Sunday, October 5, 2008

Biography Book Corner #1: Frank Capra's "The Name Above the Title"— Chapter 10: "Burn the First Two Reels"

This blog entry will be my first in a series of ongoing irregularly posted entries highlighting individual chapters of biographies and autobiographies of film personnel. It's meant to be a blog version of grabbing a book off the shelf that catches your eye— at a friend's house or the book store— and reading a chapter of it. The summarization of the chatper below may inspire the reader to take a look at the book for themselves, or at the very least, it will supply some info on a classic film.

The "Burn the First Two Reels" chapter of Capra's autobiography, The Name Above the Title deals with the 1937 classic Lost Horizon. Below, a summary.

• Capra was invited by Columbia studio head Harry Cohn (along with others) to see a Stanford-U.S.C. football game in Palo Alto, and browsing in Union Station's newstand he came upon James Hilton's book, bought it, read it, and dreamed about it that night.

• At breakfast the next morning Capra told Cohn he wanted him to option the book and that he wanted $2 million for the budget— five times the cost of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Cohn agreed on a six-month option on the book, but said he'd wait to see how Deeds did before greenlighting Lost Horizon. When Deeds was a success, Cohn decided to take the gamble.

• Famed explorer, writer, and photographer of Tibet, Harrison Forman served as technical advisor.

• The Tibetans were played by Pala Indians from the San Diego Mountains.

• Henry Eichman, a California collector of rare, authentic Tibetan trumpets and horns, loaned the production his antique instruments.

• Ronald Colman was Capra's only choice for the lead. He felt that the others on the plane should be "familiar faces" too because they represented the "known" world, and that the inhabitants of Shangri-La should be unknowns (including newcomers Jane Wyatt [with Colman, on right] and Margo).

• The casting of the High Lama was originally given to a 90-year-old stage performer who had never been in movies, but after a successful screen test, he died ("The long hoped-for Hollywood call had come. He smiled, and died.") [The next candidate, Henry B. Walthall, the Little Colonel of The Birth of a Nation, died before he could be tested.]

• Stage actor Sam Jaffe got the part of the High Lama— his whispery line readings were initially a problem since the microphones were left wide open to pick up his dialogue and the occasional stomach rumble from a crew member was heard.

• The snow sequences were filmed in a industrial cold storage warehouse, which caused such technical issues as fogged film and short-circuiting cables. ("With wind machines, snow machines, and back-projection machines we conjured up the Arctic rigors of the Himalayas.")

• Capra hired Dimitri Tiomkin (who he strongly believed in) for his first movie score; Capra, though, had Max Steiner conduct the orchestra, knowing that had Steiner disliked the score he would have stepped in himself. Capra was ecstatic with Tiomkin's score, however. [NOTE: Tiomkin has a few earlier screen credits.]

• At the first screening in the studio projection room, everyone was pleased including Cohn. At the Santa Barbara preview, the film was met with laughter and walk-outs. ("The preview was a shambles. Lost Horizon was an unshowable, unreleaseable motion picture.")

• Capra made a bold decision in deleting and burning the first two reels of Lost Horizon— amounting to twenty minutes screen time— and asked Cohn for a new preview screening. [NOTE: Capra's claim of cutting the first two reels is considered an oversimplification of what really happened. Film historians believe that Capra did indeed cut twenty minutes of the film but that it included more sophisticated cutting than simply deleting the opening. The early part of the film, was, however, cut. It was a prologue in which Ronald Colman begins to tell his story on a cruise ship. The footage, which Capra claims to have burned, has never been recovered.]

• The new preview, in San Pedro, was a success; "the audience was spellbound."

• Columbia's "class" VP, "bon vivant" Nate Spingold, marketed the film to the world's literati according to Capra and thusly "put [the] Poverty Row [studios] on the map."

• Capra concludes his chapter saying (without much in the way of modesty), that he pioneered the beginning of the "one man, one film" concept versus the "committee" method of Louis B. Mayer.

Here, Capra is on Cavett talking about the Santa Barbara preview:


Jeremy said...

I've always wanted to read Capra's autobiography,and "Lost Horizen" is one of my favorite of his films.

Oneliner said...

I too love LOST HORIZON. I hope one day the complete 132 minute version is found. Its disconcerting watching the "reconstruction." Its such a beautiful film and it sucks to see all those grainy shots from the surviving footage.