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The Lost Horizon (1937) – Paradise Never Quite Found

download (1)A movie about paradise in the Himalayas? I wasn’t sure that sounded interesting to me, but since I have recently been watching Ronald Colman films, I thought I would give it a try. But in truth, I have not entirely made up my mind about Frank Capra’s 1937 The Lost Horizon. It looks lovely, is well acted and is an intriguing concept, but seems to have many of the usual pitfalls found in stories about paradise or utopia.

Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is a celebrity in England; a writer and soldier and statesman who will be appointed the Foreign Secretary when he returns from China. But meanwhile, he is in China during the revolution and is trying to get a bunch of European people out of the area. To his chagrin, however, the planes are only for Europeans and the countless Chinese refugees are simply left behind.

On the last plane out of town, there are only a few Europeans left to board: Conway, his brother George (John Howard), paleontologist, Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), on-the-run corrupt financier Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and Gloria, a young lady who is terminally ill (Isabel Jewell). But unbeknownst to them, their plane has been hijacked and instead of being flown to Shanghai, they are flown towards the Himalayas. The plane crashes and while they are stranded in the snowy mountains trying to decide what to do, they meet a group of people who agree to take them to their home, Shangri-La.

Shangri-La is an apparent paradise and greatly impresses Conway, though the rest of the group is anxious to find a way to return home, especially George. Shangri-La lies between the mountain peaks and is mysteriously protected from the elements. While there is snow all around, Shangri-La is sunny and warm and productively growing things. But it soon becomes apparent that there is more going on then meets the eye.

Horton, Howard and Colman look out the window of their plane and wonder where they are going

Horton, Howard and Colman look out the window of their plane and wonder where they are going

Above the valley, is a palace where the leader, Chang (H.B. Warner), takes them. It is a magnificent palace, full of rare artifacts and luxury. Chang is rather vague, but eventually Conway manages to learn that he was brought to Shangri-La deliberately – on the strength of his books he’s written that show he’s a dreamer and disillusioned with civilization – and Chang wants him to meet their High Lama (Sam Jaffe)

The High Lama is a Belgian priest who came to Shangri-La several hundred years ago – people age very slowly there, because age is apparently more of a mental state than physical one – and had a vision of civilization destroying itself. Ever since, he’s been collecting artifacts and treasures and bringing it to Shangri-La with the idea that when civilization does destroy itself, Shangri-La will still be there, with all the history and art preserved. Conway experiences what could be called a religious conversion, certainly a moment of enlightenment. It also turns out that the High Lama is dying and wants Conway to take his place leading the community.

Conway also meets Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt), whose parents died near Shangri-La and was raised there by the High Lama since she was a child. They fall in love, naturally. Meanwhile, against all expectations, Lovett, Barnard and Gloria begin to make themselves at home in Shangri-La. Horton as Lovett is the film’s one source of humor and he is an absolute hoot (as he always is). He goes from suspicion to cautious optimism (he keeps a diary and writes down that he feels like sowing a wild oat…or even two). Gloria’s health returns, Barnard begins to unselfishly make plans for improving Shangri-La’s water transportation and Lovett teaches geology. But George is not happy to be the casualty of the venture, stuck there despite his frustration. All the High Lama can say is that it was unfortunate that George is there, but that it is now Conway’s problem (not exactly helpful).

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H.B. Warner, Isabel Jewell, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, Ronald Colman – they want to know what, exactly, is going on

George has also met a young lady, Maria (Margo). But unlike everyone else at Shangri-La, she is not happy and has fallen in love with George. Chang says she can’t leave because she’s over a hundred years old and would quickly age and die if outside Shangri-la. George tries to convince his brother that Chang is lying and get him to leave with him.

The Lost Horizon is certainly an interesting film, almost a beautiful film. But despite how taken Conway is with Shangri-La, there is definitely a dark side. For one, Shangri-La seems to be run mostly by Europeans (with the exception of Chang) and all the happy and productive natives seem to work as their servants. It looks like a European fiefdom. And despite all the culture they are rescuing from the world, the natives don’t seem to be partaking in it, still living in huts and farming while Chang and the other Europeans live in the palace. Hmm. And if it’s such a paradise, why is Margo so desperate to escape?

Shangri-La is also a trap. In that it resembles Brigadoon, actually. It traps you with long life and health and then you can’t leave without losing all those things. Both stories also have a similar ethos; the desire to get away from all the clutter, venality, war, temptations, hollow striving for success and return to a simpler and peaceful life. And like Brigadoon, those people ungrateful enough to scorn the gift they are given simply die. It’s a bit harsh.

It is not entirely clear to me if the audience is meant to draw these conclusions or not. The film ends mostly on a hopeful note of longing, hoping that all people can find their Shangri-La. Whether we are meant to consider that hope a tangible one or merely wish-fulfillment, I’m not sure. Frank Capra films are often like that. He mixes sentiment with an underlying dark view of the world and it’s not easy to parse through the cynicism and hopefulness to get to the core of his point, because he genuinely seems to believe in both at the same time. It seems like a contradiction, though perhaps it could be argued that life really is a contradiction of hope and despair.

Conway talks with the High Lama

Conway talks with the High Lama

It’s a long film – 132 minutes – rather slow moving, though I was never bored despite the extended philosophical discussions that succeed more in aura than in sense. The acting is also excellent, especially by Colman. The Lost Horizon is based on a 1933 novel by James Hilton, who also wrote the books Goodbye, Mister Chips, Random Harvest, and The Story of Dr. Wassail – all of which were turned into movies – and I plan on reading The Lost Horizon very soon. It must be no accident that both the movie and the novel came out in the 1930s, when the entire world was definitely heading towards bloody, destructive war and hatefulness, lending an aura of truth to the High Lama’s vision, though unlike his expectations, the world did not end up destroying itself.

Bu stories about utopia and paradise have always failed to sound like any place I would particularly like to go. People are too diverse and though, theoretically, it might be possible to imagine a world that would make me perfectly happy, I could never imagine a world that would make everyone else happy. And in the attempt to reconcile all people, paradises inevitable wind up inflexible. And they always seem to lack that spark of something, spark of vibrant life, that makes life worth living. Paradises come out sounding a trifle bland or dreamlike.

Shangri-La

Shangri-La

Though I have speculated that perhaps it is the result of a failure of moral imagination. We are simply too rooted in the world we live in, with all the pain and suffering and hatred, that to strip those factors from our imaginary world leaves us in a state of mental impoverishment. There’s not enough left for us to construct a convincing or interesting world filled with only goodness. In that way, I’ve always found stories about utopias most interesting for what it says about humanity’s incapacity to fully imagine perfection. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist; just that it can’t be imagined.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in Movies

 

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Lady on a Train (1945) – Deanna Durbin Investigates on Christmas

lady-on-a-train-movie-poster-1945-1020416325Lady on a Train is that unique film, a Screwball/Christmas/Musical/Mystery. Actually, it’s not technically a musical, but because the film stars Deanna Durbin, the girl who reportedly saved Universal Studios (the home of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy) from bankruptcy in the mid 1930s with her frothy musicals, the film manages to provide three songs for her to sing during the course of her investigations.

Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) is on a train, coming into New York City from San Francisco to visit her aunt during Christmas. She is reading what appears to be a rather thrilling pulpy mystery (with eleven murders so far!) when she looks out her train window and sees a man murdered in a nearby building. She goes to the police, but they don’t believe her, so she goes to the author of the pulpy mysteries, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and tries to enlist his help. He gets dragged in, willy-nilly, while she discovers that the man who was killed was a not-so-nice business man named Josiah Waring. She sneaks into his house, just in time for the reading of his will.

She also runs into the family, which consists of Aunt Charlotte (Elizabeth Patterson) and his two nephews, Arnold Waring (Dan Duryea – his usual, delightfully creepy self) and Jonathan Waring (Ralph Bellamy). There are also two men who work at the house, a certain Mr. Saunders (George Courlouris) who walks around the now shut-up mansion  looking menacing with a white cat draped over his arm, and Danny (Allen Jenkins), who works under Mr. Saunders and also seems to be in on whatever secret Mr. Saunders seems to be in on.

2d1252d146647767665cc8debf876559At the house, however, Nikki is mistaken by the family for a night club singer named Margo Martin, to whom Josiah Waring has left everything he owned. Also while in the mansion, Nikki finds some slippers with blood on them that proves that a murder did take place and not just an accident, as the police believe. She smuggles the slippers out of the house and goes to the nightclub to masquerade as Margo Martin.

It’s an extremely fun movie, with a fairly good mystery, as well. It’s not in Agatha Christie’s class, but still manages to obscure who the killer is so that you are never 100% sure (I’ve seen some mysteries where I can pick out the villain the moment he/she walks into the room).

Deanna Durbin does a good job playing a young lady with an active imagination and great tenacity, somewhat naïve, always gung-ho, who is never much perturbed by events – she just keeps on investigating and ad-libbing and quite casually dragging people into it with her. Durbin had a beautiful, operatic voice, and the highlight song is her rendition of “Silent Night,” which she sings over the phone to her father, while Danny stands outside her room, about to steal the slippers back. He is so affected by the song that he has to wipe tears out of his eyes before he can go on with his work and conk several people on the head.

Deanna Durbin and Edward Everett Horton - with a black eye

Deanna Durbin and Edward Everett Horton – with a black eye

A real scene stealer (as he always is) is Edward Everett Horton, who is Mr. Haskell, the manager of her father’s New York Office who is supposed to be looking after her while she is in New York, though he keeps losing sight of her and gets himself punched in the eye, hit on the head twice and runs about looking for her and even has to bail her out of jail.

David Bruce plays Wayne Morgan, a somewhat hen-pecked boyfriend who’s model girlfriend makes him apologize several times a day for some reason or another. He is an enthusiastic writer – he likes to act his book out while dictating, falling on the floor and clutching his stomach – while his acerbic secretary hopes that she can trash his notes rather than type them. He is also game to help Nikki or fight some villains, though he is often more inept than useful, at one point taking the gun away from the brother who is trying to help Nikki and giving it to the murderer.

And of course there is Dan Duryea, the wonderful, snarky, snaky, menacing Dan Duryea. When he is at the nightclub with his aunt and brother, Aunt Charlotte is shocked that Jonathan (her favorite nephew, whom she is almost too fond of – she can’t stand Arnold) would dance with Nikki, since he ought to be in mourning and not living it up. Dan Duryea turns and looks at her and then says innocently to the waiter, “I’ll have a martini, please.” Aunt Charlotte gives him a highly reproachful glance. “With a black olive in it.” He then says to the waiter. It’s a very Duryean line and the way he says it is hysterical.

Deanna Durbin and David Bruce - knocked out again

Deanna Durbin and David Bruce – knocked out again

It’s the kind of film with people running around, chasing villains, being caught by villains, losing slippers, stealing slippers, murder and lots of mayhem. It’s also the kind of film where Nikki, when her dress is torn when she is locked into the real Margo’s dressing room, stops to change her dress (and hair) before looking for a way out. She then breaks through the one-way mirror and emerges to sing a Cole Porter song.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Comedy, Mystery

 

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Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Poster%20-%20Here%20Comes%20Mr_%20Jordan_121939 has long reigned as the acknowledged finest year in movie history, but I really think 1941 gives it a run for its money, though perhaps I’m biased. Many of my favorite movies come from that year. Here is just a sample of the wonderful year that was 1941: The Maltese Falcon, The Lady Eve, Citizen Kane, The Wolf Man, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Suspicion, Sullivan’s TravelsBall of Fire, The Little Foxes and many more.

Another wonderful film that came out in 1941 is Here Comes Mr. Jordan, with Robert Montgomery, the incomparable Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton.

IMDB labeled it a fantasy/comedy/romance, although really it is a genre all its own, having spawned many other movies of its type, though Here Comes Mr. Jordan remains one of the finest films of the genre of angels or ghosts interacting with, guiding, or annoying humans.

Joe Pendleton (Montgomery) is a boxer with high expectations of becoming the next heavyweight champion. However, while flying his plane and playing his lucky saxophone, his plane takes a nosedive and hits the ground. The next we see of him, he is walking on clouds, absolutely incensed that an angel has pulled him out of his body. He keeps insisting that he is not dead and the bumbling angel (Horton) insists that he is. However, when it comes time to board that plane that presumably leads to the hereafter, Joe complains to the angel in charge, Mr. Jordan (Rains) and it turns out that there has been a grave error. The bumbling angel, Messenger 7013, had pulled Joe out of his body before he was actually dead; Joe was actually fated to survive the crash and live another fifty years. However, it’s too late to put Joe back in his body because it was cremated by his boxing manager, Max Corkle (Gleason).  Mr. Jordan decides that he will take personal charge and find Joe a body he likes.

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Messenger 7013, Joe Pendleton and Mr. Jordan

And after looking at 130 prospective bodies for Joe to inhabit, they do find one that Joe can use temporarily until they find him a really good one that he can use to win the heavyweight championship. Joe steps into the body of Bruce Farnsworth, corrupt banker who was just murdered by his wife and her lover.

Joe, of course, is not really Farnsworth, which confuses everyone he’s around and he discomfits everyone by his strange behavior, like undoing some of Farnsworth’s shady dealings and trying to get Farnsworth’s body back into shape so he can compete for the heavyweight championship. He even manages to convince his manager, Corkle, that Farnsworth is really Joe. And to top it off, he falls in love with Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man that Farnsworth had framed.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is, among other things, an example of what my sister and I call a “cosmic romance.” A cosmic romance is any romance that is a love story outside of time or dimensions, that goes on forever, where two people were meant to be together, or are trying to be together, despite little things like space and time. Another aspect of a cosmic romance is that there is only the one person for you; there is never anyone else you could be with and if you cannot have them you will live your whole life waiting to be reunited afterwards. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison is a cosmic romance, as is Beau Brummel with John Barrymore and Mary Astor, and even, improbably enough, The Mummy with Boris Karloff. And The Princess Bride is actually spoofing the true love, cosmic romance concept, if you think about it, with Wesley and Buttercup and his constant assertion of how this is “true love” and that “death cannot stop true love.”

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Bette Logan, Robert Montgomery and Mr. Jordan, with the angel pins looking like eyes on his suit

What makes Here Comes Mr. Jordan a cosmic romance is also what gives the movie its underlying philosophic core: that a person’s body is just the wrappings of the human soul; the person is still the same no matter what body they inhabit. It’s an idea that goes back to people like Plato and made its way through Rene Descartes. It’s the dual nature, mind/body concept, with the body less important than the mind/spirit. For example, Mr. Jordan tells Joe that although Bette Logan hates Farnsworth, she will learn to look past the fact that Joe looks like Farnsworth and will come to love the Joe who is inside. In fact, no matter what body Joe happens to be in, it is always clear that he and Bette have that special connection and they will always be attracted to each other.

However good the romance is, though, Claude Rains, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton are all natural and delightful scene stealers and who really put this movie over the top. James Gleason’s confusion at the strange goings-on and the body hopping of Joe is so fun, as well as his genuine concern for the guy. And Claude Rains is simply perfect. He has just the right smile, distant and all-knowing as befits an angel, but also benevolent without seeming smug, and definitely with a touch of dry humor. You get the feeling that although he showed Joe 138 bodies before he got to Farnsworth’s, he always knew what body he meant Joe to choose. He spends a lot of time standing around in the background, not saying anything, but looking very wise, and it is amazing how the eye is drawn to him even when he is not doing a thing. And I love how his two angel pins on either side of his lapel make it look like he has two extra eyes watching you.

I don’t know how I missed this movie for so long. I’d hardly even heard of it, but it is so wry, heart-warming, whimsical and so extremely well acted, that it has become one of those movies I feel could become a life-long favorite.

Joe tries to convince Corkle that he's Joe while Mr. Jordan looks on

Joe tries to convince Corkle that though he looks like Mr. Farnsworth he’s really Joe, while Mr. Jordan looks on

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in Comedy, Fantasy, Romance

 

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