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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Two That Are Treasured

Honk If You Love Lost Horizon or Raintree County

Certain pictures have champions, the word “cult” not inapt to describe relationship between devoted enough fans and a particular show that moves them so profoundly. It is a marker beyond favorites, being an experience profound that will occupy thoughts of a devotee from there on. To admit an all-immersion might reveal one as obsessive, a kook of a sort, depending on the movie you chose. I might be uneasy meeting someone who lives life in service to Dawn of the Dead, many, perhaps wisely, keeping fervent picks to themselves. Others wave their banner high, have spoke to skies of what film, or films, fill a dedicated life. Books may result, or decades spent at research. A historian named Seymour Stern did sheaves on The Birth of a Nation, so much as to defy completion, a volume based on what Stern left brought to us by Ira Gallen, an archivist of considerable note. So where is dividing line between picking one’s favorites, we all have those, and total engagement which far fewer of us experience? Two I watched in a past couple weeks have had hypnotic effect upon many. Lost Horizon and Raintree County may be mixed bags to some, worth a look and then move on, but for those all-in (lots, as I’ve learned), these are divine objects, no detail of content or production to go unexamined.

The fact both were amended prior to, and after, release, qualifies them all a more to savor and protect. What masterpieces might emerge if only so-far lost footage could be found and put properly back? I’m not worthy to discuss either, certainly not after observing inquiry and effort others have invested. Mine may not be unqualified praise, but I enjoy Lost Horizon and Raintree County very much, and yes, any “news” about them will snap me to attention. Latest headline, the word used lightly because said event went unheralded, was Raintree County showing up for a first time on TCM in High-Definition. After years seeing it cloudy and wan, this for me was news. Stumbling upon the milestone midway, it was too late to capture, so I would wait for a repeat with DVR poised. Revelation is a strong term, but there it be for seeing Raintree County a first really time. Scratch previous issues, as there never was a DVD, the cassettes were cropped, and a laser disc, even at roadshow length (apx. fourteen more minutes), could not meet modern standards. I broke mine down to two sittings, as though I were there for holiday season 1958 when Raintree County first broke (that story Greenbriar-told HERE). A lot of people went to see this film, many cherishing memory for there on. They gather yet on forums to discuss infinite detail re roadshow, edits, what might /should have been, and why doesn’t Warners put back footage and do a deluxe Blu-ray this classic so richly deserves?

Lost Horizon was sliced/diced ever which way from its start. First previews at three hours, soon gone … Frank Capra said he threw his opener two reels into a furnace and watched nitrate flash and burn. Who needs an anecdote to be entirely true where it’s this good? Capra could put Peter Cottontail in his book and I would buy every word. He knew value of imagination and showmanship in writing … silly boy, says nit-pick modern scholars … but Capra found solace in fortunes he earned, so who, really, are the silly boys? There is a marvelous extra on the Blu-Ray, by historian Jeremy Arnold, that explains how Lost Horizon got made, big chunks shot in a below freezing L.A. icehouse, with ninety and up degrees outdoors. Stills show Capra directing like the Field Marshal he was, hundreds of cast and crew, thousands of details for the man to master. Next time I am of mind to criticize Capra, or artists like him in any way, I need but to consult these images. Lost Horizon was ambitious beyond 1936-37 imaginings, upwards of two million at stake, and this was Columbia money, not MGM’s. James Hilton source novel was a natural for movies --- no one could say making it was a bad idea. Another instance this was of spending more money than could be got back, Lost Horizon earning $1.6 million in domestic rentals, so yes, it was attended and enjoyed, but crepe got hung on anything that didn’t do big profits, so flop tick clings to Lost Horizon. Still I’d say this won more fans than any Capra save It’s A Wonderful Life, but does Life inspire yet a level of devotion it had twenty-thirty years ago? Times change and so does preference.

Can Anyone Identify What It Is They Are Eating?

Raintree Country
was liked, popular, and remembered. There were soundtrack albums that came, went, were sought after fiercely once gone (a fine double CD since available). The film saw profit despite colossal costs that should have sunk it. The adapted-from novel was revered in 1948, a “Book of the Month” selection that kept selling for years after. I’m told, lately by several, that Raintree County is among the best novels they ever read. I might try but for daunt of 1000 pages, cut from close-to-double the length by insistent editors before first copies of Ross Lockridge’s book went out. His story is tragic, told at a detailed website kept by son Larry Lockridge. Raintree County was picked too for an MGM “Annual Novel Award,” a contest begun in 1944, and a biggest payout any writer could hope for, as here was cash plus inside track to movie adaptation. Raintree County got the Metro nod in 1947, Ross Lockridge and his publisher left to fight over who would get lion share of the Lion’s money. All this plus fact MGM demanded Lockridge cut 50,000 more words from his manuscript made the author feel he had sold out before Raintree County went on shelves. Severe depression that resulted is thought to have led to Lockridge’s death two months after the novel was published in January 1948.

I asked myself through Lost Horizon, who but Colman could play this? Ideal he was, even as others on further consideration might come at least close. Brian Aherne was tabbed when it briefly looked like they could not have Colman. I thought no initially, then remembered Juarez, and how fine Aherne was in a part not unlike Lost Horizon in respects (a gentle dreamer for peace faced by hard realities). Occurs to me too that Leslie Howard could have delivered, did in fact on previous occasions. Who is Robert Conway but Alan Squier from The Petrified Forest, or Ashley Wilkes for that matter? Not identical, but similar, parts, and Howard brought distinction to them. Another nominee, were it 1936 and me casting for Capra and Columbia … Charles Boyer. Hollywood was blessed with types, established personas, able to step confidently into however demanding a star part might be. Of course, once he was set, there came simple matter of further customizing Lost Horizon to Colman’s fit, crowds coming reliably out to say, Yes, he was born to play Robert Conway. Director Capra cleaved to distinct personalities; I read one co-worker who said the director especial relied upon comic relief, but there may be too deep a well when it’s Edward Everett Horton on an airplane in genuine peril and he will not shut up. Where a situation is genuinely perilous, the last thing I want is strident humor trying too hard to level it. Must also admit bristles on other passengers apart from Colman --- Thomas Mitchell, too long till telling us what he is running from, Isabel Jewell hostile to a point where I cease to care, and John Howard who I’d like to forgive for playing Colman’s truculent brother “as it was written,” but that doesn’t make him easier to take. He stays too agitated for an already agitating situation. And something else I realized here … a purely personal thing … I don’t like Ronald Colman being yelled at, ever. Words of a protective fan? So be it.

Checking Out Glories of 70mm

Raintree County
was a fifties generation’s Gone With The Wind, a same sprawl, stars then at a peak of public interest, with a Civil War for backdrop. To tame the book was known hopeless from a moment anyone tried, so why pretend to “adapt” same? Enough to write a more-less original and call it Raintree County. The tie-in paperback would be shortened even more from Lockridge’s text being reprinted. MGM shot in “Camera 65,” a bigger-than-big frame to promise clarity not experienced since early 30’s tries, a benefit even to 35mm prints ultimately the format of choice after roadshow dates broke down. The Facebook group devoted to Raintree County emphasizes quest to have it on Blu-Ray, and having seen the HD upgrade on TCM, I understand their passion, because yes, it is vast and often quite grand (note the monster script at upper right that Monty and Liz had to lug around). For all of length, I did not weary, partly being impressed by sheer size and how varied incident plus a game cast dealt its audience more than fair. There is as much drama in backstage circumstance as onscreen conflict, specific being Montgomery Clift’s car smash that forever put his beauty to rout, though to my estimate, Clift the actor got better for the mishap, and maybe he was as pleased to be done with the fan idol weight borne since forties’ start. Clift acknowledged viewer sport of ID’ing scenes as pre-or-post wreck. By finish of Raintree County, he cared less because this for him was an ill-judged movie hobbled further by his own "bad" performance. Clift went hardest on himself. I say he was great just for walking in a room. Montgomery Clift for me is everything Brando was cracked up to be.

I wonder if MGM’s Land of Oz was inspired, at least in part, by Lost Horizon. Or ultra-modern theatres where both pictures would be shown. For scenes of H. B. Warner showing Colman around cavernous digs, I wanted a cleaning lady in the far background to plug in a vacuum cleaner and go to work. Settings cannot be too lush for me, as nothing of reality intrudes here. Colman interviewing with the High Lama leaves me cool, however. Being petty as never to deserve such an audience myself, I kept wondering what happened to the Lama’s front teeth, and wasn’t there someone in Shangri-La who could fix that? Sam Jaffe seems more weird than wonderful. Food for might-have-been thought: Suppose he turned out to be a Hocus-Pocus like Frank Morgan as the Wizard, Colman left to pick up the pieces. Had I been latter in either case, the Shangri-La rose would have lost its bloom here, John Howard’s vote for a powder an increasingly sane one. Who to be chief Lama if not Jaffe? I’ll go off rails and say Boris Karloff. Yes, seriously … he would have been marvelous. The voice, strength, authority, even hint of menace, that Jaffe could never have for me. A great character part to send BK career in a whole new direction. Roads not taken. Spoke to Conrad Lane as to when he first saw Lost Horizon. It was 1948, Shangri-La by then a serving of chopped liver at around an hour and forty minutes. We are lucky to have it in roughly roadshow form, even if six or so minutes are told by sound, but no picture, stills the substitute like used for A Star Is Born. They do not disturb as with the 1954 musical, and certainly the Blu-Ray is leap-bound ahead of discs released previous.


Blogger Ken said...

Another fascinating piece. And - if you'll allow it - it seems like the perfect time to repeat (and elaborate on) something I posted on your site about five years ago.
Here's the original post:
"Love William S. Hart. At least half a dozen of my favorite silents are Hart vehicles. And - considering his splendid work in the "Tumbleweeds" prologue, not to mention the success he'd enjoyed as a stage actor - I don't think it's a stretch to think he could well have distinguished himself in sound films had he had a mind to. I always wished he'd played the High Lama in Capra's 1937 "Lost Horizon". I believe another silent great, Henry B. Walthall, had been provisionally cast - but died just before filming began. I think if Hart had taken over the role,his tremendous presence and beautiful speaking voice would have added even more resonance to an already remarkable film. I certainly wouldn't have replaced Ronald Colman, the unimprovable heart and soul of the picture. Nor the under-rated John Howard who I think is terrific as his brother. But I was never sold on Jane Wyatt as the pic's femme star. An efficiently lady-like performer, she always seemed too practical a type to inspire Colman's poetic longings. I think the ideal Sondra was already on the Columbia lot. That would be Iris Meredith, the soulful and beautiful actress who did leading lady duty in a score of B westerns Columbia turned out from '36 to '41. Terrific as she was in these, it always seemed a shame the studio never gave her the A picture showcase her beauty and talent deserved. As it happens, she did have a connection to "Lost Horizon", Some sequences in my favorite of the Charles Starrett-Iris Meredith westerns, "The Cowboy Star" are shot on the Columbia lot (as the title suggests Starrett plays a cowboy turned movie star). And in the background of one scene you can actually spot part of the "Lost Horizon" set. Anyway, when I read your Hart tribute, I found myself thinking again of that lovely but never to be version of "Lost Horizon" where Ronald Colman would have shared the screen with both marvelous Iris Meredith and the great Mr. Hart."
Additional comments to follow in next post.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

In the years since that earlier post, I've been thinking of other recasting ideas that could have made "Lost Horizon' even more treasurable.
Philip Ahn, a fine actor of Korean descent, played scores of Asian American parts in golden age films. Check him out in 1937's "Thank You Mr. Moto", where I think his lovely, deeply-felt performance shows just how fine he'd have been as Chang (the role H.B.Warner played).
I'm not an Edward Everett Horton fan. So I'd replace him with any of a number of fussy, eccentric types that appeal to me more. Let's say Donald Meek.
Even at her best,I always found Isabel Jewell kind of off-putting. Here's where I think I've come up with a really magical piece of recasting. Movie legend Clara Bow! Bow hadn't filmed for several years. But she had been in the running for the part Claudette Colbert played in "Under Two Flags"(1936), also - as it happens - with Ronald Colman. And I remember seeing a photo of her at some mid 30's Hollywood function looking extremely attractive. I can't help thinking Bow - as the hard luck dame who re-blossoms in Shangri-La - might have been really marvelous. Of course, the role would probably have been beefed up to befit her status; probably co-star billing with Colman. I figure a mixture of nostalgia, curiosity and genuine affection for her might have attracted flocks of extra viewers to "Lost Horizon". And I can't help thinking Bow - sensitive artist that she was - could well have rewarded them with a tremendous,award-worthy performance.
I like Thomas Mitchell but I don't think he'd have come off quite right as a potential romantic partner for Bow. So let's put Frank McHugh in, though your readers may have a better suggestion.
Finally there's the Margo part. She's okay. But what were the honchos at Columbia thinking? Rita Hayworth was right their under their noses. Already a Columbia contractee, already a stunner - brimming with talent, burgeoning charisma. Can't help thinking "Lost Horizon" would have jump-started the lady's rise to stardom by at least a couple of years.
So there's my dream version of "Lost Horizon". Ronald Colman, Clara Bow, Iris Meredith, John Howard, Philip Ahn, Frank McHugh, William S. Hart and Rita Hayworth. Who wouldn't want to see that?

3:32 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Ira Gallen is owed a huge debt of thanks for publishing Seymour Stern's work on THE BIRTH OF A NATION. That said, the book is a hard read not because the ideas expressed are difficult to understand but rather the book needed desperately a proofreader. I had to stop constantly and work to figure out too much of it.

Nonetheless I'm happy to do that. Hopefully, others are and will be.

3:41 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recently viewed an evidently forgotten Colman, the 1944 "Kismet". For all the Technicolor splendor not as much fun as various cheaper Arabian Nights flicks, even with Colman making lines sound better than they are.

You sense this is not going to be a great film when it opens with a storybook spelling out everybody's backstory rather than showing us. Colman is the grubby King of the Beggars by day and a suave aristocratic lover by night; that should have been a flashy reveal rather than a page of text. The storytelling is a bit underwhelming throughout, and despite her costumes and dance number Marlene Dietrich feels wasted. The Broadway musical/movie, while not a classic, tells a sharper version of the same basic tale.

So, how did this one fare in '44? Was it undercut by Bs that delivered more action and harem girl midriffs?

4:27 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Mike Mazzone tells about his past encounters with LOST HORIZON:


Read your Lost Horizon piece, which is excellent.

For years I was in contact with Kendall Miller of Modesto California, a huge Colman and Lost Horizon fan.

He was instrumental in reconstructing the film and I was fortunate enough to have helped him find key stills from cut scenes ( if found a group of South American stills at Cinevent that were probably sent out before the film’s release and final cut).

Kendall does voice commentary and a documentary bonus on the first DVD release where the soundtrack and stills are used, he was kind enough to give me a credit that got me listed on IMDB!

Kendall knows EVERYTHING about LH and Colman and I cherish the many hours when we would talk on the phone about these, his favorite subjects.

Also while you mentioned who else could have played the High Lama, don’t forget, Walter Connoly DID play him (stills exist) but was eventually replaced by Jaffe.

I love the film and will never forget seeing it for the first time in 1978 at the Asolo Theater at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota Florida, it’s an 18th century Italian Theater that John Ringling had disassembled and Reconstructed on his property, it has booths and is “in the round” and was a magical place to see an escapist film like Lost Horizon, I wrote to Jane Wyatt to tell her of my experience and she wrote me back thanking me for telling her how much I enjoyed the film, she was also kind enough to sign an original portrait of her for me that was of all things from early sitting when Columbia tested her for Lost Horizon.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I thought I was the only one who thought Montgomery Clift was better post-accident. It seems a cruel thing to say, but I believe it true. His final performance, in "The Defector", is almost hypnotic in its realism, and that's at least partly due to his damaged looks and ill health. Yeah, I guess it sounds cruel.

How long is the hi-def "Raintree County"?

1:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Don't know the exact run time, and there's no overture or exit music, and from what I have read, there is about 14 minutes of scenes missing that were in the so-called "roadshow version."

4:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers LOST HORIZON and RAINTREE COUNTY:

I saw a restored version of “Lost Horizon” years ago at the Temple University Cinemateque. It was very much like the one you described, with sections that had the sound track only and stills to illustrate it, and other sections that were softer and grayer, evidently obtained from 16 mm elements. I had seen the film before, but the additions enhanced it, in particular a scene on the airplane where the Robert Conway character expresses his disillusionment with the colonial system he is a representative of.

In the years since then, however, I find that I’ve come to think less of the film. Certainly, it is beautiful to look at, with its elaborate sets and striking visual compositions that are representative of Capra’s best work. Especially, the horseback riding scene of Robert Conway and Sondra by the falls, where they first come to know each other, is enthralling. Ronald Colman is also perfectly cast as Conway. I can think of few actors who could so well convey the peculiar romance of idealism, or suggest the interior conversation that goes on when a man is trying to find meaning in an incident or a moment, or a life.

Unfortunately, the other characters are not fully realized human beings but only types, who are intended to demonstrate or contrast the beneficence of the Valley of the Blue Moon. This undercuts the dramatic validity of the film. Plato aside, I believe most men would chafe under the rule of philosopher-kings. They have their own hearts and want to give expression to them as they will, with regards the things that are theirs. Only the Maria and George Conway characters suggest this possibility, but Maria’s motivation for leaving Shangri-La or, apparently, lying about it, is unexamined, while George Conway is played in such a strident and monotonous manner by John Howard that it hardly matters why he wants to accompany her.

Interestingly, the purpose of Shangri-La is to serve as a place of refuge for all the great good of the Western world, so that, if there were to be a war of destruction, the sons of men would find the symphonies of Beethoven or plays of Shakespeare still there, waiting for them. The would-be philosopher-kings of today have no such regard for such works, other than as tinder for the bonfire.

“Raintree County” is rather like “Gone With The Wind,” in telling a multi-layered story against a complex and shifting social backdrop. Each recognizes the intricacies and subtleties of Southern society, with a ruling hierarchy based on breeding, the racial divide, the slaves with their own hierarchy between house workers, yard workers, and field hands, and with Northern interlopers, whose pretensions to gentility are based less on enlightenment than wealth or power. Such a feudal society cannot long survive, but must give way to another which sees truth as truth, unencumbered by notions of honor or sacrifice or civility. Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara think of themselves as scoundrels, when nothing is beyond them when they want something. Their gentle, sensitive manner aside, John Shawnessey and Nell Gaither are scarcely less destructive to that which they do not share or care for.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I watched RAINTREE COUNTY for the first time today. While a Blu-ray would be appreciated I don't think I'd want to see a longer version. But then, we never know until we get the chance.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Boris Karloff playing the Jaffe role in 'Lost Horizon' would have been a superb casting choice; my own retrospective (and impish) desire would have been to see the young Mickey Rooney in that role, presenting a variation on his "Puck" character from "A Midsummer Night's Dream", playing a centuries-old, yet eternally-youthful, mirthful, and mocking "High Lama".

12:07 PM  

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