Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Lost Horizon (dir by Frank Capra)


Long before there was Lost, there was Lost Horizon!

Much like the famous television show, the 1937 film Lost Horizon begins with a group of strangers on an airplane.  They’re people from all walks of life, all with their separate hopes and dreams.  When the plane crashes, they find themselves stranded in an uncharted land and, much like the Lost castaways, they are shocked to discover that they are not alone.  Instead, they’ve found a semi-legendary place that is ruled over by a man who has lived for centuries.  Much as in Lost, some want to return to civilization while others want to remain in their new home.  Both Lost and Lost Horizon even feature a terminally ill woman who starts to recover her health after becoming stranded.

Of course, in Lost, everyone was just flying from Australia to America.  In Lost Horizon, everyone is trying to escape the Chinese revolution.  Among the passengers on the plane: diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), his irresponsible brother, George (John Howard), a con artist named Henry (Thomas Mitchell), a paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), and the very ill Gloria (Isabel Jewell).

While Lost featured a plane crash on a tropical island, Lost Horizon features a plane crash in the Himalayas.  In Lost, the sinister Others sent spies to infiltrate the survivors.  In Lost Horizon, the mysterious Chang (H.B. Warner) appears and leads the survivors to a place called Shangri-La.

Shangi-La is a lush and idyllic valley that has somehow flourished in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.  The happy inhabitants inform the survivors that they never get sick and they never fight.  They’re led by the High Lama (Sam Jaffe), a philosopher who explains that he is several hundred years old.  The valley is full of magic and the Lama tells the survivors that Shangri-La is their new home.

Now, I’ve seen enough horror movies that I spent most of Lost Horizon waiting for the Lama to suddenly reveal that he was a vampire or an alien or something.  Whenever anyone in a movie seems to be too good to be true, that usually means that he’s going to end up killing someone about an hour into the story.  But that didn’t happen in Lost Horizon.  Instead, the Lama is just as wise and benevolent as he claims to be and Shangri-La is as much of a paradise as everyone assumes.  I guess we’re just naturally more cynical in 2018 than people were in 1937.

Of course, the Lama isn’t immortal.  Not even the magic of Shangri-La can prevent the inevitably of death.  The Lama is looking for a successor.  Could one of the survivors be that successor?  Perhaps.  For instance, Robert absolutely loves Shangri-La.  Of course, his brother George is determined to return to the real world.  He has fallen in love with one of the inhabitants of Shagri-La and plans to take her with him, despite the Lama’s warning about trying to leave…

Frank Capra was a huge fan of James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizon, and he spent three years trying to bring it to the big screen.  Based on Capra’s previous box office successes, Colombia’s Harry Cohn gave Capra a budget of $1.25 million to bring his vision of Shangri-La to life.  That may not sound like much today but, at the time, that made Lost Horizon the most expensive movie ever made.  The production was a notoriously difficult one.  (The original actor cast as the elderly Lama was so excited to learn he had been selected that he dropped dead of a heart attack.)  As a result of both its ornate sets and Capra’s perfectionism, the film soon went overbudget.  When Capra finally delivered a first cut, it was over 6 hours long.  Capra eventually managed to edit it down to 210 minutes, just to then have Harry Cohn order another hour taken out of the film.  When Lost Horizon was finally released, it had a running time of 132 minutes.

Seen today, Lost Horizon is definitely an uneven work.  With all the cutting and editing that went on, it’s hard to guess what Capra’s original vision may have been but, in the final version, much more time is devoted to the characters discussing the philosophy of Shangri-La than to the characters themselves.  (It’s always good to see Thomas Mitchell but he really doesn’t get much to do.)  Since you never really feel like you know what any of these characters were like outside of Shangi-La, it’s hard to see how being in Shagri-La has changed them.  You just have to take their word for it.  That said, it’s a visually stunning film.  Capra may have gone over budget creating the look of Shangri-La but it was money well-spent.  If I ever find myself in a magic village, I hope it looks half as nice as the one in Lost Horizon.

Despite all of the drama that went on behind the scenes and a rather anemic box office reception, Lost Horizon was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to The Life of Emile Zola.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (dir by Henry King)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1955 best picture nominee, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing!)

Before I talk about Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, let’s play a little trivia game.

I’m going to list ten films.  Your job is to guess what they all have in common:

Did you guess?  All ten of these films came out in 1955 and not a single one of them was nominated for best picture.  That’s something that I found myself thinking about quite a bit as I watched Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing on TCM last night.  Of course, at this point, everyone knows that deserving films are often ignored by the Academy and that what seems like a great film during one year can often seem to be rather forgettable in subsequent years.

So, you can probably guess that I wasn’t terribly impressed with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing but, before I get too critical, I want to start things off on a positive note.  William Holden was, without a doubt, one of the best actors to ever appear in the movies.  He started his film career in the 1930s and worked regularly until his death in 1981.  Just consider some of the films in which Holden appeared: Golden Boy, Our Town, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Picnic, Network, and so many others.  Of course, not every film in which Holden appeared was a masterpiece.  He made his share of films like Damien: Omen II and When Time Ran Out.  But the thing is that, regardless of the film, Holden was always good.

That’s certainly the case with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing.  It’s not one of Holden’s better films but William Holden is his usual dependable self.  He plays Mark Elliott, a rugged American correspondent who is living in Hong Kong in the 1940s.  While the Chinese Civil War rages nearby, Mark deals with his failing marriage.  His wife is back in the States.  They’re separated but not quite divorced.  Mark owns a really nice car and, since he’s played by William Holden, he delivers the most world-weary of lines with an undeniable panache.  He also appears shirtless for a good deal of the film.  Between this and Picnic, 1955 was the year of the shirtless Holden.

The problem with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing is not with William Holden.  Instead, the problem is with the miscasting of Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin, the woman with whom Mark Elliott falls in love.  Han Suyin was a real-life person, a doctor who wrote the autobiographical novel on which Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was based.  Han Suyin was Eurasian.  Jennifer Jones most definitely was not.  Throughout the film, Han Suyin and Mark often discuss what it’s like to be Eurasian and to be in the middle of two very different cultures.  There’s even a discussion about whether Han Suying should try to pass as European.  It all has the potential to be very interesting except for the fact that Jennifer Jones, who was so good in so many films, is in no way convincing in her role.  Whenever she mentions being Eurasian, which she does frequently, the film come to a halt as we all stare at Jennifer Jones, one of the first film stars to ever come out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It all leads to a rather strained movie, one that never really drew me into its cinematic world or story.  (For the record, a lot of people on twitter disagreed with me on this point.)  Ultimately, the main reason to watch it was for William Holden.  According to the film’s Wikipedia entry (how’s that for in-depth research), Holden and Jones reportedly did not get along during filming, with Jones apparently chewing garlic before their love scenes and there was a definite lack of chemistry between them.  Maybe I got spoiled by William Holden and Kim Novak dancing in Picnic but I never believed that Mark and Han Suyin were attracted to each other.  Interestingly, Jones and Holden would later both appear in another best picture nominee, 1974’s The Towering Inferno.  However, they didn’t share any scenes.

Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was nominated for best picture but it lost to a far different love story, Marty.  This was also the final film directed by Henry King to be nominated for best picture.  Previous King films to be nominated included State Fair, In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, The Song of Bernadette, Wilson, and Twelve O’Clock High.

Remembering Roger Moore: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (United Artists 1974)


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I didn’t realize Sir Roger Moore was 89 years old when I first heard he’d passed away on May 23. But as Mick Jagger once sang, time waits for no one, and Moore’s passing is another sad reminder of our own mortality. It seemed like Roger had been around forever though, from his TV stardom as Simon Templar in THE SAINT (1962-69) though his seven appearances as James Bond, Agent 007.

There’s always been a rift  between fans of original film Bond Sean Connery and fans of Moore’s interpretation. The Connery camp maintains Moore’s Bond movies rely too much on comedy, turning the superspy into a parody of himself. Many point to his second, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, as an example, but I disagree. I think the film strikes a good balance between humor and suspense, with Roger on-target as 007, and the great Christopher Lee (who’d guest starred in Moore’s syndicated…

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Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)


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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #22: The Good Earth (dir by Sidney Franklin)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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The 1937 film The Good Earth is a strange one.

It’s a big, epic film about life in China in the years before World War I.  It opens with a poor farmer named Wang (Paul Muni) marrying a servant girl named O-Lan (Luise Rainer).  O-Lan is quiet but strong and, with her support, Wang eventually starts to prosper.  He buys land and they have children.  Together, Wang and O-Lan manage to survive both famine and a political upheaval.  In fact, it’s China’s volatile politics that occasionally allow the family to survive.  When a revolutionary mob loots a mansion, O-Lan joins in just long enough to come across a bag of diamonds that the Wang uses to eventually buy the biggest house in town.  Once he’s become wealthy and complacent, Wang ends up taking on a younger, second wife (Tilly Losch) and O-Lan finds herself competing for his attention.  Ultimately, it’s only when Wang is again forced to tend to the Earth that he understands what is really important.

So, here’s the weird thing about The Good Earth.  It’s a film about China.  It covers several years of Chinese history and the story itself is rooted in Chinese culture.  All of the characters are meant to be Chinese.  When the movie was filmed, China was at war with Japan so it’s not surprising that the film was shot in California.  But what is interesting (though not really surprising when you consider the history of Hollywood) is that there are very few Chinese people in the cast and none of them play any of the major roles.

Instead, Wang was played by Austria-born, Chicago-raised Paul Muni.  O-Lan was played by German Luise Rainer.  Wang’s comic relief uncle was played by American character actor Walter Connolly while his father was played by a former vaudeville star from Ohio named Charley Grapewin.  All of the actors are heavily made up so that they’ll look Chinese but none of them act or sound Chinese.  It makes for a very strange viewing experience.

And it’s a bit unfortunate because there are some very good scenes in The Good Earth.  Technically, it’s a very strong film.  Towards the end, there’s a locust invasion that is still thrilling to watch.  The sets look great.  The costumes look great.  If you’re a history nerd like me, the story has the potential to be interesting.  But, whenever you start to get sucked into the film’s story, Wang starts to speak and sounds totally like a guy from Chicago and it takes you out of the movie.  The uneven mix of quality and miscast actors makes for a rather disjointed viewing experience.

As a big epic, it’s probably not surprising that The Good Earth was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to another Paul Muni film, The Life of Emile Zola.

Film Review: Chandler (1971, directed by Paul Magwood)


C1971chandler1handler (Warren Oates) is a former private investigator who quits his job as a security guard and gets back into the detective game.  An old friend of his, Bernie Oakman (Charles McGraw), hires Chandler to follow and protect a woman named Katherine Creighton (Leslie Caron).  Katherine is scheduled to testify against gangster John Melchior (Gordon Pinset) and Oakman tells Chandler that he believes Melchior may be planning on murdering her.  What Chandler does not know is that Oakman is being manipulated by a corrupt federal agent, Ross Carmady (Alex Dreier), who is planning on duping Chandler into killing Melchior so that Carmady can take over Melchior’s racket.  Though Chandler tries not to get emotionally involved in his cases, he ends up falling for Katherine.

In case you are keeping count, Chandler is the sixth Warren Oates film that I’ve reviewed this week.  Some of that is because TCM devoted all of Monday to showing his films but it’s also because Warren Oates was a really cool actor who died too soon and never got as much credit as he deserved.  Warren Oates combined the talent of a leading man with the face of a character actor and, as a result, he played some of the most memorable supporting roles of the 60s and 70s.  He was the tough guy who could talk a mile a minute and his upturned grin always showed up at the most unexpected of times.  Warren Oates brought humanity to outcasts and sympathy to villains.

Chandler is one of Warren Oates’s few leading roles.  Unfortunately, it’s not much of a showcase.  Director Paul Magwood and producer Michael Laughlin felt that the then-head of MGM, James Thomas Aubrey, interfered with the production of the film.  After the film’s release, Magwood and Laughlin took out a full-page, black-bordered ad in Variety that read:

Regarding what was our film Chandler, let’s give credit where credit is due. We sadly acknowledge that all editing, post-production as well as additional scenes were executed by James T. Aubrey Jr. We are sorry.

Chandler is a strange film to watch.  The plot is complicated but nothing really happens until the downbeat ending.  Much like Robert Altman’s far more successful The Long GoodbyeChandler tries to contrast the title character’s old-fashioned 1940s style and moral code with the 70s.  Chandler, who always wears a suit and drives an old car, is meant to be a man out of time.  Warren Oates does a good job, giving a Humphrey Bogart-style performance.  But since Chandler doesn’t seem to be sure what it is trying to say about either the 40s or the 70s, it’s all for naught.

Chandler is a forgettable film, one that is only worth watching for the rare chance to see Warren Oates as a leading man.

Warren Oates in Chandler

Warren Oates as Chandler

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Sand Pebbles (dir by Robert Wise)


The_Sand_Pebbles_film_posterAfter watching Witness For The Prosecution, I continued TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1966 Best Picture nominee, The Sand Pebbles.

Considering that The Sand Pebbles is close to four hours long, it’s interesting how little there is to really say about it.  Taking place in 1926, The Sand Pebbles follows the crew of the USS San Pablo, a gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River in China.  The San Pablo is there to protect American business interests, which are in particular danger because China is caught up in a communist revolution.  For the most part, the crew of the San Pablo are portrayed as being lazy and racist.  They have little interest in understanding the culture of the people around them and they use Chinese laborer to do the work on the boat.

When Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is transferred to the San Pablo, he upsets his fellow crewmen by insisting on working in the ship’s engine room himself, the fear being that if Holman is willing to work then the rest of them will be expected to work as well.  The ship’s commander, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), views Holman as being a threat to morale and starts to make plans to get Holman off of his boat.  But, first, the boat is going to have to get out of China…

The Sand Pebbles is an episodic film and some of those episodes are more interesting than others.  Typically, an episode will start out positively and then end with some sudden tragedy.  For instance, Holman trains one laborer (Mako) to be a boxer and then watches as he beats the most racist crewman on the ship.  However, just a few minutes later, the laborer is captured and savagely tortured by the communists and Holman is forced to perform a mercy killing.

In another subplot, Holman’s only friend, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), marries a local prostitute (Emmanuelle Arsan, who would later write an autobiography that would serve as the basis for a very different type of film).  However, in order to see his wife, Frenchy has to continually swim to shore in the middle of the night.  Frenchy soon develops pneumonia and dies while his wife is dragged off and apparently executed.

And finally, Holman strikes up a romance with Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), an innocent missionary.  However, when her arrogant and naive boss, Jameson (Larry Gates), refuses to leave the country despite the revolution, the San Pablo is ordered to rescue them.  This, of course, leads to a final battle with the communists which leaves a good deal of the cast dead.

As I watched The Sand Pebbles, my main impression was that it was an extremely long movie.  The film’s climatic battle was exciting and Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the director of 12 Years A Slave and Shame) gave a good performance but otherwise, the film often seemed to drag.  While the movie’s theme of Americans struggling (and failing) to understand another country’s culture had a definite resonance, The Sand Pebbles did not seem to be quite sure what it truly wanted to say about it.

Let’s face it — over 500 films have been nominated for best picture.  And, while a good deal of them hold up surprisingly well and are still entertaining to watch, there’s also a handful like The Sand Pebbles, ambitious films that never quite reached their potential but were probably nominated because they seemed like the type of epic film that should be nominated.  Many of these films were nominated and a few even won.

However, in the case of The Sand Pebbles, a nomination would have to be enough.  That year, the Oscar for Best Picture was won by A Man For All Seasons.