BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
"LOST HORIZON: 80th ANNIVERSARY EDITION"
Blu-ray, Digital HD copy; 1937; Not Rated
Best extra: A new 30-page digibook presentation with essay, cast bios, and behind-the-scenes photographs.
THE 45-YEAR struggle to restore Frank Capra's most ambitious film, "Lost Horizon," is over.
It joins three other Capra Collection classics: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "You Can't Take It with You," all previously restored in 4K and released on Blu-ray, with digibooks from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Capra's adaptation of James Hilton's 1933 novel follows British diplomat Robert Conway, played by the dashing Ronald Colman, and four others hijacked to Shangri-La in the Tibetan Mountains, where time stands still.
"It's one of the most important pieces of literature in the last decade," Capra wrote in the 1937 official premiere souvenir program.
After sweeping the 1935 Oscars for "It Happened One Night," Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin began work on "Lost Horizon." Two-and-a-half years later, it hit the silver screen after significant changes to the storyline. A romance between Conway and Sondra (Jane Wyatt), was added along with transformation of the character Gloria (Isabel Jewell), who was a missionary in the book became a prostitute with tuberculosis. The delightful Edward Everett Horton provides comic relief as a paleontologist, who carries a dinosaur bone. Capra hired war journalist and Tibetan explorer Harrison Forman to research and detail the culture, customs, and clothing for "Lost Horizon" to establish authenticity.
It only took Hilton six-weeks to pen the adventure of the "secret mountain pass" that would transport Conway and company into the warm utopia of Blue Moon Valley, existing outside the known world. At the valley's center, a gentle, 200-year old High Lama (Sam Jaffe) cares for an ancient Tibetan monastery. Film historian Jeremy Arnold writes in his enclosed essay that Hilton was compelled to write "Lost Horizon" because of his "unease about the state of Europe, with its slow steady drumbeat toward" World War II.
"Lost Horizon" gained bestseller status in 1935 after radio commentator Alexander Woollcott praised it over the airwaves. Hilton's next novel, "Goodbye Mr. Chips," was an even bigger success.
But Capra's film was a troubled production. Budgeted for $1.25 million, it was the most expensive Columbia Studios' film to date. By the time all the bills were paid, including the prints and advertising, it topped $2.6 million. This created a huge wedge between Capra and studio chief Harry Cohn. "It almost sank the studio," retired Los Angeles Times Arts Editor Charles Champlin says in a ported commentary recorded in 1999 for the original DVD presentation.
All of Columbia's other movies that year, around 20, didn't even cost $2 million combined. "It was a big, big gamble," says Robert Gitt, who supervised the restoration. Much of the location photography was filmed throughout Southern California, including the Santa Monica Mountains north of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and the panoramic high desert country near the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains. To ensure authenticity for the sub-freezing scenes, Capra filmed inside the largest icehouse in L.A., where its 13,000 square feet of floor space could handle sections of a DC-2 plane and a mountain façade. The temperature was set at 24 degrees to ensure moviegoers would see the frosted breath of his cast.
Capra's original rough-cut was over six-hours long. A disastrous test screening in Santa Barbara, Calif., ran nearly three-and-a-half hours causing audience walk-outs. In a major overhaul, Capra cut the film down to 132 minutes. It premiered in March 1937, with two screenings per day and reserved seating. Capra may have won the Best Director Oscar for "Mr. Deeds" three weeks later, but Cohn trimmed it more – to 118 minutes for its general release in September. Small-town American theaters made even more cuts. Moviegoers still flooded the theaters, but because of its excess production costs, "Lost Horizon" wasn't a moneymaker. President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested a print for the White House. Then, asked where the American B-25 bombers surfaced for the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo during the early days of World War II, FDR replied, "Why, they came from Shangri-La!"
"Lost Horizon" received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won golden statues for Best Editing and Art Direction.
During the commentary, Gitt chronicles his worldwide search for 24-minutes of film and soundtrack that vanished after a World War II re-issue cut the film's pacifist message. On top of that, the original camera negative had deteriorated by the late 1960s. "The starting point wasn't very good" he says.
The restoration started in 1973 when the American Film Institute (AFI) commission Gitt. Varied negatives ranged from a clean and workable second-generation 35mm print (1.37:1 aspect ratio), to 16mm TV prints from Canada and France for missing segments. Within the last decade, newly found footage – less than 60 seconds – fills a gap during Conway's first meeting the High Lama. The entire soundtrack was discovered in England, but six minutes has been lost forever. Still frames and photos of the characters are used for the missing footage.
The 4K restoration began five-years ago by scanning the prints and removing every single mark, scratch, tear and blemish. Sharpness varies, with the 35mm source providing an admirable experience; there's only the slightest degrading of sharpness compared to an original camera negative source. Film grain is also slightly larger than normal, while the gray scale is balanced from highlights to solid shadows, with respectable black levels. However, when the 16mm footage pops into play, sharpness drops off dramatically. It's obvious even to the untrained eye. Also, mid-tones don't hold as well. Yet the overall result, with the restored footage, is a welcome sight.
The soundtrack has also been cleaned up, removing pops and hiss, and giving Dmitri Tiomkin's score a nice, full sound within its original two-channel mono on the uncompressed DTS HD. The Blu-ray also includes an alternate ending, a 30-minute photo documentary, and three deleted scenes.
Hats off to Sony for this latest effort, and its commitment to preserving and restoring the work of Frank Capra – Columbia Studios greatest director.
— Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer