerge in one piece. Sally Kellerman and George Kennedy unfortunately have the corniest material. John Gielgud collects a paycheck, and Charles Boyer's High Lama doesn't inspire us for a minute. It all adds up to a real liability.
By 1973 the Hollywood art of making musicals from scratch had been all but lost. Burt Bacharach and Hal David's songs and lyrics express a little of the joy of Shangri-La, but fail to resonate with the deeper philosophy, partly because there really is none (more on that later). The light songs tend to feel inconsequential. The heavy songs, with Peter Finch sing-talking about his self-doubt, are deadly bores.
Lost Horizon's musical kiss of death is its attempt at dance choreography. The famed Hermes Pan is billed, but it's unclear what exactly he did. Few of the actors are suited to musical work. Sally Kellerman can sing and most of the others are dubbed reasonably well. But when it comes time to dance, the actors swing their arms lamely and walk in rhythm to the music, as if vamping for a camera rehearsal. Kellerman and Hussey prance around the library and slide on an oak table in agreeable fashion, but can't defeat the reality that they offer no performance to speak of, just the pretense of dancing talent. And this is supposed to be a big Hollywood musical.
Kellerman sings the bouncy song "Reflections" to George Kennedy at the side of a little pond. She does little more than feign some body language while standing in place, finishing with a fairly pathetic little twist action. It's so insubstantial that we can sense Kellerman's feeling of defeat in the weak little "Yay!" she squeaks out at the end, as the next scene dissolves in. The director Charles Jarrott is no fool; was he proud that most of the number was recorded in one take? Liv Ullman marches a pack of happy kids up a hill, swinging her arms to the beat of "The World is a Circle". This works better given the Kindergarten setting, but audiences thought it a pale attempt to evoke the vibe of The Sound of Music. One would never know that Ullmann is one of the most accomplished actresses in the world.
I didn't mention Bobby Van up above, as his Harry Lovett comedian character ends up stealing what show there is to steal, by default. Van was a veteran of the MGM Freed-Pasternak musical heyday, a bright and funny guy (and a great dancer) who came along as the bubble burst and didn't get attached to very many big projects... his most noted title is Kiss Me Kate. Harry Lovett stays reasonably optimistic and stress-free and is more pleasant to be around than his fellow passengers. His jokes are inoffensive. Best of all, Bobby Van has authentic dancing talent. His one number "Question Me an Answer" sees Harry entertaining and dancing with a brace of little Shangri-La school kids. The number is nothing earth shattering but it conveys real personality. The dancing is real dancing, and it's directed for the camera like a real dance number (and unlike most of Lost Horizon). In Westwood screenings, the song always got applause. 2
It needs to be said that the update of Lost Horizon needed major changes, and didn't get them. Hilton's very dated book sells the fantasy that one might withdraw to a 'better place' where none of the world's evils can get at you. The Lama says that the world is hopeless and that the best thing that Conway can do is let it blow itself up and pick up the pieces later, a "philosophy" of conservative defeatism that assumes that "now" can't get worse and that the apocalypse is nigh.
Screenwriter Larry Kramer didn't update Shangri-La one bit: it's still a racist paradise where noble whites live in a palace and are waited on by docile people of other races. Lost Horizon's Shangri-La is the country club & gated community cure for the human condition. Everybody knows their proper place. The High Lama's choice to preserve something special (what? transcendental meditation?) for when the world is ready to accept it, reminds me of the sinister plan in another political fantasy. In Joseph Losey's These Are the Damned a pompous bureaucrat solves the nuclear apocalypse problem by locking up a group of radioactive children, and waiting for a nuclear war. When the rest of the world is dead, the poisonous children will be set free to go forth and multiply. In other words, saving the world means encouraging the world we know to be destroyed. The High Lama has already written off humanity.
In this context Richard's impatient brother George gets a bad rap. He's absolutely right: Richard's place is back in the mess of international diplomacy, trying to avert wars and save lives. Even in Capra's brilliantly produced 1937 version, Lost Horizon's white-man's-fantasy is vaguely offensive.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Lost Horizon is a treat for musical fans that appreciate the misses as well as the hits. The HD transfer looks far better than Columbia's original first-run prints, which tended toward blue-green. The 5.1 audio track also improves on the Westwood premiere engagement. Besides Twilight Time's expected Isolated Score track, we get a promotional featurette with Ross Hunter, an alternate quasi-musical scene "I Come to You", some trailers and TV spots. Of especial interest are a series of Burt Bacharach Song Demos, with the composer previewing most of the main tunes. Julie Kirgo's professional liner notes concentrate on the filmic careers of James Hilton, Ross Hunter and the musical's impressive cast of stellar names.
As a lowly usher at the National Theater in Westwood, I worked the Lost Horizon premiere and several weeks thereafter. Nobody at the theater ever called it a Road Show, just an exclusive engagement. The premiere was a big deal where I got to see a bushel of stars in just a few minutes. The ones I remember well are John Wayne (his friendly smile filled the room) and Tony Curtis (who was surprisingly short and feminine-looking). The theater manager chewed me out by because I failed to guard some seats. The film's director or art director (I forget which) pushed me aside and took the seats for his friends. Then they took turns telling me what an ingrate I was, trying to keep them from seats they deserved. When gathered into a crowd, Beverly Hills and film business people back then tended to act like scum. Most real celebrities were friendly and generous to long-haired student movie ushers.
There weren't many walkouts during the run, but after the first week the picture didn't do much business. Once when I stepped into the auditorium in my blue fake tuxedo usher costume, a man in a suit with glasses asked me what I thought of the movie. I must have been in a wild mood that day, because I said something like, "Man, nothing can save this picture!" I found out a few seconds later that the man was Ross Hunter. Unlike the incident with the roped-off seats, there were no repercussions. I think Hunter may have agreed with me.
I've read in more than one place that the 1990s laserdisc reinstated scenes cut before the premiere. I saw Lost Horizon at least 25 times and can state unequivocally that in Westwood the whole movie as presented on this Blu-ray was shown ... for maybe ten days. Then a fat little editor arrived from the studio. I got paid extra ($1.85 an hour, I think) to show up early and let him in. He went to a booth and started pulling footage from reels, following notes written on an envelope. Audiences laughed at the pageant song "Living Together, Growing Together"; the next time the show played it was missing. At least two more slow 'walk and talk' introspective songs were yanked out as well, making the show perhaps fifteen minutes shorter. The editor simply rolled the deleted scenes up and stuck them in his pockets. Big tape splices went through the projector where the scenes had been taken out. This, I realized, is what must have happened with The Wild Bunch four years earlier, when the movie played a week and then was suddenly ten minutes shorter, with big splices where flashbacks once were. The same thing happened again at the National Theater a couple of years later with Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love. Robert S. Birchard laughed when he reported that the marquee read "Ten Great Cole Porter Songs!" one day, and "Eight Great Cole Porter Songs!" the next.
The theater manager played the Lost Horizon soundtrack in the lobby in an unending loop, which means that I listened to that record ad infinitum for five weeks straight. This accounts for a strange personal nostalgia for the movie and its music. There is a reason that the song "Share the Joy" sounded familiar: it is really the same song as Bacharach's "Here I Am" from his earlier What's New, Pussycat? Listen to them sometime.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lost Horizon Blu-ray rates:
1. At least, that's the story that's been repeated down the years. Parts of the exterior set appear to have been sprayed with stucco. A later 'mission hospital' is, unless I'm mistaken, the mission set from The Sand Pebbles. Many exteriors are either Fox's Malibu Ranch or the ever-popular Bronson Caverns, covered with fake snow. Variety's quote bite reads, "Lavish musical adaptation... superbly mounted", but despite the big names on the credits and some impressive mountain and aerial photography, Lost Horizon cuts budgetary corners at every opportunity. In no way does it approach the 1937 original's grand designs, sets, and special effects.
2. The applause for Bobby Van is well earned, but by the time his musical number "Question Me an Answer" comes around, so much of Lost Horizon doesn't work that audiences jumped at the chance to applaud anything. It's like attending an Olympic swim meet, only to find that most of the participants not only are not champions, they don't know how to swim. If you really love movies, it's important to see Lost Horizon '73 every so often, to clear away the cobwebs and "Share the Joy." I can now retire a battered VHS taken from TV.
What Savant correspondents had to say about Lost Horizon as reviewed here.
From correspondent Richard Kaufman:
Hi Glenn, I read your review of Lost Horizon with interest ... not many people can say they watched the original uncut version at least 25 times!
While the Pioneer Laserdisc did have some musical material restored, there's a lot more added on the new DVD (and now, blu-ray). But one piece that has been talked about repeatedly in still not on the blu-ray: a reprise of "Living Together, Growing Together" with George Kennedy and Sally Kellerman that was to have taken place right after his improvised irrigation system is turned on. You don't mention this in your review, but am wondering if you have any recollection of it? -- Thanks, Richard Kaufman
From correspondent "B":
Dear Glenn: We have corresponded so much about this show over the years that your fine review was nearly anti-climactic; nonetheless, great stuff. I would point out that the Pioneer laserdisc of the picture only partially restored the cut numbers; it was feared at the time that the original materials were in fact simply gone. Well, someone at Sony must have really cared about this particular white elephant and spent a bit of cash to locate the trims and completely restore the movie for what must have been originally planned as a mainstream dvd release. All of the numbers are back, of course (plus an alternate take or two), and the film is as you note in tip-top shape, at its premiere running time. [I haven't seen the Twilight Time disc -- this is based on my repeated examination of my Columbia MOD disc that was released last year.] Your story about the fat little editor from the studio is priceless.
I haven't seen the picture on a screen since 1973, but I did strain my eyes looking closely at the shelves in the Shangri-La library and I saw spines that certainly looked like Readers Digest condensed book anthologies. The film does follow the '37 picture's adaptation of the Hilton book pretty closely. Though scripter Larry Kramer hardly took the brunt of the blame for the film's failure, under contemporary WGA rules, he'd be further insulated -- today Kramer would certainly share credit with original screenwriter Robert Riskin. While it is true that Peter Finch "fares the best" of the cast, he still can't carry the movie. [He can't sing either, and his voice double doesn't sound much like him.] It isn't simply that he isn't Ronald Colman -- though it has been said that if Capra hadn't been able to get Colman to play Conway, he might not have made the film -- Finch is a reactive actor and lacks Colman's charisma and, well, star power.
Ultimately, whether the material is dated or not (and it is), what's significant here is that hardly anyone associated with the production seems to believe in it to any extent whatsoever. Frank Capra, I think, believed in Hilton's thesis -- whole cloth. Which is why the '37 film retains power and even meaning.
Terrific piece. Best, Always. -- B.
From correspondent Gordon A. Thomas:
Glenn, your review of Lost Horizon is a masterpiece. Even the idea of this film means so little to me I almost didn't read it. But I'm glad I did! In spite of your being very even-handed, your survey of the picture was hilarious, and your memories as an usher are fabulous, especially your witnessing the editor and the Ross Hunter encounter. This is utterly excellent! (I wonder if a musical version of Die Nibelungen would work... Elton John and Tim Rice?)
Feeling better about the day, Gordon A. Thomas
From correspondent Eddie Holub:
Hi Glenn, You provided me with a much needed chuckle when you left out the word "Colman". When you were referring to the Capra classic, you wrote, "...classic Ronald version." MacDonald? LOL. I was watching a little of the MOD version the other night and the song and dance number between Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman still makes me cringe, largely through embarrassment.
I couldn't agree more with you when you say that Shangri-La is more like a white man's dream world where all the tough chores are done by the whipped natives. The scene that made me laugh was right before George Kennedy discovered gold in the river bed. He's trying to maneuver his bulky body down the little foot path, but those damn slaves carrying buckets of water keep getting in his way. Why the hell isn't HE carrying water buckets, I laughed to myself.
The story about how you were abused as an usher at the theater makes my blood boil. Yours was truly a lose/lose situation and confirms what I've always thought about low level Hollywood types. Have a great holiday and .......................... proofread. -- Thanks, Eddie
From associate & advisor Dick Dinman:
Hey Glenn, Your terrific Lost Horizon piece brought back vivid memories of the "Lost" Sunday when all of us in the film buying department were forcibly compelled to attend the special exhibitor's screening at the National (Vas you dere, Charlie?) of this amazing misfire. As I remember the first half hour was politely received by the exhibitors in attendance as it was a reasonable (and tuneless?) approximation of the original. But once the the "songs" (if thats what you can call them) commenced upon arrival in the moth-eaten Shangri-La I could feel the suppressed laughter and restlessness which was palpably pervasive during the seemingly endless running time.
My date was an especially hot young lady who became increasingly desperate for us to leave mid-film but as a rather frazzled looking Ross Hunter was sitting directly behind us we stuck it out with great reluctance. For weeks after that my fellow film buyer/booker pal Gary Burkhart and I were mercilessly mimicking the swinging arm choreographic fiascos every time we could. Ah, memories. -- Cheers, Dick Dinman
From Marc Bessette:
Hi Glenn. Thank you so much for the great review of Lost Horizon.
I am a great lover of film and I have been ever since my parents brought me to my very first drive-in in Plattsburg, New York while on a camping trip. I must have been 4 or 5 years old. You see, I grew up in Montreal where children were not permitted to attend movie theaters until the laws changed in 1961 due to a horrific theater fire that occurred in 1927 (see this link for that tragic story). Theaters across the border and, in particular, drive-ins across the border were our only venues.
I digress.... Your review brought back memories. Despite my love of film, Lost Horizon was the first of only two occasions when I actually walked out of a theater before the movie ended. Some say that this picture was never shown as an in-flight movie amidst fears that passengers would do the very same thing. In any case, Lost Horizon certainly succeeded in making time stand still !
I read your reviews religiously and look forward to each installment.
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