Return to Shangri-La by matthew c. hoffman

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I started a blog for this movie group because Ronald Colman has always been my favorite actor, and I thought I would expand upon his career with an online journal. Also, I thought I should explain some of the reasons behind the site. Simply put, Ronald Colman was an actor who made audiences (this writer, in particular) feel good about life. Years ago at a young age, I even wrote a poem about RC called “The Spirit of Man.” (I’m no Francois Villon, but it was a sincere attempt at poetry!) Part of the fascination for me– aside from the many memorable films he appeared in– was the image of Colman as the chivalrous hero. On and off the screen, he was a gentleman, and his motto could’ve easily been: to thine own self be true. Author Lawrence J. Quirk wrote of him, “Colman alone gave the world, through the medium of his films, that combination of exceptional good looks, poetic grace– and a strong tinge of mysticism in his aura that enchanted and intrigued millions.”

Watching a Colman movie has always been like an event, so when I had the opportunity to manage a revival house, there was one movie in particular I wanted to play. And it was the one movie I was most proud to have shown… Against all the cynicism in today’s world, I wanted to present a film that shows how we collectively can be more than what we are now. It’s a movie that makes us believe in a transcendent humanity– that we can rise above the ugly parts of society. Lost Horizon (1937), Frank Capra’s masterpiece, is a beautiful film in so many ways. In it,  Ronald Colman plays Robert Conway, the visionary diplomat who glimpses the eternal in Shangri-La– a place, as James Hilton wrote, “touched with the mystery that lies at the core of all loveliness.”

On October 5th, 2002, I screened Lost Horizon at the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago, Illinois. It was the first film ever shown in the 35mm format at the bank, and the audience response was phenomenal. In the brochure for the film series I had Colman scholar George E. Schatz write of the film. Years later, I repost his words as a special introduction for those of you not familar with this movie…

Ronald Colman Pictures, Images and Photos

There is a rare fruition, a quality of distinctive elements blending together as rewardingly as with a vintage wine, that transforms Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon into that form of anticipation and deeper impact we sometimes experience with a beloved opera or symphony. Our newer DVD technology offers us the choice to skip to favored scenes or musical numbers, but we think you’ll find that there is such an insistent procedural relationship, such inevitability of scene to scene, with their additional gifts of visual and aural beauty in this classic film that you’ll not want one instant out of its flowing place.

Capra could not have fully known, as we are fortunate enough to appreciate in 2009, was how truly timeless Stephen Goosson’s set designs for Shangri-La would prove to be, or that Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score lives as a multi-themed masterpiece that gives each scene its deserved distinction. What Capra did know was that there was only one actor to truly embody and represent the major role of Conway: Ronald Colman. Time has also revealed that Colman, beyond his enduring 3-decade handsome ‘leading man’ appeal and ‘Best Actor’ nominations over an eighteen-year period, proved to be, in his personal life as well as his characterization in this film, as close to being a true Renaissance man as we may hope to find in the real world. His exceptional clarity and quality of speech could offer even ordinary sentences a poetic lift, but given the Capra-Robert Riskin script Colman enjoyed here, you might well find phrases and content both affecting and memorable.

There is a type of ‘critic’ who seem to delight in stealing and repetitively using the term “Capra-corn” with a ill-earned smugness, which hardly accurately describes the immigrant boy whose flowering and insistent intellect earned him a Degree in Engineering, whose bright comedic wit won a career writing scripts for silent films, and who not only served his United States during World War II directing the Why We Fight series of films, but carefully gathered a collection of beloved rare books worthy of a museum.

And if those same critics seem to dismiss Capra’s Lost Horizon as a “fantasy,” they are correct only in one instance: the extended-life span is contrary to Earth’s environmental realities. But even here, the James Hilton book and the Capra-Riskin script cautions us: when Conway is offered this extended span of active life, he demures: “It must have a point. I sometimes wonder if life itself has any.” This is hardly the substance of a mindless sugar-coated going-to-the-seashore escapism.


In all other respects this story is of the Earth, fully within the limits of our own humanly achievable. It does not depend, as would most “fantasies,” upon metaphysical, supernatural, or extraterrestrial interventions. While we readily acknowledge that the very nature of Shangri-La demands an exotic location, this must be understood in the context of its time: the author of the 1933 novel (as, of course, would be the writers of its 1936 screenplay) was only too well aware of the threatening tentacles of Hitler’s voracious Nazi intentions; therefore, Tibet seemed to provide a site not only excitingly remote and mysterious in which to place Shangri-La, but also so as the High Lama states: “We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.” It is here that we believe a most important distinction was made by the Capra-Riskin screenwriters: they changed the novel’s “our” books and music, to “their” or the entire outer world’s accumulated scientific and cultural knowledge, not as an ‘elitist’ Utopian society, but hoping only to act as a safe haven, a temporary repository, until a war-mad world could retrieve it if and when peace finally returned.

In a 2009 Earth, where not even Tibet remains removed from a satellite digital pinpoint, every local library with interlibrary and computer resources can provide a similar Shangri-La-like stunning wealth of knowledge to our individual selves! But in that 1933 and 1937 world, that fragile story depends upon our believing that Conway believes in Shangri-La and its humanitarian purposes, and, when we witness that Capra and Colman so obviously believe in its rewarding totality, you feel free to, as well!

                                                                                                George E. Schatz


~ by mchoffman on January 9, 2009.

One Response to “Return to Shangri-La by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. I knew Frank Capra for some years, and spent several evenings with him. “Lost Horizon” remains my favorite Capra film, while its musical score by Dimiri Tiomkin is among my all time favorite compositions. Both the film and its score are nothing less than exquisite.

    Steve Vertlieb

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