Lost Horizon (1937)    2 Stars

“Mightiest of all motion pictures!”

Lost Horizon (1937)
Lost Horizon (1937)

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton

Synopsis: A plane crash delivers a group of people to the secluded land of Shangri-La — but is it the miraculous utopia it appears to be?






It has to be said that the philosophy behind Shangri-La, the utopian society to which foreign diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman – A Double Life) is brought, doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Someone has to grow the crops, and clean the clothes; someone has to tend to the sick and infirm and someone has to take away your rubbish and bury it in a hole in the ground. Society is hierarchical because that’s the only way it can possibly work. As for the idea of giving your woman to anyone who takes a fancy to her, as put forward by the High Lama (Sam Jaffe – The Scarlet Empress, The Barbarian and the Geisha), well you don’t have to be too intelligent to see how that isn’t going to work. Funnily enough, the dotty old Lama, who somehow manages to stand upright despite having only one leg and being 200 years old, makes no mention of women giving away their men in this enlightened society.

You can sort of understand why Conway’s brother, George (John Howard) is so intent on getting away from the place. He’s one of Conway’s fellow passengers on a flight of refugees from an uprising in the Far East who find themselves brought to Shangri-La simply because they were on the same plane as Conway, and George just wants to get back to civilisation. Most of the other passengers initially feel the same way, but they gradually change their minds as time goes on and no porters arrive to guide them back from the remote valley in which Shangri-La has flourished untouched by the modern world.

Lost Horizon isn’t a typical Capra movie, despite an ending that’s intended to be uplifting. It paints a pretty picture of life in paradise, and boasts some impressive sets, but it does nothing to explain or justify Shangri-La. It probably didn’t matter so much back when the film was first released, but modern audiences might struggle with the artificiality of it all. Colman gives a convincing performance, though, and Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, It’s a Wonderful Life) and Edward Everett Horton (Shall We Dance, Holiday) manage not to be too annoying as the obligatory comic relief. However, Jaffe as the ancient High Lama unintentionally provides a work of comic genius, overshadowing Mitchell and Horton’s pieces simply by staring off into space with a crazed yet beatific smile as he recites his lines. Female members of the cast include Jane Wyatt, who has little to do other than be bowled over by Conway, Mexican actress Maria who falls just as hard for Conway’s brother despite his constant moping, and ‘30s stalwart Isabel Jewell (Gone with the Wind) as a fellow traveller who finds her terminal illness going into permanent remission during her stay.

(Reviewed 10th December 2014)

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