Screened December 11 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD in Brooklyn, NY
Frank Capra abandoned the vibrant American melee upon which he built his reputation to issue this queasy utopian treatise dressed as an exotic adventure fantasy. Shangri-la makes for both a visually and dramatically banal paradise. Proto-Bob Ross matte landscapes and manufactured nature sets alternate with knockoff Frank Lloyd Wright architecture cluttered with curios. It could be fun in a camp/surreal way if Capra wasn’t so insistent that this Neverland was what Depression-era American needed, where fun times involve listening to Sam Jaffee’s wrinkled Lama make longwinded pseudo-Buddhist platitudes bemoaning man’s fate (I’ll take spitfire banter with Claudette Colbert or Jean Arthur anyday). Jane Wyatt is easy on the eyes and Ronald Colman, that paradigm of 30s benevolent colonialism, somehow bestows dignity on his environs through his benevolent colonialist gaze. Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton bring some down-to-earth Capra back to the proceedings by virtue of their charming petty-mindedness, casting the warm glow of genuine human behavior amidst the lofty artifice.
The restored version of Lost Horizon can be viewed online on Google Reader (see after the break)
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Lost Horizon among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide (1985)
Nelson Pereira Dos Santos, Balaio (1996)
Alain Resnais, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book – 500 Great Films (1987)
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Adventure (1993)
Leslie Halliwell, A Nostalgic Choice of 100 Films from the Golden Age (1982)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
New York Times, 100 Recommended Children’s Movies (2002)
Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
Various Critics, Book – 501 Must-See Movies (2004)
Tim Dirks offers one of his patented enhanced summaries on Lost Horizon, in the Greatest Films section of his website FilmSite.org
Lost Horizon.org: “NonProfit Fan Club of James Hilton’s Book and Inspired Arts”
Convinced that Hilton’s novel had all the makings of a great film – fantasy, adventure, spectacle – director Frank Capra convinced Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, to advance him $2,000,000 for the production. Together with scenarist Robert Riskin, Capra researched everything from Tibetan culture, to language, to architecture, to clothing. Ten property men created over 700 props used in Tibetan daily life while droves of crewmen built 65 sets, raising Shangri-La over Columbia’s Burbank ranch. When attention turned to casting, however, things would not move along so well. Putting Ronald Colman in the role of the elder Conway was easy enough. But casting the High Lama role would prove much more difficult. They first considered stage actor A. E. Anson, who was declared perfect after a screen test. Sadly, he died just after receiving news he got the part. Then Henry B. Walthall was chosen, but the Grim Reaper stepped in once again, before he could even be tested. After an exhaustive search, and numerous additional screen tests, Capra remembered 38 year old Shakespearean actor Sam Jaffe, who eventually got the role.
Shooting Lost Horizon took rather longer than expected. So long in fact, that the crew shot an entire film, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), during one of the breaks in the Lost Horizon schedule, and yet another picture, When You’re In Love (1937), while Lost Horizon was being edited. Most of the production time was eaten up with the special requirements for re-creating the Himalayas in Los Angeles. For example, Capra shot snow scenes and airplane interiors inside a Cold Storage Warehouse, creating real snow and ice. A great move for credibility, but not so great for the equipment, which routinely froze up, cracked, split, stiffened, or shattered due to the cold temperatures of the set. Capra’s shooting style also added to the delays. His habit for shooting multiple takes and angles led him to use over a million feet of film, causing constant confrontations with Harry Cohn. Though Cohn was willing to leave Capra alone to make his film, he frequently groused about the escalating costs, and at one point pleaded with the crew not to cash their checks for a week because Capra had used up all the money. The ending of Capra’s Lost Horizon is one of the only glaring deviations from the novel. In Hilton’s book, we are left to imagine for ourselves Conway’s success or failure. In the film, Capra “relents to hope” and we are shown Conway struggling through the snow, finding the pass that will lead him back to paradise.
After a bad first screening, Capra cut the first two reels of the film completely, which made the audience more receptive. Still, at more than three hours, Cohn knew it wouldn’t work, and he took control of the editing away from Capra completely. Though Capra never admitted that Cohn re-cut the film, Variety reported that it was one of the main reasons Capra later brought suit against Columbia as part of a grievance over his pay. When all was said and done, however, Lost Horizon was named one of the 10 best films of 1937 by The New York Times and later won two Academy Awards, for Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction. But much like Conway’s struggle to return to Shangri-La, Capra found out that sometimes you have to make great sacrifices in your search for paradise.
From Harrison Forman’s photographs it was simple to design Tibetan costumes. But where would we find the people to wear them? Tibetans are Orientals, but taller, rangier than Chinese or Japanese. Again we had recourse to our non-Chinese but Oriental stand-bys – Pala Indians from the San Diego mountains.
Then, too, we would have to show some yaks. What the burro was to American sourdoughs of the West, the yak is to Tibetans. To badly simulate yaks, we covered yearling steers with long-haired, hoof-length blankets. To better simulate small Tibetan horses, we “haired up” the legs and chests of Shetland ponies.
- Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1997. Page 192-193
Screenwriter Richard Raskin discusses the three endings of Lost Horizon
Frank Capra talks to Dick Cavett (January 21 1972) about the Santa Barbara preview of Lost Horizon which led to the first two reels being cut from the film (on YouTube):
If you saw Lost Horizon alone or in a small group – this is philosophically very important for you to hear – a small group loved the picture the way it was. We had an example of that in the projection room. One individual would be entranced by the picture. We showed it to five hundred or a thousand people; no good. The third dimension of a film is a thousand people, a thousand pairs of ears and eyes looking at it, not one pair. There is something about a thousand people that is more acute, more sensitive, more reactive that one person or two persons or three persons.
You must never judge a picture in the projection room with one or two people. The line between the ridiculous and the sublime is very wide to an individual. The more people you get the finer the line becomes between the ridiculous and the sublime.
- Capra to James R. Silke and Bruce Henstell, 1971. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Edited by Leland A. Pogue, University of Mississippi Press, 2004. Page 78.
I was a little disappointed in Lost Horizon myself. It was my idea entirely to do it, but I was disappointed in the way it came out, because I’d hoped for more. Although it’s been said that it’s one of my best pictures (and perhaps I’d have to agree with them), I thought that the main part of the film – I should have done better, somehow. I got lost in architecture, in utopia, in the never-never-land, and it was only toward the end of the picture that I got back on track with human beings and individuals, where I began to feel that the story dealt with human beings again. This is common, for one who wants to exploit a theme, and gives the theme too much of the story.
- Capra to Arthur B. Friedman, 1957. Published in Frank Capra: Interviews. Page 55.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has no corner on the large-scale production market as Columbia Pictures proved last night when it presented its film of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon at the Globe. There, and for the balance of its two-a-day run, is a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played. It is the second outstanding picture of the season—the first, of course, being The Good Earth—and, unless the Ides of March are particularly portentous this year, it need have no fear of being omitted from the golden brackets of anyone’s “best ten” list.
Columbia is supposed to have spent $2,000,000 on the picture. That may or may not be true, $2,000,000 being a round and round-eyed sum even in Hollywood. But there is no denying the opulence of the production, the impressiveness of the sets, the richness of the costuming, the satisfying attention to large and small detail which makes Hollywood at its best such a generous entertainer. We can deride the screen in its lesser moods, but when the West Coast impresarios decide to shoot the works the resulting pyrotechnics bathe us in a warm and cheerful glow.
Speaking belatedly of the cast, there is nothing but unqualified endorsement here of Mr. Colman’s Conway, of Mr. Horton’s Lovett, ofThomas Mitchell’s grand performance as the fugitive from the police, of Isabel Jewell’s Gloria, H. B. Warner’s moderately philosophic Chang, Jane Wyatt’s attractive Sondra, and Margo’s Maria. That leaves Sam Jaffe’s portrayal of the High Lama, and that leaves me of a mixed opinion. Mr. Jaffe’s makeup is grotesque and horrible and solid; the High Lama of Mr. Hilton’s novel was mystic, ethereal, almost Christlike. Yet the High Lama must be weird to make credible Conway’s suspicion that he might be mad. Mr. Jaffe certainly is weird enough. I really don’t know. Maybe he should have used less makeup.
- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, March 4 1937
To those honestly concerned with the development of the motion picture as an art, Frank Capra has endeared himself above most producers of films. One after another, his pictures have appealed both to the exacting few who have demanded that the screen be bright with truth as well as vivid motion, and to the many whose demands at the box office have made the whole art of the screen possible. But in Hollywood’s mushroom growth there has always been the unfortunate obstacle of a tendency to run (as in the copying of ideas, forms, effects) before one could walk, and many of the most arty attempts have tripped over this obstacle. Frank Capra never tripped because he never came anywhere near such an obstacle.
But after getting himself a name for being a sort of magician in the movies, he apparently began to take seriously a lot of things the movies (as he knew them) had never heard of. In Lost Horizon he seemed to see both a smashing adventure story and an excursion into philosophy that would stun everybody. So he and his right-hand script writer (Robert Riskin) went to work on what is all too obviously an epic.
It is mounted with elaborate heaviness, but on tissue paper. It abandons action for thought, and then spreads the thought so cosmic and wide that it cannot be any deeper than half-way tide over mud flats. The sets constructed (to life size) for the strange region of Shangri-La are alone worthy of Ahs and Ohs: the evident care in casting and acting stands our above the average run of most productions; but then there comes all this serious statement of the improbable that could be set forth effectively only in burlesque, and these random light-comedy effects that become burlesque against such a background-and in the end a person doesn’t know where he is, except that he is nowhere as far as pictures are concerned. This film was made with obvious care and expense; but it will be notable in the future only as the first wrong step in a career that till now has been a denial of the very tendencies in pictures which this film represents.
- Otis Ferguson, National Board of Review Magazine, 1937. Posted on eeweems.com
EXCERPTS FROM THE BEST REVIEW OF LOST HORIZON
Lost Horizon opened in March of 1937, the year after Mussolini annexed Ethiopia, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, and the Spanish Civil War started. It was a bad time for those who believed in the egalitarianism of a pluralist society of equal rights regardless of religion or ethnic origin. Capra was among the first of the big Hollywood directors to publicly denounce fascism and its persecution of minorities. For this reason, Lost Horizon is an important film, regardless of its clunky narrative and stagey situations (some of which can be blamed on the usual studio politics which led to editing compromises), as it clearly defines the gospel of social moderation that most Americans believed in.
There are a number of curious aspects to this film that Time has brought into focus. For example, the utopia is elitist despite its best intentions. It exists as an example of passive colonialism, complete with a class structure. While the term “native” is just the de facto terminology of the era, it nonetheless reinforces the Eurocentric aspect of the fantasy. Is the story racist? No, although the weary sentimentality of “the white man’s burden” is clearly evident. The Lamasery has servants, and they’re all Asian. Yet while the High Lama’s No. 2 man is called Chang, he neither looks nor sounds Asian (in Hilton’s novel, he is Chinese). In fact, he looks and sounds like a head butler imported from the Embassy Club to complete the colonial circle.
Modernism is really built on the principle of the straight line… and when applied to thinking, can easily become fascism. Direct action appeals to an intellectual elite just as much as an escapist community such as Shangri La. Just how far is the High Lama’s art community of white Europeans and their docile Asian servants removed from the penthouse of the Berlin Chancellory where Hitler and Albert Speer discussed Art and developed The Theory of Ruin Value? The Art Deco isometrics are almost identical when drained of sentiment. As the main players enact their fantasy, the rank and file become ephemeral, mere markers of geometric space.
As a drama, Lost Horizon relies on many of the conventions and cliches of the period: a man of action (Conway), a fugitive swindler (Barnard), a terminal cynic (Gloria), a buffoon (Lovett), an impulsive young man (George), a femme fatale (Sondra)… all the essential personalities for creating or continuing a castaway society. The main difference between the screenplay and the novel is that the characters are Americanized to suit the target audience. Hilton has four castaways, Capra has five… and the absconding aircraft becomes a DC-2 rather than a small “high-altitude” plane belonging to an Indian Raj. Rooted in the romantic action novel of the late nineteenth century, Hilton’s story raids the supernatural elements of Rider-Haggard’s She, or even H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
- Lawrence Russell, Culture Court
With two sentimentalists as crafty as director Frank Capra and novelist James Hilton collaborating on a project, the results could hardly be anything less than effective, yet this 1937 film has a swollen self-seriousness that drains most of my sympathy for it. Shangri-La, seductive but stifling, plays much too close for comfort to American anti-intellectualism; more than any other of his 30s classics, Lost Horizon gives credence to reports that Capra kept a bust of Mussolini in his office through the decade. Still, Ronald Colman’s grace and charm excuse a lot of directorial heaviness.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Capra was at the height of his game as a director with Lost Horizon. The film took more than two years to complete, and used what was (at the time) the largest set ever constructed in Hollywood. Lost Horizon moves at a swift pace thanks to clever editing, and features inventive cinematography and a terrific score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Coleman is perfect as the world-worn English diplomat on a fast-track political career. Jane Wyatt is charming as his love interest and one of the caretakers of the valley. And there are a couple of other familiar faces as well – or should I say, a familiar face and a familiar voice. That’s Thomas Mitchell as the swindling Henry Barnard. Mitchell was a Capra favorite, appearing also in his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. And you might recognize the voice of Edward Everett Horton. He plays Lovett here, but he’s better known for narrating the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of TV’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
- Bill Hunt, The Digital Bits
When director Frank Capra read James Hilton’s best-selling fantasy adventure novel Lost Horizon, about a Utopian valley high in the Himalayas, he took it to Columbia boss Harry Cohn, as a potential vehicle for the studio. On Cohn’s approval production began and the roles started to be cast. Capra wanted sophisticated and urbane actor Ronald Colman to play the lead role. From the beginning, the director felt Colman was born to play the intelligent and deep thinking Robert Conway. Indeed, just as many felt Clark Gable was the perfect fit for Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, Colman wore the role of Conway like a glove.
As Robert Conway, Colman gives an elegant and poetic portrayal, one of the many highlights of his career. Young actress Jane Wyatt, best known for her role as Margaret Anderson in the popular TV series Father Knows Best (sadly, fewer and fewer know her from this show as more years go by) is cast as the enlightened young woman who is the impetus for Conway’s presence in Shangri-La and his love interest once he arrives there. As one of the film’s (and book’s) more compelling though lesser characters is Mexican actress Margo (Mrs. Eddie Albert). She plays Maria, who by all outward appearances is a young Russian woman, no more than 20 years old, who falls for the younger Conway, George. Hers is a pivotal role in the history of the Utopian community and she does well with her part.
Lost Horizon was one of the most expensive films “poverty row” Columbia Studios had produced up to that time. But along with other Frank Capra/Columbia collaborations, it would help that organization rise above its lowly status. Alot was riding on its success, including Capra’s reputation. Its anti-war sentiment got some flack by certain political view points and some of its footage hit the editing room floor upon its re-release but after all was said and done and a semi-complete restoration in more recent years, Lost Horizon has stood the test of time to become a bonafide classic in Hollywood annals.
The movies have always been an escapist recreation. In 1937 when Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon hit theatres, the same year the United States’ economy took a nosedive in the heart of the Great Depression, the need for this escape had never been greater. Taking a cue from James Hilton’s novel, Capra translates the notion of Hilton’s Tibetan Shangri-la into one accessible and palatable to the Western spectator’s contemporary dream, that of a return to the pre-Depression prosperity of the Twenties. Symbolic and discreet mise-en-scène allow for an easy transition from screen to mind as Capra delivers, not the Shangri-La of Tibet, but that of an idyllic Western society.
With its modern, streamlined buildings filled to the brim with material possessions of diverse Western cultural importance, Capra’s Shangri-La takes the best of Western civilization and attempts to shield it from corruption by its own creators. An impressive cache of worldly goods stands in opposition to the fact that the inhabitants of the city’s access to the outside world lies with unscrupulous traders who visit only rarely.
Frank Capra’s delight of a film Lost Horizon, in conclusion, is clearly not a viable representation of Tibet. However, as the film is not a documentary but a fictionalized adaptation, the intent was to inspire and uplift the downtrodden American masses, not to provide accurate details of life in a faraway land. Only by using Tibet, a land shrouded in mystery and virtually unknown to the average man, as a backdrop for the film, is Capra able to give rise to the notion that a Shangri-La may indeed still be waiting somewhere to be found.
- Zelda Zador, Associated Content
The movie changes many things about the book, and some of the most significant changes take place in the role and relationship of the various characters. The book had a decent female character, the even-keeled Miss Brinklow; her substitute character here is a hysterical woman, who shrieks and acts “irrationally.” Her only function in the movie is to be healed by the stay at Shangri-La. The native woman Lo-Tsen gets split into two characters — one becomes a white woman, who flirts with Conway (the ostensible main character) but stays at Shangri-La and waits for his return. The other woman tricks the two men into leaving with her, and she ages into a horrible old hag as her reward. The annoying Mallinson becomes Conway’s brother, but remains as annoying. And in a significant change for the ending, Conway makes it back to Shangri-La, where his pet woman is patiently waiting for him. The movie adds some humour between the two characters created for comic relief; one of these is still named Barnard and the other is now a paleontologist. I got a few laughs from an unintentionally hilarious scene with some Sherpas who seemed not to understand the relationship between avalanches and loud noises, which would seem to be a survival trait for mountain inhabitants. Capra’s Lost Horizon also changes the structure of the frame story. The movie begins with a bang, a revolution in which our man Conway acts heroically. Later, the British authorities get updates on Conway occasionally, and then a group of men discussing his life show up to give us a new bit of his story: Conway apparently steals, lies, and acts immorally in order to get back to his utopia and his girl. The Himalayan natives call Conway “the man who is not human” but this part is totally skipped over.
Some parts of the movie work well, such as Capra’s emphasis on the apocalyptic vision of the High Lama, the leader of Shangri-La. The High Lama’s lesson about the dangers of militarism is not one that the world took, but it’s there on celluloid, pre-Atomic Era. I also liked the idea that our Western societies are too hasty, too busy — the High Lama calls it indirect suicide. Another lesson that could be well taken by any of us, myself included. Unfortunately, most of this sharp insight is drowned in sexism and stereotyping, as well as the contrast between the lords of lamasery, who know they are “civilized” and living in utopia, and the people living in the valley. This difference between the lamasery and the valley is much more marked in the movie than in the book, and this further undercuts whatever positive message the viewer may have gained. On the whole, Capra’s Lost Horizon is more of an artifact of a certain era of film than a work of art that has worth of its own; recommended for fans of Hilton’s book or Capra’s career but not a wider audience.
- James Schellenberg, Challenging Destiny
I am currently reading Joseph McBride’s biography of Frank Capra, “The Catastrophe of Success”. I’m not sure how I will be reacting when I see, or more precisely re-see, Capra’s films. It is sad to read the portrait of the aging artist as a racist and anti-Semite. The split between an artist’s works and the personal life of an artist has always been problematic. For myself, my favorite Capra films will probably remain from the early Thirties when the there was less of a schism between art and life for Capra. Specifically, my favorite titles are It Happened One Night and Bitter Tea of General Yen.
What prompted my writing about Capra now was reading about Lost Horizon. I don’t know how the conservative Republican Capra would have reacted to the government fingerpointing, or if he would have, privately more likely than publicly, joined the ranks of several Republicans in their criticism of FEMA chief Michael Brown, if not George W. Bush. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, who identified as a New Deal Democrat would clearly have been critical of what occurred in New Orleans, most likely laying the blame on an administration that failed to protect its citizens. The idealist in me is longing for a real life Jefferson Smith to put things right.
What I want to share is this amazing quote from Lost Horizon. Although it refers to a fictional riot in a non-existent country, and is a criticism of British imperialism, I found this passage from the screenplay to be very appropriate at this time:
“Did you make that report out yet? Did you say we saved the lives of ninety white people? Good. Hooray for us! Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated? No. No, you wouldn’t say that. They don’t count.”
ABOUT THE COLUMBIA TRI-STAR DVD
As a DVD, Lost Horizon is outstanding. The commentary track with film critic Charles Champlin and film preservationist Robert Gitt is easily as entertaining as the film itself, as the two discuss the fine details and anecdotes of the restoration. Gitt also narrates a short documentary on the restoration process, which includes several deleted scenes that were recovered by the American Film Institute but not incorporated in the 138-minute cut, along with an alternate ending. An insightful behind-the-scenes photo-essay is narrated by film historian Kendall Miller, and even the original teaser trailer for Lost Horizon is included. If you’re an admirer of this neglected classic, this DVD will probably be one of your favorites. And if (like me) you’re not as fond of it and are more interested in film preservation, you will still find the supplements on Lost Horizon to be an illuminating experience.
— J. Jordan Burke, DVD Journal
One of the most difficult tasks in screening Lost Horizon is to come up with the technical rating for the picture. I have a very deep conflict in grading the picture quality as a “D”, and a very lenient grade at that. This conflict arises from the fact that the film was almost lost due to deterioration and it took many years of exhuastive efforts to restore this classic that we can now experience. Robert Gitt, the UCLA film restoration expert, spent 25 years in researching, recovering, and restoring the film to its original running time. It would seem to be rather trivial, if not disrespectful, for me to slap a “D” rating on the restored picture. What is the next best alternative when the glory of the original print is forever lost? The next best thing is the newly restored and digitally remastered picture on DVD. In short, this is one circumstance where my low technical rating should not dissuade you one bit from watching the film.
The film is presented in its original full-screen ratio and running time. Before the film begins, there is a brief insert explaining the restoration process. Apparently, the film premiered with a running time of 132 minute. However, as the film went through subsequent re-releases and showings, it was trimmed and cut to various lengths. For instance, during the re-release in World War II, 24 minutes were cut with different opening sequences and scenes to tone down from the pacifist message. By 1967, the original nitrate camera negative had deteriorated and the trimmed footages were destroyed. For the restoration, the best available 35mm and 16mm prints were combined to the original running time, all but seven minutes of the picture. To replace the missing scenes, photograph stills are used with the original soundtrack.
Despite the best available prints, the quality ranges from very acceptable to poor. For the most part, the picture is a patchwork of fuzzy images, poor shadow details, terrible exposures, and noticeable grains. However, the restoration is a huge improvement over the theatrical prints. This example is clearly illustrated in the bonus material “Restoration: Before and After Comparison,” where a split screen shows how the tears and instability of the original prints have been digitally restored. It really was an eye opener.
- Van T. Tran, DVD Magazine
ABOUT RONALD COLMAN
There are several Ronald Colman tribute sites – by far the most impressive is the Ronald Colman Pages, which has extensive synopses of each Ronald Colman film (including multimedia clips), a lengthy biography, photo galleries and more.
Another fascinating site is the Ronald Colman Saga, in which the proprietor impersonates Colman in first person anecdotes from the actor’s glory days.
Other tribute sites:
Suave, debonair, a gentleman hero with dashing good looks, Ronald Colman is the quintessential Hollywood-Englishman. One of the few stars of the silent era to maintain and even increase their popularity after the transition to sound, Colman was a leading man for more than 20 years, for in addition to his handsome grace, Colman possessed a beautifully cultured and modulated voice. Colman is known for roles where he is above all polite and well-mannered, but the source of his success may lie beyond his ability to portray characters who are refined but sentimental, mysterious but thoughtful. As Sheridan Morley points out, Colman’s sense of humor made him stand out from other good-looking Englishmen. Moreover, Colman was a consummate craftsman; director George Cukor explains that Colman knew more about acting for the camera than any actor he had worked with.
- Charles Affron, Film Reference.com
ABOUT ROBERT RISKIN
A writer of sophisticated stage plays in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Riskin had over 20 screen credits in a career which lasted two-and-a-half decades. More than half of his work was with Frank Capra—a creative union which culminated in some of Riskin’s best screenplays. Among these works are American Madnes, Lady for a Day ,It Happened One Night , Mr. Deeds Goes to Town , Lost Horizon , and Meet John Doe . Of these only Lost Horizon is an adaptation—and it is a solid translation of the novel that became a successful film that won popular and critical acclaim.
The collaboration of Capra and Riskin evidently became a vital force in creating a body of some of the best Capra films. While it is difficult to judge how much Riskin added to a Capra film, a close reading of the director’s work indicates that his favorite writer probably influenced some of the satirical and sophisticated tone of the films—not necessarily changing Capra’s overall vision, but polishing many of the aspects of his creation.
Some of the Riskin touch is evident in even his most atypical work, the adaptation of Lost Horizon. Two characters, played by Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, were given comic characteristics that did not exist in the novel. In the 1940s Riskin became a producer-writer on his own and created the fifth in the series of “thin man” pictures, The Thin Man Goes Home , plus a film called Magic Town, a work that had many of the characteristics of a Capra picture. But the magic in Riskin’s dialogue began to fade and he would never equal his best work of the past, when he had a marvelous symbiotic relationship with Frank Capra.
- Donald W. McCaffrey, Film Reference.com
ABOUT FRANK CAPRA
FRANK CAPRA WEBSITES
The following quotations are found on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? profile page for Frank Capra:
“Like Chaplin, Frank Capra began his film career as a simple, effective comic talent and progressed to ‘message movies’. And, as with Chaplin, the populism of his later films demonstrated both a decline in humour and disturbing political ambiguities.” - Geoff Andrew(The Film Handbook, 1989)
“Many of Capra’s most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra’s success – his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film.” – (Charles Affron(International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
“Nowadays, the mere mention of Capra’s name is enough to make literate and learned film-writers dip their pens in bile. But when, between director and actor, you actually pump the breath of life into impossibly idealized Everymen, as Gary Cooper, James Stewart, or Barbara Stanwyck did, a powerful emotional current is given out from the screen. The fact that they have nothing to do with the real world has absolutely no bearing on that.” - David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)
“Capra is a master of the socially significant film. His work is full of optimism, humor, love, patriotism, and respect for traditional values.” - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“I think of the medium as a people-to-people medium, not cameraman-to-people, not direction-to-people, not writers-to-people, but people-to-people…You can only involve an audience with people. You can’t involve them with gimmicks, with sunsets, with hand-held cameras, zoom shots, or anything else. They couldn’t care less about those things. But you give them something to worry about, some person they can worry about, and care about, and you’ve got them, you’ve got them involved.” - Frank Capra (Directing the Film, 1976)
Selected quotes from Frank Capra:
A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.
I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.
If you want to send a message, try Western Union.
During the dark decade of the 1930s, Frank Capra became America’s preeminent filmmaker, leavening Depression-era despair with the laughter of his irrepressible optimism. Packaging hope for the hopeless, his “fantasies of goodwill” were as important to national morale as FDR’s “fireside chats” and well-deserving of the three Best Director Oscars they brought him. Twenty years later when the CAHIERS DU CINEMA critics launched an auteurist reassessment of American films, his reputation suffered, despite the unarguable fact that his “name above the title” signified his absolute artistic control of the project, a rarity in the studio-dominated Hollywood culture of his heyday. Subsequent voices followed suit, taking great delight in decrying his work as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism and its celebration of all-American values, but the content of his films should not be judged too harshly out of the context of their time, the pulse of which Capra accurately measured. Fortunately, most contemporary critics look past the ideology to his undeniable strengths as a filmmaker.
The critical stock of Frank Capra has fluctuated perhaps more wildly than that of any other major director. During his peak years, the 1930s, he was adored by the press, by the industry and, of course, by audiences. In 1934 It Happened One Night won nearly all the Oscars, and through the rest of the decade a film of Frank Capra was either the winner or the strong contender for that honor. Long before the formulation of the auteur theory, the Capra signature on a film was recognized. But after World War II his career went into serious decline. His first post-war film,It’s a Wonderful Life , was not received with the enthusiasm he thought it deserved (although it has gone on to become one of his most-revered films). Of his last five films, two are remakes of material he treated in the thirties. Many contemporary critics are repelled by what they deem indigestible “Capracorn” and have even less tolerance for an ideology characterized as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism, its celebration of all-American values.
Indeed, many of Capra’s most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra’s success—his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film. Capra captured the American voice in cinematic space. The words often serve the cause of apple pie, mom, the little man and other greeting card clichés (indeed, the hero of Mr. Deeds Goes to Townwrites verse for greeting cards). But often in the sound of the voice we hear uncertainties about those very clichés.
The sounds and sights of Capra’s films bear the authority of a director whose autobiography is called The Name above the Title. With that authority comes an unsettling belief in authorial power, the power dramatized in his major films, the persuasiveness exercised in political and social contexts. That persuasion reflects back on the director’s own power to engage the viewer in his fiction, to call upon a degree of belief in the fiction—even when we reject the meaning of the fable.
- Charles Affron, Film Reference.com
Frank Capra’s career best illustrated the rising power of the producer-director that pushed the limitations of the studio system in the 1930s. Capra rose to prominence as a contract director at Columbia Pictures with his successful mixture of populist drama and sentimental comedy that defined depression-era attitudes and elevated Harry Cohn’s studio from Poverty Row status to one of the Big Eight majors. Capra was suitably rewarded with his own production unit and an unusually high level of creative freedom. Producing about one picture a year, the Capra unit made quality, event pictures, not unlike the prestige films of Capra’s independent producing counterparts. After the success of It Happened One Night (1934), his new five-picture contract with Columbia gave him 25 percent of the net profits, and even contained an anti-block booking provision that required all Capra films to be sold individually, beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935).
Capra had adopted a “one man, one film” mantra which later generations would dub the auteur theory, which claimed that a film, like any other important work of art, should be largely the product of a single creative vision and not the offspring of a studio committee. He believed producer-director setups to be the answer to the generic, manufactured Hollywood film. He blamed the complacency of the well-paid contract directors for selling out their artistic responsibility to the studios. Ultimately, Capra concluded, the ideal position for ambitious, creative filmmakers was in independent production.
- J.A. Aberdeen, Hollywood Renegades
The rise of Frank Capra from sickly, abused, impoverished Sicilian immigrant to what one of his sons calls “a shaper of how we view America” is the subject of Kenneth Bowser’s Frank Capra’s American Dream. This biography, produced by Tom and Frank Capra, Jr., attempts to replace the simplistic image of Capra as a sort of undiscriminating, sentimental populist with a more complex reality.
What emerges from these interviews and film clips is an illuminating, if mostly uncritical, portrait of a tragically conflicted personality whose work, more than that of many directors, is barely veiled autobiography. The Capra seen here joins his fictional counterparts — Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe — as an Everyman whose sudden wealth and fame, those driving myths of the “American Dream” that was Capra’s eternal subject, nearly destroy him.
- Gary Morris, reviewing Frank Capra’s American Dream by Kenneth Bowser, Bright Lights Film Journal, December 1998
On January 9, 1999, during the annual American Historical Association (AHA) meeting in Washington DC, The Popular Culture Association, Film & History, and the AHA co-sponsored a conference session on the films and legacy of Frank Capra. The session was titled “Frank Capra’s Populism: Timebound or Timeless?” Capra’s films have made an indelible impact on 20th-century America, serving as both commentaries on and artifacts of American culture. Few historians are more able and competent to analyze them than Robert Brent Toplin, Lawrence Levine, and Dan T. Carter.:
Robert Brent Toplin: We remember Frank Capra for his fundamental optimism reflected in his movies. He expressed a faith in democracy, a confidence that good people could reform their society and their government, and make things work. He expressed a faith in the common man, the common woman—expressed in the movies often with the term “the little guy.” These little guys and gals often came from small-town America, and they went up against the metropolis, usually represented by New York City. He seemed to suggest that these little people could succeed, to a degree, that they could make a difference; that they were not helpless as pessimists tend to conclude.
I asked the young men and women in my university classroom, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, to discuss the relevance of Capra’s perspectives for the nineties and I actually taught a class there with Frank Capra Jr. who runs the movie studio in the town. So we are asking about the relevance of Capra’s perspective to the late nineties.. One student wrote the following – “Is this thought still relevant today? I argue, no. As a member of my generation, we know that the American Dream is dead. Another wrote, “I think that this populist vision is irrelevant today because people have lost faith in themselves, lost faith in the idea that they can make a change. People see themselves as helpless against the major issues that plague our country.” So it should be evident that there’s plenty of room for discussion about the relevance of Capra’s vision, for the thirties and forties and for today.
Lawrence Levine: Capra, whose populism was always more cultural than political, was always one of those forces—and I use this term advisedly—forces that help to fix this image of the idyllic small town indelibly in our collective fields of vision. And he did it, interestingly, he did it while hardly ever actually depicting this cultural epicenter in his films. This immigrant from Italy attempted to explain America by portraying another series of immigrants, not from abroad, but from America’s small towns and villages, trooping into the great cities and immediately undergoing a cultural trial by fire. Thus, in Capra’s films we learn about the virtues of small-town life—and I think this is significant—we learn about the virtues of small-town America secondhand, not by actually seeing them and experiencing them, but much as Capra himself did in his own life, we learn about them by hearing about them. A salient paradox of Capra’s career was that he became one of the nation’s most effective champions for small-town American way of life he himself never directly experienced.
Capra has frequently been accused of anti-intellectualism—a term that we often employ loosely and extend to cover struggles over intellectual legitimacy which is not quite the same thing as anti-intellectualism. There have been struggles throughout our history over intellectual legitimacy. Capra clearly felt that he was engaged in just such a struggle, “I’ve never had a very good standing
Crowd scene in
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.
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among American intellectuals with my films. Certainly sentiment is an almost verboten emotion with the intellectuals. . . . It’s perhaps too common, too ordinary . . . . Perhaps it’s too simple.” The cultural significance of Frank Capra is that throughout the crisis of the 1930s he reiterated the virtues of traditional American values, not in the defensive tones of many of the old stock Americans but with an aggressiveness borne of his own newness and his own marginality, and initially born of his deep optimism. “I fell in love with Americans, just fell in love with them. These goddamned Americans I thought, they were so free on their own, individuals, not taking their hats off to anyone. If somebody got sick they’d do something about it, I thought Americans were the gods of the world.” [Walter Karp, "The Patriotism of Frank Capra," Esquire 95 (February, 1981), 34.]
Capra had grave doubts about, and criticisms of, large-scale corporate enterprise. In most of his Depression films, he found ways to reproach powerful capitalists for their values and their actions. Nevertheless, Capra’s films seem to imply that the problems Americans faced were due less to imperfections in the system than to human fallibility: to madness, irrationality, selfishness, greed. The crisis of the Great Depression challenged the soundness of the system and Capra responded, not as the Populists of the late 19th century had, by demanding changes in the political and economic system, but rather by reasserting his faith in the traditional verities and demanding changes in the individual. In his defense of traditional values and lifestyles, in his fear of the dangers of large institutions, in his preoccupation with old-fashioned individualism, in his search for community, in his concentration on the themes of regeneration and redemption, and indeed in many of his contradictions and confusions, Frank Capra was representative of many aspects of his time and his culture and, for better or worse, of ours as well.
Dan T. Carter: In a way, Capra film critics from the opposite side, far opposite side of the ideological picket fence, beginning with the leftists of the thirties through hardball skeptics like Richard Griffith and Andrew Sarris—they see Capra
It’s A Wonderful Life
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through much the same lens as modern cultural conservatives. For that very reason, they criticize Capra’s films for what they saw as their sentimentality, their optimism, and their worship of middle-class bourgeois values. Above all, they recoil from, again this is what they saw in Capra’s film, his naive faith that the brave and courageous individual would lead ordinary people to respond to crises with affection, kindliness and trust. As James Agee put it in a review in 1947, “Capra’s chief mistake or sin,” and he called it that, “was his refusal to face the fact that evil is intrinsic in each individual and that no man may deliver his brother or make an agreement unto God for him.”
Still, we live in a world separated by a great divide from that of Frank Capra and his contemporaries. In part, it is that great divide between the optimism and hopefulness of the 1930s and 1940s and even into the fifties and sixties and the cynicism of today’s students, as Bob Toplin hasdescribed. But even the questions asked by a newer generation of scholars of film, and I’m certainly no expert on them, seem to be changing. One has only to read the critics, pro and con, of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and compare them with more recent works like Raymond Carney’s, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra[Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996], to see the contours of these different worlds. Critics who were unhappy with Capra’s films, critics like James Agee, took them seriously as sociological documents, as representations of a world of power or as evasions of a world of power, politics, and economics. It’s not just that we live in a different time in which the issues of feminism and questions of race make these films somewhat outdated. It seems to me that under the corrosive gaze of post-modernism, these very realities have dissolved into discourses. Films which were once considered representations of reality have become representations of representations—gestures, visions which reflect the imagination of the observer, the one who is seeing the film. And so for Carney, and I suspect for the rising generation of film historians, Freud, Derrida, and Foucault are far more interesting guides to this filmic terrain than Thorstein Veblen. The personal has not become the political, it has often replaced it.
- The Journal of Multimedia History, 1999.