Capra on DVD
DVD does Frank Capra
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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