lost horizon (1973)

It wasn’t that bad.

I said it about GOIN’ COCONUTS, the Donny and Marie movie, which I would nevertheless not want to see again; and now I can say it about LOST HORIZON, the 1973 musical – which I actually wouldn’t mind seeing again. So long as I can fast-forward through the non-musical parts.

LH has such an awful reputation – colleagues who saw its original release warned me there was nothing even enjoyably bad about it. It does suffer from what would seem to be insurmountable problems: a really slow start (a friend suggested cutting the ration scene, for one); actors who can’t sing; and what may be the very worst choreography I’ve ever seen – poor Hermes Pan – the legendary choreographer of the Fred and Ginger movies is reduced in senescence to this? Is Sally Kellerman, at her physical peak, simply doing an impression of the infirm in her somnambulistic shuffle?

But I like Bacharach – his tricky melodies may not be immediately memorable, but once they dig in they’re settled for good. And the conceit of a musical Shangri-La isn’t so illogical – after all this wasn’t the first or even second musical treatment of James Hilton’s book, which after its Capra-ization was sung on broadway and later on television. I’m not familiar with the other musical treatments, but here the characters sing only in Shangri-La (the soundtrack recording includes a number by Peter Finch’s character, having left Paradise, singing that he must go back – but this isn’t in the movie), and the one visiting character who doesn’t sing – Michael York – doesn’t want to stay there, so it makes perfect sense that he doesn’t have a song. Yes, even George Peppard, or his vocal double, sings too, and that’s one of the charms of this movie, as characters find and revel in their song.

There is much to ridicule: a sexual chemistry between Liv Ullman and Peter Finch may be unlikely if not completely absurd, but between Sally Kellerman and George Peppard? And there’s the casting of John Gielgud as Chang, who when we meet him immediately dispels our aural suspicions by pointing out that he was educated at Oxford. Which doesn’t explain his occasional slips into some stilted Chinese-Oxfordian accent, but still, that’s one audacious backstory. Politically, there’s the matter of colonialism/exoticism and the peculiarly unenlightened gender roles in paradise. In better hands (Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly, back in the day? Bollywood? Jacques Demy!) this could have been an unguilty pleasure. Still, I found about a third of LOST HORIZON wonderful despite its flaws.

There’s a demo record out there of the LH material sung and performed by Bacharach himself – if anybody in the listening area has a copy I’d love to hear it.

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