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Lost Horizon

Frank Capra on DVD

DVD does Frank Capra Proud

"Lost Horizon"

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

"It's a Wonderful Life"

"Lost Horizon"

Columbia Pictures Home Video has brought movie lovers a true Hollywood classic in a restoration that's a perfect example of why the DVD medium is so great.

"Lost Horizon" is legendary director Frank Capra's brilliantly warm and fuzzy fantasy about Shangri La, a lost world nestled in the Himalayas where life is perfect and love is in the air.

Ronald Colman is excellent as Robert Conway, a renowned foreign affairs bureaucrat whose plane is shanghaied on route to Shanghai and redirected to the mythical utopia. Once there, the hostile surrounding terrain means he and his traveling companions must wait until a "supply caravan" arrives and can escort them back to "civilization."

As the weeks pass, Conway and his companions - with the exception of Conway's brother - grow to love the perfect existence of Shangri La and decide to stay. But the brother and his new love interest are intent on leaving and, reluctantly, Conway turns his back on his new life and leads them out.

It's a marvelous movie, full of good performances, fabulous sets and settings, and its craftsmanship is such that it makes you long to find your own Shangri La, which was undoubtedly team Capra's intention.

According to the copious extras included on the DVD, "Lost Horizon" premiered in 1937 with a running time of 132 minutes, but was subsequently hacked to a length of about 107 minutes in order to make it more "politically correct" for its time - which means a lot of the lovely but (unfortunately) naive pacifist sentiment was excised in a time when the world was gearing up for war.

The restoration team, led by Robert Gitt, got to work on the project in 1973 and apparently searched the world for the shorn snippets and managed to find all the audio soundtrack and all but seven minutes of the filmed footage. They digitally restored the film (to see just how great a task this was, be sure to watch the feature on the supplemental tracks), and spliced it back together, using freeze frames and production photos to cover the seven minutes of holes.

This tactic may sound silly, but it works. There are really only two substantial scenes in which the still images are used, and they've used split screens, judicious cuts, pans and zooms, to make the stills seem as "moving" as possible. In all, it's a remarkable tactic and one must admire their guts for even attempting such an audacious thing - let alone pulling it off so well.

The fullscreen (the original aspect ratio) picture quality is all over the map, ranging from excellent to "VHS-quality," but for the most part the picture looks fine. The substandard sections are understandable if you watch the "before and after restoration" section on the disc; it's nothing short of amazing that they made it look as good as they did!

Audio quality is good, considering the age of the movie and the worldwide search for the soundtrack. It's in Dolby Digital 2.0 channel mono, which means the sound comes from the main front speakers. The only improvement would have been to direct the sound to the center channel, so it would come from the TV screen instead of a "ghost image" between the stereo speakers, but this isn't a major criticism.

Extras abound besides the "before and after restoration" section. There are the usual chapter stops and trailer, as well as an alternative ending (as usual, the director was right in his choice), a "photo documentary" narrated by historian Kendall Miller that offers a set of production photos with Miller's historical commentary; there's also a second audio track "restoration commentary" by Gitt and Charles Champlin. Both offer fascinating glimpses into the making - and the resurrection - of this classic. There's also a good set of liner notes.

Columbia's treatment of "Lost Horizon" is one of the reasons we're such fans of the DVD medium. It's the perfect way to present the best (and, of course, the worst) that Hollywood has to offer in the best way possible; it's also, thanks to DVD's remarkable storage capacity, an opportunity for the movie makers to offer a wonderful medium for collectors and film students via the kind of extras Columbia has put onto this disc.

Welcome back, "Lost Horizon;" we're glad you came home in such fine health.

Lost Horizon, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
132 minutes, Full screen, Dolby Digital Mono
Starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, John Howard, Margo, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton
A Frank Capra Production, Screenplay by Robert Riskin, from the novel by James Hilton
Directed by Frank Capra

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

by Jim Bray

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" is considered by some to be Frank Capra's best picture. That's high praise for a director who has helmed such movie masterpieces as "Lost Horizon," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Best Years of our Lives" and, of course, "It's a Wonderful Life."

One can't argue the quality of "Mr. Deeds," however, a marvelous film that's enough to reaffirm your faith in human nature.

Of course it has to add to your cynicism first...

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" stars the great Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds, a plain spoken man from a small Vermont town who suddenly inherits 20 million dollars. Deeds is the shy writer of greeting card poetry - a man who marches to his own, well, tuba.

Deeds travels to New York to claim his inheritance and his new life as a wealthy socialite and patron of the arts. He takes over the running of the estate and picks up the duties of his benefactor. Cooper's Deeds is a fish out of water, a curiosity to the cynical and jaded New Yorkers who think if you're from small town America you must be a bumpkin.

And a bumpkin he appears to be - to them. The audience, and a few people closest to Mr. Deeds, know differently, but it doesn't matter. He's the laughingstock of the Big Apple, a "Cinderella Man" who just doesn't know how to behave around his betters.

A lot of this impression comes from the poison pen of Pulitzer winning newspaper reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), whose task it is to gain Deeds' trust and present him to her readers in whatever light sells the most papers.

Naturally, she ends up falling in love with the unpretentious Longfellow Deeds and regrets what she's done to him - but it's too late. The damage is done and her hatchet job, coupled with the corrupt intents of Deeds' lawyers, ends up with him fighting for his very freedom.

Deeds is a great satire, and a social commentary of the first order. It's also a touching love story and a tale of the triumph of decency over adversity. It successfully destroys several sacred cows, including the worth of the so-called intelligentsia and self-style experts. Delicious!

Gary Cooper was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Longfellow Deeds, and he deserved to win. His small town man with a big heart - a man who turns out to be smarter than any of those around him - is played with perfection. If you aren't laughing with him, you're crying for him.

Jean Arthur is also very good, though I think she was better in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Still, she takes her role from hard-as-nails reporter to an extremely vulnerable and good person, and does it very well. Also on hand are George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglass Dumbrille and Raymond Walburn.

It's Gary Cooper's movie, however, and he would earned a place in Hollywood history for this film alone - were it not for the rest of his outstanding body of work.

Mr. Deeds won Capra an Oscar for Best Director and the film was nominated for four others, including Best Picture.

The DVD is offered in fullscreen, with Dolby Digital 2 channel mono audio. Picture and sound quality are good. The restoration, by the Library of Congress, isn't as good as some newer restorations, but it's still pretty good. Extras include a good liner essay inside the package, Frank Capra Junior's audio commentary and memories, some vintage advertising, bonus trailers, and talent files.

I had never seen "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" before this DVD release. Now I know what I'd missed all those years.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
115 minutes, Full screen, Dolby Digital 2 channel Mono
Starring Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglass Dumbrille, Raymond Walburn
A Frank Capra Production, Screenplay by Robert Riskin,
Directed by Frank Capra

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

by Jim Bray

Frank Capra's powerful political masterpiece is at least as - if not more - relevant today than it was in 1939.

In a role that's uncannily similar to Gary Cooper's "Mr. Deeds," James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith - a decent, small town man thrust by circumstances into the circles of power and influence. Once there he must make the best of it - while learning how to handle himself and the situation.

Upon being appointed Senator to fill a void left by the death of his predecessor, Smith is immediately made an object of derision by a jaded Washington press corps that's more interested in quick-witted scribblings that make them feel superior - and sell papers - than in presenting the unspun facts.

Which proves that not much has changed between the media as portrayed by screenwriter Sidney Buchman and the "presstitutes" that make up the mainstream media today...

More on that, later.

Smith is taken under the wing of his boyhood hero, now senior Senator Paine (Claude Rains, in a wonderful performance), who tries to steer him away from controversy and keep him out of trouble. Unfortunately, Smith later learns that the reason for this is not to protect and/or teach Smith, but to protect Rains and the tycoon who owns him politically from having their schemes foiled.

When tycoon Taylor tries to buy Smith as well, Smith refuses, causing the power of the status quo to be throw against him and very nearly destroying his fledgling political career.

But this is James (George Bailey) Stewart and Frank (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) Capra, after all, so - aided by his jaded assistant Saunders (the luminous Jean Arthur) whose eyes he has re-opened - our hero fights back bravely against impossible odds, mounting a filibuster in the Senate aimed at bypassing the politicians and getting his ant-corruption-whistle-blowing heard back home.

It takes more than that, however. As Smith orates in the Senate, tycoon Taylor brings all his political and financial clout into play. He doesn't merely muzzle the media, he gets them to spin their coverage so as to discredit Smith, and he enlists the movers and shakers in his pockets to mount a grassroots campaign against him as well.

Fiction? Perhaps you think such things could never happen with a free press committed to disseminating information? Watch "Mr. Smith" again and wring your hands with despair because it's even worse today.

Perhaps the mainstream media doesn't base its "coverage" on orders from upstairs (though I'm reluctant to give them the benefit of the doubt), but it sure as heck bases it on its own ideology and opinions. If you'd care to see two fairly recent examples of how the presstitutes can manipulate the message, read on.

In the 1992 US Presidential election, the mainstream media fell in love with - and subsequently worked overtime to get elected - Bill CIinton, a man who personified their collective values. Likewise, in the early runup to the 2000 Republican nomination they became enamored of Senator John McCain and went overboard giving him loving coverage while misrepresenting and denigrating George W. Bush and virtually ignoring Alan Keyes and the other candidates.

This, and the ongoing scandals of the Clinton administration for which the media constantly cut the Clinton regime as much slack as it needs in order to wiggle out of any responsibility, illustrate why "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is an important and timely motion picture.

It's also an entertaining story performed by an excellent cast.

James Stewart turns in a likeable and powerful performance as the title character, an unassuming man who chooses to believe in the things for which all those Washington DC monuments and memorials were built, rather than lowering his standards in the name of expediency. Jean Arthur, as Smith's "girl Friday" Clarissa Saunders, is smart, sexy, and strong.

Claude Rains' performance as the corrupt Senator who ultimately develops a conscience sometimes makes you want to slap him, while at other times you can understand his all-too-human motivation and feel compassion for him - though you never really like him.

Thomas Mitchell, a Capra staple, plays an often-inebriated scribe who's also a close friend of Saunders. It's a far cry from his bumbling "Uncle Harry" of "It's a Wonderful Life" and a good indication of the skill he brought to his craft.

Other members of the brilliant cast include Edward Arnold, Buy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi, and Harry Carey.

I must mention an interesting subtext in the plot when, during the media campaign against Smith, the "real" grassroots made up of ordinary folk mobilizes to ensure Smith's message gets out. It's a "counter-media" working against the might of the mainstream press, which uses strong arm tactics to shut down the upstart competition.

It made me smile and think of Matt Drudge and the Internet in general (and, yes, TechnoFILE to a certain extent, though we cover pretty non-controversial topics) - and how the upstart electronic medium is doing today what those mothers and sons and daughters with their little printing presses and little red wagons tried to do in Capra's film.

The DVD is of the movie as restored by the Library of Congress National Film Registry (the first film to receive such treatment, according to the liner essay) and the black and white, fullscreen picture is very good. The audio is Dolby Digital two channel mono and sound quality is fine for a movie of this vintage.

Extras on the disc include a "featurette" in which Frank Capra Jr. reminisces about the film and his father; he also contributes a running commentary on an audio track. Columbia also throws in some vintage advertising for the film as well as a decent liner essay and the theatrical trailer for "Mr. Smith" and a couple of other Capra classics. There are also some talent files

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was nominated for eleven Oscars, though it only won for "Best Original Story" and that's a darn shame. Still, when one considers that 1939 also brought out films like "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," to name only two, it's obvious it was up against some strong competition.

As this review was written, in the Spring of 2000 during the runup to the 2000 US Presidential election, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" stands not only as a great movie, but as marvelous and important social commentary. It's also a call for citizens to get off their bums and ensure that their government - and those upon whom they rely as sources of information - truly work for the people they're supposed to serve rather than for their own selfish interests.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
130 minutes, Full screen, black and white, Dolby Digital 2 channel Mono
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi
A Frank Capra Production, Screenplay by Sidney Buchman,
Directed by Frank Capra


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Updated May 13, 2006