Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A Truly "Lost" Cause

 The internationally acclaimed Liv Ullmann has a hard time explaining why she agreed to co-star in 1973's golden gobbler "Lost Horizon."

Hi Keebah and hello, movie lovers.

What do Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, George Kennedy, Michael York, Sally Kellerman and Sir John Gielgud have in common?

Well, they're highly acclaimed actors who have four Oscars between them. They also share a collective film resume that includes "Network", "Persona", "Cool Hand Luke", "Chariots of Fire", "Romeo and Juliet", "Cabaret" and "MASH", among other successes.

However, as charming and talented as these folks may be, NONE of them is known for their singing and dancing.

Which is why ALL OF THEM suffered immeasurably by appearing in the towering turkey that is "Lost Horizon" (1973).

"We saw, we came, we bombed": Our cast arrives at Shangri-La.

A misbegotten, mishandled musical (?!) remake of Frank Capra's 1937 classic, "Lost Horizon" holds a special place in the hearts of Junk Cinema lovers everywhere--as well as a prominent place in the Cinematic Hall of Shame.

Indeed, bad movie lovers get into vicious arguments over what is the single most wretched aspect of this flick--simply because there is so much wretchedness to choose from.

Is it the idiotic script? The awful music? The horrible lyrics to the awful music? The miscast actors? The tacky sets? The ugly costumes? The flat-footed choreography? The tepid romances between the principals? The casting of Caucasian actors as Asians? The tone-deaf singing or the out-of-sync lip syncing?

On second thought, maybe it's seeing Ingmar Bergman's favorite actress Liv Ullmann "singing" "The World is a Circle" while awkwardly clomping around the countryside with a troupe of perpetually smiling brats.

Or perhaps it's the interlude in the local library, where Sally Kellerman and Olivia Hussey skid across tables and climb ladders while "singing" about the things they "don't miss" and it's clear Hussey has a bun in her oven.

Throw the book at them: Maria and Sally in the local library.

Or is the deal breaker the "Festival of the Family" number, where studly guys carry a young couple aloft on a platform while the duo tosses their baby around?

See what I mean? "Lost Horizon" has something to irritate everybody!

Our fable begins with UN envoy Richard Conway (Peter Finch) in the nation of "Baskula" trying to negotiate a truce between the current government and some restive rebels. His kid brother George (Michael York) is in town, too, covering the peace talks for the London Express. Then all hell brakes loose. After helping all the "foreign nationals"get evacuated, the bros hop into a rickety DC-3. Joining them are pill-popping Newsweek correspondent Sally (Sally Kellerman), grumpy engineer Sam (Kennedy) and Harry, a comic from a USO tour (Bobby Van, one of two cast members who can sing and dance, although his acting is highly questionable.) As the passengers settle in for a long flight, Sam tries to strike up a conversation with Sally. It goes like this:

He: "Are you American?"

She: "No. Mongolian."

My vote for the least likely cuddlemates of Shangri-La...or anywhere else: George Kennedy and Sally Kellerman.

He: "You'll have to teach me the language sometime."

After a while, the passengers realize they are not heading to Hong Kong, their appointed destination. That's because the original pilot was conked on the noggin and replaced by a mysterious fellow with an alternative flight plan. The cast has no choice but to stand down because A) their pilot has locked himself in the cockpit, B) he's packing heat and C) he dies after he crash-lands their DC-3 in a snowbank somewhere in the Himalayas.

Prepared to freeze to death, our cast is suddenly saved by a fellow named Chang (Gielgud) and his posse of fur-clad porters. When Richard compliments Chang on his cut-glass English accent, he explains, "I was an undergraduate at Oxford in my young days."

With Chang as their guide, everybody treks up to the nearby lamasery, located in the "Valley of the Blue Moon." However, once the travelers pass a certain threshold, the snow drifts away and is replaced by green grass, sunny skies, blooming flowers, chirping birds, serene water falls and gentle breezes. "Welcome to Shangri-La!" Chang announces.

Ah, yes, Shangri-La: the mythical Utopian society where humankind's best virtues are on full display, everyday. However, it's not all pretzels and beer. It's the responsibility of Shangri-La's residents to nurture and protect these values so they can survive the inevitable apocalypse or the Trump administration, which ever comes first. That's why Shangri-La's citizens strive to be modest, humble and grateful in all things.

This is an actual clip from "Lost Horizon"s "Festival of the Family" number. It was later edited out when audiences howled at male dancers busting a move and singing about family values.

Naturally, the longer our cast stays in Shangri-La, the more content they become. Sally, the Newsweek correspondent, begins counseling with Brother To-Lenn (James Shigeta, the other cast member who can sing) and soon kicks her depression and drug habit. Surly Sam, the engineer, stops chasing after money and instead sets about building a new irrigation system for the locals. Harry the comic finds he has a talent for teaching. Then there are the romances: Richard finds love with schoolmarm Catherine (Ullmann), Sally and Sam hook up, and George becomes so smitten with dancer Maria (Hussey) he declares, "You know, in the outside world, you'd be a knock-out!"

Best of all, Richard is informed by the High Lama (Charles Boyer, made up to resemble Ebeneezer Scrooge's dead partner Jacob Marley) that he's been chosen to take over his job. In fact, the high jacking that took place at the film's beginning was no fluke; the High Lama admits it was all pre-arranged to deliver Conway to Shangri-La's doorstep.

Conway is flattered and awed at the prospect of guiding Shangri-La into the future. However, pushy brother George is anxious to return to London--and he wants to take Maria with him. Chang is horrified by the news. See, Maria has been a resident of Shangri-La for...eighty years. She was found by porters when her wedding party got stuck in the snow. The healthy climate and moderate lifestyle of Shangri-La are what allow Maria to remain so dewy fresh. All of this would vanish, Chang explains, if Maria were to leave.

George thinks that is all a crock of...hooey and, for the record, so does Maria. "Is this the face of an old woman?" Maria asks Richard. "Is this the skin of an eighty year old woman?" Richard has to admit that Maria looks great (pregnant women are known to glow, after all) and reluctantly agrees to help the cuddlemates escape.

This turns out to be a big, big mistake. As the trio make their way down the mountainside, Maria quickly shrivels into a withered prune and drops dead. George, horrified by his cuddlemate's transformation, screams "NOOOOO!" and walks backward off a near-by cliff. Richard, traumatized by what he has witnessed, wanders aimlessly in the snow until some locals find him. Flown by plane to the nearest medical center, Richard babbles endlessly about Shangri-La, Catherine and all the stuff that has happened to him since the movie started. The nursing staff, believing he's delirious or just a bit off, smile patiently, but take what he says with a grain of salt.

Poor Maria after she leaves Shangri-La.

Eventually, Richard recovers his health. When no one is looking, he packs his bags and sneaks out of the hospital. When we next see him, the weary Richard has grown an impressive beard. More importantly, he's reached the marker identifying the Valley of the Blue Moon. As a choir of heavenly voices ring out, we know Richard will be welcomed back with open arms and that Shangri-La will be safe under his wise counsel.

God bless us everyone.

A movie like "Lost Horizon" offers an embarrassment of riches for the bad movie connoisseur. You could, in fact, write a book analyzing its blunders. However, for the sake of brevity, I'll try and confine myself to the following essential categories:

The Soundtrack--It's almost impossible to decide which is worse, Burt Bacharach's music or Hal David's lyrics. Both are prime examples of the icky, mellow, schmaltzy, hippy-dippy "muzack" so prevalent in the 1970's...and things would only get worse, because disco was right around the corner!

Never the less, I believe Hal David's lyrics inch out Bacharach's music in the battle of the bad.

Schoolmarm Catherine gets down with her funky bad self in "The World is a Circle."

For example, here is a bit from "Share the Joy", warbled by the ill-fated Maria: "All the lovely songs/you will hear/these we hold/very dear.../Flowers bloom/people grow/you may never/ want to leave/when it's time to go."

Oh, how wrong she is!

Now try and stomach Liv Ullmann gaily swinging her arms and trilling, "And just because/you think you're small/that doesn't mean/you're small at all!/And just the way/a tiny branch/ is like a tree/to a twig/to someone else you are big!"

However, my favorite bad number is "Living Together, Growing Together", part of Shangri-La's "Festival of the Family", which appears to be sponsored by Planned Parenthood and the Chippendales dancers. Here you will find the excellent baritone of James Shigeta utterly wasted on the following loathsome lyrics: "Start with a man/and you have one/Add a woman/and then you have two/Add on a child/And have you got?/You've got more than three!/You've got what they call/ a fam-ill-lee!"

And now the chorus: "Living together/growing together/just being together/That's how it starts/Three loving heart..."

                                                    Supply your caption here.


To truly appreciate how putrid this number is, please go to YouTube.com and watch it--but don't say I didn't warn you.

And I haven't even mentioned Bobby Vann's "Answer Me a Question" show-stopper. And believe me, you haven't lived until you've seen Sally Kellerman attempting to do the Twist on a rock and yodeling to George Kennedy, "Doing something/for someone else/isn't really for someone else/It does twice as much for you/as something you do/just for yourself."

To which I would like to scream back to Ms. Kellerman, "Don't you realize what you just sang makes absolutely no sense!?"

The Casting--Even the most versatile and gifted performers can make mistakes. Remember, Lord Olivier appeared as Neil Diamond's father (in a Yiddish accent!) in the remake of "The Jazz Singer" AND as Gen. Doug MacArthur in 1980's notorious "Moonie movie" "Inchon".

Sir John Gielgud as Chang: no comment.

So, perhaps we should cut the cast some slack? No. Even a third rate ham like Tom Arnold (no relation to me, thank God) would have the sense to stear clear of this cinematic cesspit. Liv Ullmann, who has done groundbreaking work on stage and screen, is awkward and wooden as schoolmarm Catherine. George Kennedy does his grumpy old softy routine, again, and conducts his "romance" with Sally Kellerman with all the enthusiasm of a man facing an anal probe. The pairing of Finch and Ullman was equally charmless, which is especially odd, since both characters "sing" songs to themselves about how long they've waited to find love--and in Liv's case, it's hinted that her character might be a 70 year old virgin! I understand wanting to wait for "Mr. Right", but come on...

Now we come to Sir John Gielgud as Chang.

The only thing it compares to in ridiculousness is Abner Biberman as Dr. Ling, a physician who speaks with a Scottish accent and calls people "laddie" a lot, in the 1945 camp classic "Salome, Where She Danced" starring Yvonne De Carlo. In both cases, we have Caucasian actors playing Asian characters. It's wrong and racist, especially for a film that blathers a lot about equality and justice between all humankind.

The Reviews--Critics had a field day lambasting "Lost Horizon" and certain comments are just too pungent to ignore.

"As uplifting as a whalebone bra--and just as dated," carped Newsweek.

The wrath of these tribesmen is nothing compared to the critics' barbs "Lost Horizon" would endure.

"Fatuous and tedious," sniffed Time.

"Cumbersome, unlyrical and tedious," the Los Angeles Times snickered.

Indeed, "Lost Horizon" was one of those movies where no aspect of the flick escaped the critics' darts.

The film's set, for instance, "resemble(d) the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant--a fitting showcase for a film that is so much spinach"(Newsweek,) , while the music was described as "mawkish" (New York, "awful" (by Leonard Maltin's TV Movies, "dreadful" (New York Daily News, and "so pitifully pedestrian it's doubtful (the songs would) sound good if the actors could sing, which they can't." (Newsweek).

 "Without a redeeming feature in either its direction, scenario, acting, sets, music, choreography or photography," summed up the venerable Wall Street Journal.

"Dumb Enchanted Evening": Cuddlemates Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann console each other.


Furthermore, "Lost Horizon" was chronicled in The Fifty Worst Films of all Time, The Worst Movies Ever Made and The Official Razzie Movie Guide, proof that the shadow this turkey casts is long indeed.

Therefore, for going above and beyond the call of duty, for creating a musical monstrosity that continues to astound bad movie fanatics 46 years after it was originally released, to the cast and crew of "Lost Horizon": Junk Cinema salutes you!

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