(director: Frank Capra; screenwriters: Robert Riskin/novel by James Hilton; cinematographer: Joseph Walker; editors: Gene Havlick/Gene Milford; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Ronald Coleman (Robert Conway), Edward Everett Horton (Alexander P. Lovett), H.B. Warner (Chang), Jane Wyatt (Sondra), Sam Jaffe (High Lama), Thomas Mitchell (Henry Barnard), John Howard (George Conway), Margo (Maria), Isabel Jewell (Gloria Stone); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Frank Capra; Columbia Classics; 1937)
“Capra’s most challenging film is both naive and pleasantly uplifting.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Frank Capra (“Arsenic and Old Lace”/”It’s A Wonderful Life”/”It Happened One Night”) and writer Robert Riskin base the utopian fantasy film on the bestselling 1933 novel by Englishman James Hilton. Columbia gave it a big budget treatment and Stephen Goosson built the elaborate set for its stunning Shangri-La setting. The original length was 132 minutes, but because of its pacifist message during the Second World War it had 24 minutes clipped off it. It was restored in the 1970s by archivists at UCLA, but they couldn’t recover seven minutes of film and thereby subbed stills in its place. Capra’s most challenging film is both naive and pleasantly uplifting, as its admirable yearnings for a better world by practicing kindness register even if the pic is too enamored with its kitschy sets and superficial weepie sentimentalities to score as great art.
Ranking unhappy British foreign diplomat for eastern affairs Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman), worried that there’s too much greed, vulgarity and brutality in the world, supervises the evacuation of over ninety Brits from the war-torn city of Bakul, China, and takes the last flight out with his moody younger brother George (John Howard), the interminably ill prostitute Gloria (Isabel Jewell), the self-absorbed fusspot paleontologist Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) and the scam-artist plumber Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell) whose utility company he founded bilked the public and left the disgraced swindler on the run from the police. When their small-plane pilot is secretly removed and a mysterious Mongolian replaces him, the plane heads for the Tibetan Himalayas instead of Shanghai and crash-lands when out of fuel in an isolated unexplored part of Tibet–a place that their local monk rescuers call the Valley of the Blue Moon. The pilot dies and the five survivors are met by the kindly elderly Chinese monk Chang (H.B. Warner), who supplies them with warm clothes and with the aid of porters escorts them up a steep mountain path in a winter storm to a place called Shangri-La that was founded some 200 years ago by a missionary Belgian priest, Father Perrault. He is astonishingly still alive and is called the High Lama, in charge of the place. Shangri-La is a utopian place, with always ideal weather, that reigns in peace, good health and longevity. Because of the massive mountains surrounding it, it has no means of communication with the outside world. If it needs supplies, a village some 500 miles away provides porters, who are paid in gold that is an abundant natural resource on the utopian premises. The monastery’s philosophy is to do everything in moderation and to deal with earthly desires by not totally giving in to them but finding a middle-road way of absolving any conflicts.
While Robert finds his stay relaxing, the others want to leave and pressure him to ask the High Lama to provide porters to take them down the treacherously steep one-man path of the mountain. When Chang discloses to Robert that the plane was hijacked to specifically bring him here on the recommendation of the cultured Sondra (Jane Wyatt), who read his visionary books and figured he would fit in to being part of their revolutionary idea of creating a perfect world and bring new blood and hope to their experience. Sondra was raised here when her explorer parents died in a mountain accident, and believes in the visionary place fully. It’s further revealed by the High Lama that he will soon die and wants Robert to be his successor. Only problem is an hysterical George insists on leaving or believes he will go mad and wants Robert to go with him. George also wants to take his lover, the 20-year-old Russian girl Maria (Margo), with him, even though big brother tells him the monk’s believe that once you leave Shangri-La you will age as you were previously and that his Maria arrived here in 1888. The film’s unintentional funniest moment was catching the look on George’s kisser when Maria turns into an old hag when they are outside the confines of Shangri-La.
The appealing film was a big box-office hit that caught the escapist mood of a western world still reeling from a Depression. When viewed today, the classic film loses much of its luster and its utopian visions pale besides more valued Buddhist teachings and seem more like Hollywood schlock.
REVIEWED ON 1/21/2013 GRADE: B