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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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Propaganda in American Films During WWII: and a brief review of Five Came Back (2014) by Mark Harris

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver

I’ve always been fascinated by the presence of propaganda in Hollywood movies made during WWII. It fascinates me because the propaganda is supposed to be for a good cause (to defeat the Nazis – what could be better than that?), but it always faintly annoys me when I encounter it in movies. Is this because it doesn’t fit in the story? I’ll be watching a movie and then suddenly, from way out in left field, somebody will start preaching and I’ll nod my head and say, “Yes, this is so a WWII movie.” Is it because the propaganda is so heavy-handed, obvious, and poorly incorporated into the film? Is it because I do not connect with the message they are preaching because I didn’t live through the war? Or is it because propaganda is, in and of itself, a bad thing?

I haven’t decided. I do like the movie Mrs. Miniver (1942) and that movie was purposed expressly by director William Wyler to be a propaganda piece, all about the brave British resisting and standing firm, who are made stronger when attacked. Even Hitler’s Propaganda Minster, Goebbels, thought it was an excellent example of propaganda. Wyler himself seems to have been mildly embarrassed by it (partially because he later went to Britain and was embarrassed by certain inaccuracies in his portrayal of the British). It seems to have been a movie that resonated with the movie going public, however. Is propaganda necessary? Was it necessary to win the war, to keep the American people engaged throughout the war?

I suppose what complicates the propaganda issue is the clumsiness of it. Because, of course, America not just fighting the Nazis. They were fighting the Japanese. Caricatures of the enemy, especially the Japanese, could be quite crude, if not outright racist. Appeals to patriotism, although estimable, provide an often rosy and inaccurate view of warfare.

And then there’s the obvious question of aren’t all movies just a form of propaganda anyway? George Steven, I read in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, came to believe that was the case. If that is the case, is it merely a question of how obtrusive the propaganda is? Is it only obvious propaganda that is bad, or propaganda that we happen to disagree with? According to The American Heritage Dictionary propaganda is “the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause.”

In that sense, I think I disagree with Stevens. I do agree that there is no such thing as a movie free of bias, opinion, belief, doctrine, but I think a useful way of looking at it would be a movie that is about the characters (or even just about the story) as opposed to a movie that is about a doctrine or belief with characters to support it…or perhaps I’m simply falling into the trap of saying that if the propaganda is well done, you won’t notice because the characters make sense and therefore it’s okay.

Frank Capra

Frank Capra

I’ve always liked to think about this topic, but what made it slightly more urgent to consider was reading Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. It is about the way that Hollywood responded to the war, but mostly about five directors who put on hold their careers so they could enlist in the military. John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens all enlisted, though their jobs turned out to be a little different than what they had anticipated. It turned out that the military was also interested in propaganda. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it was meant to align with military goals (such as not blaming Emperor Hirohito too much for the war because they thought they might need to keep him as emperor after the war and they didn’t want Americans to hate him). The military didn’t want to show too much death and loss to the American public, or to dwell on military reversals. Compromises were repeatedly made and all of the directors found themselves staging reenactments of battles to present to the public as fact.

The war changed them all, though perhaps Frank Capra less so. He remained in Washington D.C. and put together his famous Why We Fight series. However, John Ford was at the Battle of Midway and at Normandy. John Huston made a documentary at the Aleutians and was in Italy some. William Wyler flew on bombing missions to get film and lost his hearing as a result. But no one was more affected than George Stevens. He was known for his delightful comedies, such as Woman of the Year, but when he returned he never made another comedy. He was at Normandy, as well, and he was there to film the liberation of Paris. But he was also there when America liberated Dachau and he was the one to put together the films that were shown during the Nuremberg trials as evidence of the atrocities committed against the Jews and also to show that the atrocities were part of long-established policies.

When he returned, he never talked much about what he saw and he could never go back and watch any of the footage that he had taken.

Although the book is mostly about the five directors, Harris does also deal a bit with the movie studio’s reaction to the coming war and to the war itself. Before WWII, Hollywood studio heads tended to avoid any reference to the European situation. This was partially because they sold a lot of movies overseas and they didn’t want to alienate any of their foreign markets (such as Nazi Germany) and also because many of the studio heads were Jewish and were leery of being accused of not being sufficiently American and dragging America into foreign affairs and only being interested in Jewish concerns – accusations that they had heard before.

Harris implies that the studios, actors and directors were essentially burying their heads in the sand because their movies did not reflect the very real international concerns, specifically regarding Nazism and their treatment of the Jews. There was virtually no mention of Nazism in any of the films until the war began. This, I thought, was an interesting question. Does the movie industry have a duty to address social issues or international issues or only certain issues that are particularly pressing and how do we judge which issues are particularly pressing? Should the movie industry have also addressed the Ukrainian Famine in 1932-1933 when millions of Ukrainians died during a famine that was caused deliberately by Stalin’s regime? Should they have addressed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931? Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936?

Of course, what most movies during WWII were doing was not highlighting world realities but attempting to rally Americans to the cause and pep them up with patriotism. They rarely ever saw any of the disturbing images that were taken by Steven’s team during the landing at Normandy or afterwards at Dachau. John Huston’s documentary about veterans returning from the war who were suffering from psychological trauma was also suppressed by the military.

Of course, it is also true that documentaries containing reality can be structured for propaganda purposes. Even George Stevens’ footage of the liberation of Dachau could be used for propaganda, thought it is not itself propaganda. It is reality; harsh, horrifying, inescapable reality.

 
 

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The Miracle Woman (1931)

1931 – Starring Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners, Sam Hardy – Directed by Frank Capra

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Barbara Stanwyck made five movies in total with Frank Capra, four of which came between 1930 and 1931, and are some of my favorite Frank Capra films. He was the man who really helped her make the transition from stage to movies by patiently working with her and showing her how to act for the camera. Afterwards, she would never be anything less than a star who always elevates the movie she is in, no matter what the movie.

My favorite of the four is the Miracle Woman, about religious hypocrisy, genuine faith and religious charlatans who take advantage of the faithful, but it’s also a sweet romance. At Pre-Code.com, he calls the film a “romance movie with an issue, not an issue movie with a romance.”

The Miracle Woman[1]

standing in a den of lions with David Manners – really, there are lions behind them – real ones

Barbara Stanwyck is Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher. At the beginning of the film her father has died after forty years in service to an unresponsive and hypocritical church that repaid him by firing him. After he dies, she is heartbroken and bitter gets up in front of the congregation to tell them exactly what she thinks of them; their hypocrisy, how shabbily they treated him, how she knows all the sins they commit in secret and how her father “preached to empty hearts.” When the deacons rise to leave and offer parting shots about how she is disgracing the house of God, she cries “What God! Your God?”

After the congregation flees her wrath (true, unbounded Stanwyck style wrath) the only person left is con artist Hornsby, who is impressed by her impassioned chewing out of the church and says that since the one thing she knows is religion and the Bible, she might as well use that for her own advantage.

And so she becomes Sister Fallon, healer and evangelist, drawing large crowds, managed by Hornsby who has hired people to pretend to be healed by her. She is even on the radio and John Carson (Manners) hears her. He is a former aviator, now blind, and a struggling composer on the point of suicide…until her hears her sermon on the radio and goes to one of her rallies. He manages to meet her; she prays for him and she promises him his sight again.

It’s a very sweet romance. John is shy, gentle. When she goes to his apartment, he doesn’t really know what to do or how to entertain guests and is awkwardly endearing. He completely believes in her and it touches her heart.

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with Hornsby

Hornsby is cynical and worldly and an excellent villain. When an employee wants more money and threatens to expose them, Hornsby murders him. And when he discovers that Florence is falling in love with John and having second thoughts about the fraud, he threatens to expose her as a fraud.

The film neatly demonstrates the difference between religious hypocrites using their faith to cloak their misdeeds, hucksters using faith to con others and those genuinely seeking faith, who often are taken in by the hucksters and abused by the hypocrites. And then there is Florence, who has grown cynical in her belief, but retains a vestige of conviction (which is demonstrated when she turns her father’s picture face down as if she cannot bear for him to see what she is doing).

It’s not a clear-cut movie, but allows for all shades of faith. Even the motivations of her audiences are not clear cut. There are those genuinely searching and those who are just along for the ride: the curious, the desperate, the believing, the spectacle seeking.

John never criticizes Florence; he doesn’t have to because she already knows she’s doing wrong. He acts as a kind of mirror. His belief is what prompts her ti rediscover her faith. There is an interesting moment, too, at the end when she has joined the Salvation Army. Hornsby sees her and just cannot understand it, cannot wrap his mind around her decision to do something that brings no money. He has such poverty of soul he can’t see she’s found her salvation.

miraclewoman_1931_ps_01_1200_053120120139[1]Notes: The Miracle Woman is the movie that started it all for me, at least in terms of becoming a Barbara Stanwyck fan. I had seen her in a few movies, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Remember the Night (1940), and even The Lady Eve (1941), but somehow I had failed to fully appreciate her genius. Then I saw The Miracle Woman and I was struck by what an honest and passionate actress she was at such a young age (she was only twenty-three in 1931) and I wanted to see more. I next saw Double Indemnity (1944) and that, of course, sealed it and I re-watched movies like The Lady Eve and marveled that I had not fully appreciated how good she was. She made 85 movies (this does not count the numerous television appearances and two television shows she did) and I’m up to 45.

The Miracle Woman was also a revelation in regards to Frank Capra. I had seen his famous films, namely It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), but he amazed me at how natural and exciting his direction was as early as 1931. Early talky films can be…well, talky and slightly stagy, but Capra’s direction looked fresh and exciting. He was also far more taut and less overtly preachy than in some of his later films.

It’s very much a pre-code film. Pre-code films are those talking movies between 1929 and 1934, before the Hays Code was truly enforced (though it was partially enforced) and lots of things slip through, like the chauffeur who flips off his boss. Blink and you miss it…which I’m assuming is what happened to the censors.

One cool thing about pre-code films is how real their special effects were. If Capra wanted real lions, he got real lions. If he wanted a fire, he set a real fire and put the actors in the midst of it. At the end, when a building goes up in flames, he told Barbara Stanwyck to stay on the burning stage until he came to get her, which she did. He filmed the scene, then ran into the flames and carried her out. He later said he could feel her heart pounding.

A good article on the movie can be found at Pre-code.com. He has an analysis of the visuals of the film at the end of his article, which is particularly interesting. Also, TCM has their usual article about the film, with bits like how they used real lions or the real fire.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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