Lost Horizon (1937)

22 05 2009

While this is pretty far from my ideal set up (it is a “fantasy” film after all) I found it to be, by a very wide margin, the most impressive feature I’ve seen from Frank Capra yet. It’s a fantastical science fiction and theological mess on paper, but Capra’s earnest and genuine expression shines through his rather stilted material. Even though it is an adaptation, it seems like the sort of film that is so achingly personal that to recognize it as anything less than a near sacrifice to express something would be the greatest of insults to not only Capra, but the rest of the cast as well.

Now I get a very personal sentiment from the Capra films I’ve seen as well – they are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life, but for some reason I never was able to accept the romanticism and sentimental nature of Capra’s images. I’m not sure why; Ford and Borzage provide a similar tone in their best work and I never had trouble connecting with their work. Truth be told, I guess Capra is more of a magical realist than a melodramatic romantic. In all of his other films I’ve seen, the magical tone comes from miracles, improbable events, physical and mental sacrifices. There’s signs of those elements here, but they seem dominated by the biggest fantasy element in the entire film – the town of Shangri-La itself.

My half-developed logic is flawed, I admit, but the story itself is purely fantasy with real, believable characters injected into the drama. This is, at least in my opinion, the inverse of Capra’s other films. Realistic situations with unlikely occurrences – both emotional and physical carrying a majority of the narrative’s development. On the other hand, though, maybe Capra’s general “fantasy-esque” realm of cinema just needed the aid of some poetic cinematography. This is the first of his films that I can say is visually stunning. Another 180 degree turn from the Capra I know, the visuals in his other films are so dry and simplistic, almost on purpose it seems.

Surprisingly, I found Capra’s romantic longings (or at least the cinematic manifestation of them) to be more genuine and perhaps even more pronounced than the average Borzage film. I’d say Capra comes much closer to reaching the spirit of Borzage’s silent films with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farnell than Borzage’s output afterward did. In other words, he’s kind of out-Borzage Borzage here. The reason behind this, though, seems very obvious to me. Capra had this one personal project to unleash everything he was holding within himself, while Borzage had a seemingly unending stream of opportunities for personal expression.

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One response

22 05 2009
Sebina

Great points, especially about Capra’s romantic longings in creating a sort of fantasy and romantic world, and still making it very simple and realistic.

When looking at his earlier work, most notably the films he did with Barbara Stanwyck like Ladies of Leisure, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden, and The Bitter Tea of General yen, his style is much more rough and realistic somehow, bringing out Stanwyck’s so-called street-nature realism, at that point in time.

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