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Thursday, July 24, 2014

LOST HORIZON (1937)

Inundated by digital restorations, director’s cuts and instant access, movie mavens never had it so good. (Certainly never better at home. Back at the Multi-Plex, a less attractive universe.) And for those who look more to the past, the birth of the preservation revolution can be pegged to three high profile reconstructions, curated in the ‘70s & ‘80s out of compromised, hard-won sources: Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON/’27; George Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN/’54 and Frank Capra’s LOST HORIZON/’37. Each mutilated by their own panicked producers after commercially disappointing initial runs with 20 or more minutes of trimmed material purposefully destroyed to avoid any artistic second guessing. More resurrection than restoration, their second-coming premieres were very big deals in a way now hard to imagine. NAPOLEON and STAR selling out Radio City Music Hall and HORIZON @ the then Graumann’s Chinese Theater. So, huzzahs to the restoration pioneers. (And to the hardy audiences who bought the tix!) Of the three, Capra’s pic is the most problematic both as a film and as a restoration.* A woozy anti-war fable that plants a motley group of Caucasian stragglers from strife-torn China into Shangri-La, a timeless paradise that plays out like a White Man’s Burden fantasy, set in a sort of International Style Hollywood estate meant for the Barcelona World’s Fair. With a society that’s like a benevolent Mini-British Raj where culturally advanced Euro-types wisely rule over happy, laboring Asiatic Peasants. How Capra, with his Sicilian chip-on-the-shoulder/underdog background, failed to pick up on author James Hilton’s paean to class-divided purgatory is the one true mystery in the film. Fortunately, he manages some excitement, especially in the prologue and, with a magnificent understated perf from Ronald Colman, staves off self-destruction from sheer silliness. (Not so of the far more disastrous ‘73 musical remake.) Or does until the wrap, a Hail Mary pass even Capra couldn’t make. (Hey! It's another unintentional double-take review! Check out our thoughts from six years back.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Ronald Colman’s second go at James Hilton was in RANDOM HARVEST/’42, a gasp-worthy amnesia weepie. Absurd as it is, the cast, direction and plush, studio-bound M-G-M æsthetic are so all-of-a-piece, the damn thing is positively irresistible.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *While the soundtrack for the original 132 minute running time was intact, visual gaps remain, filled in with pan-and-scanned production stills. That’s okay, as are the grain variations sourced from different surviving prints. But restoration techniques have come a long way since chief restorer Robert Gitt worked his wonders. Hopefully, the inevitable Blu-Ray release will take a fresh look at everything.

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