this could have a dozen titles--"movie review", "it's good for you", etc., but i'm going with "not all that flickers is gold".
this past saturday i indulged myself one of my life's pleasures to go and see an old movie, and it so happened that the opportunity was to see frank capra's "lost horizon" at arts emerson's theater in downtown boston. theirs is a beautiful little screening room, up there on the fourth floor of their totally replicated art deco theater, and the projection equipment, sound, seating, screen, etc. are all just perfect, even if a little small and the showings a bit sparsely attended. (if you're a filmie but haven't quite caught on to the fact that movies are social experiences made more emotional by sharing them as part of a larger audience, you haven't quite caught the full bug). you should go sometime.
but not to see frank capra's lost horizon.
those unfamiliar with capra will "aha" to know he's the guy behind "it's a wonderful life", these days sacharinating our christmas television season with its zuzu's petals and all manner of cloying sentimentality, but that's a bit unfair, cuz, despite all that, truth be told, "it's a wonderful life" is a perfectly wonderful movie. (if you aren't burned out from watching it one hundred too many times). in fact, a lot of capra's films are quite similarly good, even if just that little bit short of perfection via just a little bit too much cliche (back in the day they called it "capra-corn"). "mr. smith goes to washington", "mr. deeds goes to town", "meet john doe", etc., are all like that, and certainly worth seeing in a theater any chance you get. i like 'em. they're fun. and then there's "it happened one night" (the entire men's undershirt industry cratered when clark gable was seen in it bedding claudette colbert without one) and "arsenic and old lace", two of the best movies you'll ever see. ("it happened one night" is the first of only three movies in the history of film to sweep best actor, actress, director, screenplay and picture awards). can't help but consider the potential in any capra movie, and give benefit of doubt, and make the effort to check it out.
so it is that i've long heard of capra's lost masterpiece, "lost horizon". back in '36, on the heels of "it happened one night", capra got a blank check to adapt james hilton's story of shangri-la, and he spent every penny he could lay greedy hands upon. (the budget in 1936 depression dollars was estimated to have reached four million dollars, an amount not even surpassed by gone with the wind three years later, which involved clark gable, vivien leigh, color film, and the burning the entire city of atlanta). the legend of the movie itself was just as lavish, with the original prints having been lost for decades, and only the fawning praise of capra acolytes to describe it.
but sony pictures and an apparent army of industrious and devoted souls got ahold of a complete soundtrack which could provide the framework for a piecing together the tattered and decayed remants of the film found languishing (rotting, actually), in vaults and steamer trunks all around the world. (you really don't know how to piece together film fragments if you don't have the complete film to go on). even so, a full 7 minutes of the picture could not be found anywhere on earth, so an artful montage of still photographs was used to compliment the dialogue and render a somewhat complete experience of the 1937 box office version of the film.
and it's really bad. i mean, it's really, really bad. a little digging turns up some trivia factoids that mr. capra, besotted by his own hubris, brought the picture back into the studio at a running length of over 6 hours. those columbia pictures folks thought it was so bad, that studio head harry cohn demanded capra replace several actors and re-shoot whole sections of it to try to salvage the millions already lost. the next version, "new and improved" and slimmed down to a svelte 3 hours, was screened in hollywood for the cogniscenti and bombed so badly a second time that capra went into seclusion and the studio took it back, demanded almost another full hour of deletions, and finally let it out to the limited public at a portly 132 minutes. (this is the verison i saw). almost out of pity the academy gave it oscars for the sets and the editing, but it was mere weeks before the studio had lopped off another quarter hour of drivel and dreck, and continued it on its way to the 95 minute version many people might remember seeing way back when.
what do i really think?
i'd like to think that amidst the original 6 hours are fillings for all the holes that are so rife throughout this wreck of a film. but, even then, so many of the performances here (john howard's brother george is so colossally bad) are so painful to watch that i understand completely why everyone was so exercised about its length and insisted it be mercifully cut to pieces. the cinematography, though lush and rewarding in spots, is so jarringly inconsistent, that it's patently obvious that location crews had vastly different approaches to trying to wrestle this white elephant into the can. one of the scenes, (the opening), is remarkably good. others are passably so. the interior sets in shangri-la are indeed scrumptious. (i also like the interior of the plane quite a bit). some of the outdoor photography was just fine, too. (jane wyatt's body double doing the full nude long shot swimming in the mountain pool was particularly memorable, especially since even the TWO signed affadavits insisting said girl wasn't nude, required by the california censors so the film could be released, can't hide the naked truth she was completely in her altogether, and pretty awesome, too). but then the reality of well over two hours of life being lost to this thing sets in, and you start to add up the unforgiveable bits. particularly amusing were margo's eyelashes, quite hysterically mismatched during her closeups. (her acting is almost as bad as howard's, too). the screenplay is incomprehensible. for every chuckle at thomas mitchell and edward everett horton cracking themselves up with droll buffoonery you have hours of pretentious and preening dialogue delivered for no descernible purpose. (the final summary delivered as a monologue is particularly embarrassing--even the director obviously figured out it his story was incomprehensible, so he just had an actor explain everything that was supposed to have happened instead of actually showing us. (you'd think in over two hours he could have squeezed in a minute or two here and there). yeah, i liked mitchell and horton, and h.b. warner, marginally so too, as well as coleman and wyatt. but isabel jewell's patented gun moll patter was laughably stupid (she did have one good line--her first, but it was all downhill from there) and a person could go on and on about the rest of the horribleness of it. (though, unlike capra, i won't anymore).
like i said, the opening scene is remarkably good, and a few minutes of the performances (out of 132) were decent, too. it stands as one of those "good for you" experiences, that i can now confidently say that i've seen the macguffin, and don't have to take anyone's bullshit that i should ever have to see it again.
not all that flickers is gold. we live and we learn.