Friday, February 05, 2016

Lost Perspective

While making Lost Horizon (1973), the creators of this gargantuan, ignominious flop certainly lost sight of the horizon of entertainment and good taste. What were they thinking? Is this disastrous epic the result of Hollywood neglect and excess—too much LSD, loco weed and California fruit salad—or was this film the accurate fulfillment of their artistic aspirations? Did anyone involved think it was going to actually be good? Or does Hollywood sometimes play perverse and expensive jokes on its unsuspecting public? The mind boggles.

Given a glossy and overblown treatment from producer Ross Hunter (Midnight Lace, Airport), this is a film that is so cheerfully, gleefully and appallingly bad that’s it’s difficult to stop watching. You can’t wait to see what atrocity is coming next. No wonder that more than 40 years after its release, it remains a staple on film critics’ lists of the worst films of all time. 

Ullmann, Kennedy, Van, Kellerman, Shigeta and Finch—all equally thrilled to appear in this very special movie

By the early 1970s, the musical film was already well past its death throes, with overbudgeted spectacles like Star!, Hello, Dolly and Dr. Doolittle nearly bankrupting the big studios over the past several years, but the lesson—no more big musicals!— had yet to be learned. (Indeed, the very next year, Hollywood would give us Lucille Ball as Mame!).

Based on the James Hilton novel and the classic 1937 Frank Capra film, this 1973 reworking follows the general narrative of its source materials but attempts to give it a contemporary anti-Vietnam War take, as the characters flee from a war-torn Asian country before their plane crashes in the snowy Himalayas and they are rescued and led to Shangri-La, a remote and magically temperate paradise sheltered by mountains on all sides. 

The legendary Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart—and more importantly, Lost Horizon

With a screenplay penned by the brilliant writer and gay activist Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart), you might think that the story and characters would reveal some depth, wisdom or profundity through the writer’s lens, but no such luck. Kramer himself admits he took the job to make a quick buck--and ironically the biggest payday of his career.

It’s also a criminal misuse of a group of very talented actors, many of whom defined cutting-edge 1970s cinema, such as Ingmar Bergman muse Liv Ullmann (Persona, Smiles of a Summer Night), Peter Finch (Network) and Sally Kellerman (MASH). Michael York (The Three Musketeers, Logan’s Run),George Kennedy (Airport), Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet) and Bobby Van round out the leading cast, but Kramer’s flat script gives them all precious little of interest to do. 

Kennedy, Van, Kellerman, Ullmann and Finch take in the splendors of Shangri-La

York is easy on the eyes but plays a petulant and annoying character, the journalist brother of Peter Finch who is impatient to leave and get back to the real world. (To him, war and genocide and disease are preferable to the gongs, wind chimes, incense and flowing caftans of Utopia.) Finch tries halfheartedly to essay the role of the philosophical older brother who falls for lovely Liv. Kellerman overacts embarrassingly as a suicidal newswoman hooked on pills and alcohol. Olivia Hussey is little more than window dressing, her pretty face and figure blending into the scenery.

Paradise will be less attractive when Michael York and Olivia Hussey leave it

The supporting characters fare slightly better. Sir John Gielgud’s deadpan turn as the inscrutable Tibetan monk Chang is priceless—now there was a man who could play it straight no matter how outrageous the material he was given (Gielgud’s best moment on film was to come several years later, as the butler with the martini-dry wit in Arthur.) Charles Boyer also has a twinkle in his eye as he plays the mystical and mysterious High Lama. The handsome James Shigeta is elegant and classy and wisely underplays as the servant To Len. (Too bad that his best featured role comes in this all-time turkey.)

Charles Boyer as the mysterious High Lama

Sir John Gielgud as the inscrutable Chang

But, of course, what makes this film a camp classic is the fact that it’s a musical. Except for song-and-dance man Bobby Van, all the principals’ vocals are dubbed (or “augmented”), and by an unbelievably tone-deaf set of ghost-singers. Poor Liv Ullman’s screeching “The World is a Circle” is most dissonant of all—with that overblown budget, couldn’t they afford to engage the services of a Marni Nixon? And the Swedish actress is called upon to dance—or at least move rhythmically—as well. So are the unfortunate Sally Kellerman and Olivia Hussey. All these lovely ladies are horrifyingly graceless.

Sorry, Liv Ullmann, but we already have a Julie Andrews

An innovative table dance for Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman

To add insult to injury, the songs are even worse than the performers, despite their impressive musical pedigree. Lost Horizon marked the swan song of the iconic songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whose catchy tunes and ballads helped define 1960s pop culture and launched the careers of Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black and later The Carpenters. But by 1973 Bacharach and David were apparently feuding and accepted this movie gig just as they decided to break up. 

Burt Bacharach sang a few of his Lost Horizon "hits" on his own album

The result of their final collaboration is a motley collection of songs so insipid and unmemorable that it’s astounding they were written by the authors of such standards as  “The Look of Love,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Close to You.” Such a shame, since they had successfully scored the hit play Promises, Promises on Broadway several years before and should have been well versed in the art of dramatic musical storytelling. Most of the songs are flat and unmusical, and even the lilting refrains of “Share the joy” and “Shangri-La” repeated throughout the film are derivative and muddled, sounding suspiciously similar to Richard Rodgers’ “Bali H’Ai,” with a soupçon of the Fantasy Island theme song thrown in for good measure. 

Ah, the spectacle—thank you, Mr. Hermes Pan!

Shame, too, on Hermes Pan, the genius choreographer who helped Fred Astaire shape most of his iconic musical numbers at RKO and MGM. The awkward Bali dancing and inept pageantry Pan presents here in the "Living Together, Growing Together" number are colorfully amiss, though at least there is plenty of tanned beefcake on display. (Pan had had much more success choreographing the spectacular entrance of Elizabeth Taylor’s queen of the Nile into Rome for Cleopatra ten years earlier. What happened?)

"Question me an answer, bright and clear..." The adorable Bobby Van

The only artist who emerges from this debacle musically unscathed is Bobby Van, who offers a vibrant and spirited performance as a down-on-his-luck standup comic who gains a new lease on life as a schoolteacher in paradise. The only cast member with any musical chops whatsoever, Van steals the picture (not a difficult feat) with his charming and winning “Question Me an Answer” routine performed with a bevy of adorable Asian schoolchildren. (It’s also one of the least egregious of the Bacharach/David tunes.) True, he is no Astaire or Kelly (or even Donald O’Connor), but next to his musically challenged castmates, Van looks like the hardest working man in show business.

A chorus boy (and later choreographer) under contract to MGM in the late forties and fifties, who most notably danced with Ann Miller and Bob Fosse in Kiss Me Kate, Van was married to TV actress Elaine Joyce (who is now the wife of Neil Simon) with whom he appeared on numerous 1970s game shows (remember Tattletales?). Van died young, at age 54, in 1980, and Lost Horizon was his largest big-screen role. But even Bobby cannot save this hopeless turkey.

There is too much more ineptitude to point out every jarring note of this big, bold flopperoo, but a few more highlights include the jaw-droppingly bad makeup job of Olivia Hussey when she withers with age away from Shangri-La. It’s an unforgettable movie moment of unintentional hilarity, as is Michael York’s over-the-top scream of horror at her appearance, which drives him to take a flying leap off a cliff!

York, Kennedy, Finch, Kellerman and Van come in from the cold

Why do I love this terrible movie? Perhaps because I first saw it when I was 7 years old and was dazzled by its sweep and color and panorama. Or maybe because its bleeding heart is in the right place. At its center is a message of peace, of tranquility, an escape from war and disease, an end to violence and suffering. It’s pure its worst, but escapism nonetheless. (And the title tune by Bacharach and David is kind of cool, actually.)

So I can’t really recommend Lost Horizon...Then again, if you have a few hours to lose…and I do mean lose...(cue the faux "Bali H’Ai" music…)

I’m not the only one who finds this film a fabulous guilty pleasure...for even more Lost Horizon, check out Le Cinema Dreams.


Quiggy said...

Interestingly enough, I just got through reading the Medved-Dreyfuss entry on this movie yesterday (in their book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time [1978] and there's a book that could stand a sequel after 38 years. "Battlefield Earth" anyone?...). I've never been subjected to it, although trashy movies have been on my list over the years.

angelman66 said...

Hi Quiggy - yes, I used to have that book myself! I like how that book included films that were also on the critics' BEST ists, as well as the obvious flops. Battlefield Earth would indeed be in the updated version. (What was Travolta thinking?)
Thanks for stopping by!

William said...

I must see this movie! I MUST! It sounds hilariously awful.I remember a critic making fun of the tune "Question me an Answer" but if that's the best song in the movie I can only imagine how bad the others are!

Chris, your detailed description of this movie should make me want to run for the hills, but I have to admit I have a weakness for guilty pleasures and jaw-dropping turkeys.

I MUST see it, LOL!

Tonight I'm looking at "Showgirls!" How much horror can I take?

angelman66 said...

Bill, I only hope you find it as unintentionally hilarious as I do! If you do invest the time, I warn you it will be "Lost" forever!

Showgirls is on my "to-write-about" list. It may be the VERY worst movie of all time...but it's another one I am obsessed with and love, in spite of myself! I even wore out my DVD and bought the new Blu-Ray--and of course, watched it again.

Thanks as always for stopping by!!

William said...

I'm reviewing Showgirls this week. Would love to read your take on it!

angelman66 said...

Looking forward to hearing yours too, Bill!

Ken Anderson said...

Pure bliss! There are some films so awful that it is really more entertaining listening to people talk about the film than watching the film itself. I too love "Lost Horizon" for all the wrong reasons, but I pored over your essay with delight, happy to discover what particular pains and pleasures stood out for you.
Everything you note is woefully true. The film takes itself far too seriously; the level of talent assembled only sets you up for disappointment upon seeing how poorly it's utilized; and the musical contributions (voices, songs, and choreography) are jarringly sub-par for such an expensive undertaking.
But you are right in noting that the film's heart is in the right place, and if you were lucky enough to see it at a young age (7 is a perfect age, I was 16 when it came out) I think the film can coast on nostalgia a bit.
Why is it so watchable? I have no idea. But I LOVE reading about it, and you didn't disappoint. Thanks, Chris...for this great article and the very kind blog mention.

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken! Of all movie lovers, I KNEW you would understand! In your above comment, you have just defined perfectly the appeal of a "guilty pleasure." Loving it for all the wrong reasons...that is so simple and yet so profound. (More profound that Larry Kramer's screenplay, too!!)

You are a great inspiration to me, Ken; your blog is brilliantly written and elicits such lively and engaging conversation with people who are as passionate as we are about movies. So much fun!!

Ken Anderson said...

Hi again,
Just dropping a note to thank you for such a nice compliment! Especially since you, an actual professional journalist, is such an inspiration to me. I've always enjoyed that we've shared similar sensibilities when it comes to film; and when we deviate, I'm granted the opportunity to discover an unknown treasure or long-forgotten gem from the past.
So, the feeling's mutual!

Silver Screenings said...

You sold me. I MUST see this film! I started searching through YouTube to see if someone posted it there...Sadly, I couldn't find it, but there are lots of clips. Even the trailer looks fabulous!

You asked a good question: Were the people at Columbia Pictures hopped up on recreational substances, or were they playing an expensive hoax? (I've often wondered about that with different movies.) The film certainly has an impressive cast – especially if it includes Gielgud and Boyer. But no matter! Your review was so well written and so enthusiastic that I'll be on the hunt for this gem. Thanks!

angelman66 said...

Hi Silver Screenings, I believe you can stream the movie from Amazon, if I am not mistaken.
I think you may appreciate its strange appeal!!
Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment!