Circling the Horizon
Old-school Hollywood producer Ross Hunter enjoyed modest success with his first movie musical Flower Drum Song (1961) and had an enormous hit with his second song-and-dance effort Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Following his all-star disaster-movie blockbuster Airport (1970), he turned to another venerable literary and cinematic property, and envisioned it as a lavish, family-friendly entertainment with veteran and new stars, tunes by an award-winning songwriting team and choreography by a veteran Hollywood dance master. Its core values of love and hope would be a welcome marketplace counterpoint to the gritty, individualistic and more adult slice-of-life movies coming into vogue and at the time, Hunter said, “the world needs this kind of movie. Whereas everyone is afraid of musicals today, I feel that musicals per se, if done well and under control, have a huge potential.” When it opened this week in 1973, Lost Horizon, which transformed James Hilton’s aspirational 1933 novel about a peaceful oasis in a tumult-ridden world into a color-swathed extravaganza with music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David and musical staging by Hermes Pan, quickly became a notorious disappointment and Musical #3 would turn out to be Hunter’s final theatrical feature. Directed by Charles Jarrott (direct from the period pieces Anne of a Thousand Days and Mary Queen of Scots), it was a mishmash of styles that confounded its illustrious cast and overwhelmed its simple story. Shangri-La was transformed into a Vegas-style resort with hippie-styled trappings and a new-age vibe that proved neither exotic nor appealing. But like any large assemblage of talent, it holds certain fascinations for those who intrepidly seek them out. As, respectively, the diplomat Richard Conway and the Shangri-La schoolteacher Catherine, Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann share a rather tender and mature romantic grace; they would team again the following year in the historical drama The Abdication. Musical stalwart Bobby Van (direct from Broadway’s No No Nanette) executed his big number Question Me an Answer with a veteran hoofer’s pizazz. Budding recording artist Sally Kellerman also reveals a breezy talent for song in her numbers Reflections and The Things I Will Not Miss (the latter with the ghost-voiced Olivia Hussey). With a company that also includes George Kennedy, Michael York, James Shigeta and esteemed actors John Gielgud as Shangri-La administrator Chang and Charles Boyer as the High Lama (talk about color-blind casting!), the movie is nothing if not interesting to watch, even if ultimately short of enchanting. And naturally, the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Oscar®-winning Bacharach/David duo provides songs that, while not organic to a haunting dramatic fable and sit uncomfortably above the story, possess an unmistakable bounce and touches of melodic invention that make you wish for a better fit. As the song goes, The World Is a Circle without a beginning and nobody knows where the circle ends. Perhaps the intervening 43 years distance now allows for a happier reappraisal of Lost Horizon, lovingly served on a sumptuous, extras-laden Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, available from Screen Archives Entertainment: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/22926/LOST-HORIZON-1973/.