Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon was considered a disappointment in 1937, following a string of box-office hits and a passel of Oscars. It was cut from the night of its first preview through its initial release, then edited again for a 1940s reissue. Most of the original negative was tossed when each of these trims were made, turning this 1937 movie into a long-term challenge for film preservationists. At the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Bob Gitt spent years patiently piecing together the most complete version possible, using still photos to provide visuals for scenes where only the soundtrack survived. Further work was done in 1999 and 2013 at Sony, which owns the movie and even had access to Capra’s personal 35mm print.
Now, Sony preservationist Rita Belda has invested more time and effort to create a new 4K scan for the new Blu-ray release. The company discovered a 16mm print in Europe that contained one crucial minute of footage from the scene where Ronald Colman (as Robert Conway) finally meets the mysterious High Lama of Shangri-La (played by Sam Jaffe). This had been covered by still photos in the last video release.
Belda writes, “While this find was truly monumental to us, the 16mm source still had very extreme damage, dirt, scratches, and unsteadiness. Though the damage was improved using digital restoration, the material is still soft and noticeably different from the 35mm material. When I met with Bob Gitt to show him the footage, he shared his recollection of Frank Capra’s insistence that the restored speech was critical to the film, and told me Capra would have been pleased that we have restored the scenes more fully.” There are other less obvious fixes, sometimes just a few frames in length, which improve the overall quality of this latest attempt to make Lost Horizon whole.
As for the film itself, I think it holds up magnificently well but then, I’ve always loved it. (After I first saw it at the age of 13 I sought out James Hilton’s novel and eagerly read it; that’s the impact Capra’s film had on me.) I now notice things I didn’t recognize back then, like the use of stock footage from German “mountain films” of the 1920s and 30s in the climactic sequence. No matter. I still love Lost Horizon and think its message of peace is as timely as ever.
For its 80th anniversary, Sony has repackaged the Blu-ray in book-like form with a fine essay by Jeremy Arnold and Rita Belda’s story of the restoration. The disc includes Bob Gitt’s conversation with the late Charles Champlin on the commentary track, three deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and other bonus material. If you don’t have a copy, this is the best version ever released and is well worth owning. Buy it HERE.