Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meredith Wilson's THE MUSIC MAN: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1962) Warner Home Video

Robert Preston will forever be remembered as The Music Man (1962); that iconic and lovable shyster, doing his shuck and jive with smoke and mirrors for the simple folk of River City, Iowa, just another pit stop on his dusty trail of devious doings, until love unexpectedly intervenes. Few actors are as perfectly married to a part as Preston is to his alter ego, Professor Harold Hill: fewer movie musicals still as deeply satisfying or as heartily treasured as director, Morton DaCosta’s poignant and tune-filled potpourri, based on the small town recollections of its author; playwright, Meredith Wilson. The stage version of The Music Man utterly captivated audiences with all of the spellbinder's brilliance: a resounding, Tony award-winning success. It stood to reason, no one but Robert Preston could reprise the part for the 1962 film. Or did it?
Jack Warner possessed a rather annoying penchant for attempting to ‘improve’ upon stagecraft for the big screen. Occasionally, even his meddling could not break the magnetic stride of a Broadway original. Alas, as the sixties wore on Warner often proved his own worst enemy on such matters; as example, re-casting his elephantine movie version of Lerner and Loewe’s Arthurian fable, Camelot (1967) with actors who ostensibly could not warble a note; the added cache in acting prowess of a Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris quite unable to eclipse the iconic stage presence of Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.  Aside: there are still purists who believe Audrey Hepburn replacing Andrews for the screen version of My Fair Lady (1964) is sacrilege. But I digress.
On The Music Man, Jack Warner, and mercifully, the audience had absolutely nothing to fear. Though hardly a singer, Robert Preston - on screen - remained a charming enigma, emoting Wilson’s superb score on pitch, much in the way Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and with the seasoned professionalism of a man who had already lived the part in his heart and soul, having played it a record 1,375 times on the stage to thunderous ovation. The Music Man is really a corn-fed yarn about that nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century bucolic joy of growing up ‘simple’ in a small community; liberally poking fun at the button-down conservative prudery of the Bible-belt and the high-stepping big city salesman who steps into more than he bargained for when he butts heads with Marianne, the librarian (played with spectacularly comedic austerity by Shirley Jones).  The chemistry between Jones and Preston is palpable, joyous and engaging; the production equally blessed for having been rounded out by an indelible roster; Paul Ford as the town’s befuddled Mayor, George Shinn; Hermione Gingold as his penetratingly pretentious wife, Eulalie Mackechnie; Buddy Hackett, as an unexpected ole friend of Hill’s, Marcellus Washburn; the caustically warm-hearted Pert Kelton as Marianne’s no-nonsense mother, Mrs. Peroo, and finally, the inimitable, Susan Luckey as the mayor’s oldest daughter, Zaneeta. “I didn’t know you were a speck-en-ing to me – e-gods!”
Even the lesser supporting cast are memorable; Timmy Everett harmless ne'er–do–well, Tommy Djilas, lighting firecrackers under Eulalie’s floor-length Indian garb during the town’s annual 4th of July festivities; Harry Hickox as determined anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell; Peggy Mondo, Marcellus’ portly paramour and pianola player, Ethel Tofelmier; Monique Vermont, as the pint-sized and pigtailed girl-next door, Amaryllis; Ron Howard, shades of Mayberry in his shy and lisping Winthrop; Charles Lane, as bright-eyed, elderly Constable Locke and last, but not least, the ineradicable, Mary Wickes, typecast as – what else… – busybody, Mrs. Squires. The sheer joys to be had in The Music Man chiefly derive from our quiet observance of these lastingly thickheaded and/or scheming characters intermingling against the ever-popular (perennially revived throughout the 1950’s) backdrop of small-town Americana; also, basking in the warm afterglow of Meredith Wilson’s instantly hummable score that includes the elegant ballad, ‘Till There Was You’, the rousing ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’, eloquently distracting salesman’s pitch, ‘Trouble’ and, of course, Buddy Hackett’s tour de force novelty, ‘Shipoopi’. Each teems with all the marching band pomp and circumstance expected if Tin Pan Alley ever met Norman Rockwell on a clear day in Kansas, or – in this case – River City, Iowa.
And yet, all of it might just as easily have come to not in 1962; the beginning of the end for movie musicals – particularly those set inside a homespun milieu of box socials and moonlit stolen kisses behind the barn. Throughout the 1940’s, 2oth Century-Fox had made a cottage industry of such storytelling; particularly with their uber-glossy Technicolor Betty Grable/June Haver cycle of turn-of-the-century musicals. In the 1950’s such excursions were less likely to succeed at the box office; albeit, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955), costarring Shirley Jones, proved a formidable splash in Todd A-O and/or Cinemascope, and, Jones again would make something of the ersatz ode to Midwestern magnificence, this time alongside Pat Boone in the contemporary fable, April Love (1957). But by 1960, the appeal had worn thin – at least, at the movies. Movie musicals, however, were poised for something of a comeback, particularly in their lengthier road show engagements. These would continue to dominate the decade with intermittent victories until 1969.
At 151 intermission-less minutes, The Music Man isn’t a road show, and therefore proved something of a minor gamble to make, despite its Broadway pedigree. To keep costs down, Jack Warner elected to shoot the entire movie on the backlot and stage-bound sets; the town square and depot built for, and seen in, countless westerns, convincingly subbing in for River City. The Music Man is blessed to have been photographed in Technicolor’s own patented 4-track stereo, anamorphic widescreen process, Technirama, yielding superior color reproduction and a clearer image than its competing format, Cinemascope.  To helm the production, Warner made an interesting choice, turning to a time-honored stage director, Morton DaCosta, who had made the seemingly effortless – if all too brief – transition to directing films. DaCosta’s biggest screen hit to date had been easing a manic Rosalind Russell through a very big-hearted performance in Warner’s memorable hit, Auntie Mame (1958). After The Music Man, DaCosta would direct only one other picture; 1963’s forgettable, Island of Love, before returning to his first love – the stage.   
However, as production on The Music Man began, DaCosta faced an unanticipated challenge when costar, Shirley Jones surprised everyone with the news she was already a month along in her pregnancy and destined to become progressively more so as filming began. Undaunted, DaCosta shot the more elaborate musical sequences first to accommodate Jones' condition, thereafter instructing costume designer, Dorothy Jeakins to employ an elastic-stretching girdle that could gradually let Jones’ secret out while cleverly concealing the actress from mid-stomach down behind desks, plants and other props and paraphernalia. Meanwhile, choreographer, Ona White grumbled about co-star, Buddy Hackett’s inability to perform the necessary bell-kicks she had devised for his big song and dance number – ‘Shipoopi’. In the final analysis it mattered not – for Hackett proved an adept comedian, whose considerable girth and mugging antics were more than ample counterbalance for his lack of terpsichorean skill.
Arguably, The Music Man is a one man show; Meredith Wilson’s Americanized re-telling of the time-honored Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ re-conceived as an exuberant tribute to the likes of a would-be John Philip Sousa. Too bad Professor Harold Hill is actually a con artist par excellence who arrives in the pert, if nimble-minded town of River City Iowa as a spellbinder of a salesman…that is to say – a fraud. Elsewhere, Harold has sold subscriptions to boy’s bands, light-footedly absconding with the collected funds before a single instrument or uniform can be ordered. This bait and switch has made him many enemies across the Midwest, including legitimate anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell, who is determined to put an end to Harold’s illegal operations and restore the good name for all men who make their livings going from door to door. Harold’s introduction to River City takes some getting used to. Despite the relative snootiness of the populace, who collectively are brought to consider the ‘caliber of disaster’ innocuously lurking in their midst, exposed to them via Harold’s blistering condemnation of a billiard hall, destined to lead their youth along the path to self-degradation, the town’s mayor, George Shinn is as easily distracted by notions of establishing River City as a hub for modernity and culture. After all, his wife, Eulalie Mackechnie is the head of the ladies auxiliary; self-appointed as the arbitrator of good taste, condemning something as innocuous as Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as “a smutty book”.
Harold promises a great deal to these town’s folk, wheedling hard-earned savings out of their hot little hands to secure an order of band uniforms and instruments delivered by the Wells-Fargo Company. He also pitches himself as a musicologist from the Conservatory of Music in Gary Indiana; the man who will mold this young and unschooled brood into a professional marching band. Harold’s one-time coconspirator, Marcellus Washburn, encourages Harold to ‘cheese it’ while the getting is good. He has no desire to see his old friend tarred and feathered. Also, Marcellus has since settled down into a semi-stable relationship with Ethel Tofelmier. Harold’s first order of business is to get the town’s perceived troublemaker, Tommy (actually, a good kid) romantically involved with the mayor’s oldest girl, the naïve and perpetually grinning Cheshire, Zaneeta; paving the way to true love by paying for their first romantic rendezvous at the local ice cream parlor. When Mayor Shinn finds out he is appalled. Great honk!
However, even as the whole town, generally opinionated and stubbornly remote, suddenly begins to buzz with a whirl of communal excitement about the band, the town’s librarian, Marianne Peroo starts to question Harold’s credentials. Her imploring falls on deaf ears, chiefly because she has been ostracized by most everyone for her one-time affiliation with a man known only as ‘miser’ Madison; an ironically benevolent and wealthy benefactor to the town, bequeathing all sorts of monuments and buildings, even a public park named in his honor. The town’s folk, however, begrudgingly suspect the widow Marianne was more than a casual friend to Madison who, on his death bed, left the public library to River City, but gave the contents of its literary masterworks to Marianne, who now presides over its hall of study with a stern determination to withstand the gossip and rumors.
In her spare time, Marianne also teaches music lessons. One of her pupils, Amaryllis, is sweet on Marianne’s younger brother, Winthrop who, owing to a chronic lisp, has remained introverted and extremely shy. Harold plies the ladies auxiliary with pledges to host the town’s cultural renaissance, a repertory of Grecian dances staged in Madison Park, appointing Eulalie as the head of the program. In doing so he, of course, immediately ingratiates himself to the mayor’s wife who, at the start, remained one of his most ardent skeptics. While Marianne cannot abide Harold’s flourish of self-confidence, finding his spellbinder’s ability to hornswoggle the entire town into following his lead irreprehensible at best, she begins to warm to his almost astonishing ability to get Winthrop to come out of his shell. Perhaps Harold has a heart after all – one inclined toward goodness…if properly swayed. In the meantime, Charlie Cowell has come to town. Informing Mayor Shinn and the town council they are about to be taken for a ride, an organized lynch mob is quickly formed to hunt the professor down in the street, just as Marianne is about to undergo a change of heart.
Dragged to the school gymnasium to stand trial and answer to these allegations of fraud, Harold is spared his confession when Tommy organizes the children to appear in their band uniforms. Earlier, Harold had filled their heads with the ‘think system’ for learning music; a fraudulent concept whereby the participants do not study notes on a page, but rather hear the music in their heads and are thereafter able to play it. Happy chance for all Harold’s unproven method of tutelage seems to have worked some sort of nominal miracle on this disorganized rabble. They do indeed manage a fractured performance that melts the town’s cynicism at a moment’s notice; the mayor and his council impressed and excited as to what the future may hold for their band. Exiting the auditorium, Zaneeta’s romantic fantasies about Tommy transform his rather meager duds into a sleek uniform. Likewise, when Harold exits he is renovated into the very incarnation of a grand band leader a la John Philip Sousa. The town rally along the sidewalks as Harold leads his elegantly attired marching band, stretching on to infinite; suggesting he has finally found his place alongside Marianne, the librarian and those ‘seventy-six trombones’.   
The Music Man is supremely satisfying entertainment with a capital ‘E’, galvanized by Robert Preston’s monumental and iconic performance. Preston, who had created and made the part his own on Broadway, brings all of his well-honed mannerisms to life for the movie, yet – and even more astonishingly – without even a hint of affectation as being rehearsed. Instead, we are allowed to witness an actor’s craftsmanship, succinctly in tune with his alter ego as second nature; the line between star and role completely blurred. Few actors have had such good fortune smile upon them. Yul Brynner’s emblematic King Mongkut in The King and I immediately comes to mind: Rex Harrison’s Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the other. Preston’s Harold Hill belongs among them, chronologically sandwiched between their cinematic reincarnations.
Employing an iris lens fade-to-black trick previously mastered in Auntie Mame, to mark transitions and passages of time, director, Morton DaCosta creates a fertile bit of homespun escapism for The Music Man, perfectly invoking the world in which the play and film’s author, Meredith Wilson grew up. Fair enough, no movie is singularly beholding to its star to secure its place in history. We would also be remiss not to acknowledge art director, Paul Groesse and cinematographer, Robert Burke’s achievements. But The Music Man comes closer than most, almost entirely resting on formidable talents of one man’s service in this charming magic lantern show. Each co-star has been exceptionally well placed, and equally as well chosen for their parts. Although none are afforded a duration of screen time anywhere near rivalling the expectations of Robert Preston’s heavy load, miraculously, none are wasted or cast aside either.
What emerges is a wholly rounded, grandly amusing and thoroughly exhilarating ‘star plus’ show of shows. Yes, it’s still about the professor, the librarian and seventy-six trombones. But oh, what a marching band DaCosta has given us; what a fanfare, emotionally satisfying spectacle and bogglingly beautiful razzamatazz to precede it, bolster and follow this great fake around. Many Hollywood musicals have been as luxuriously appointed. Yet, too few hold up under today’s scrutiny. The Music Man retains its charm, its essential joie de vivre entirely wrapped up in its timpani, horse platoons, and slide trombones. As you read on, recall the image of this great American phony, having discovered himself in the cradle of the nation, reformed through love and set to the glorious strains of one of the greatest scores ever to adorn a bit of stagecraft and/or cinema. Then sit back and prepare to be dazzled yet again. Because The Music Man is a treasure chest meant to be unpacked and celebrated over and over again. All together… “Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun…with a hundred and ten cornets right behind, there were more than a thousand reeds, springing up like weeds, there were horns of ev'ry shape and kind!” March on! March on!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its tired ole DVD release.  Alas, its’ not perfect, nor does it represent the movie’s visuals as competently as it should. This 1080p transfer is razor sharp and reveals some fairly rich, bold and well-balanced colors. Contrast levels, however, remain just a tad boosted. Occasionally, we suffer more than hints of edge enhancement, particularly during the ‘Marianne, the Librarian’ gavotte. The Blu-Ray excels in its deep black levels and sports remarkable clarity with a stunning amount of fine detail evident in hair and fabrics. But the ever so slight imperfections already noted are obvious and, on occasion, distracting. Even less satisfying: the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is not lossless HD; something for which early Warner Blu-ray product was infamously underwhelming.  Extras are regrettably scant and have all been imported from the standard SE DVD from 1999, including the featurette, ‘Right Here In River City’ hosted by Shirley Jones.  

I cannot say enough about The Music Man. It is a perfect musical whose transition from stage to screen is nearly perfectly realized. The Blu-ray does not meet these standards, however. Bottom line: we need an updated hi-def release here. Aside: I could also rail against Warner’s abysmal cover art, attempting to homogenize its hi-def product with artwork that in no way is indicative of the glorious entertainment value to be had on the inside. Those viewing on smaller sets will wonder what all the fuss is about. Anyone attempting a more theatrical recreation in their home theater living spaces will immediately see considerable room for improvements. Judge accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, July 25, 2015

LOST HORIZON (Columbia 1937) Sony Home Entertainment

Seventy-nine years removed from its theatrical debut, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) remains an enigmatic and inescapably haunting work of genius. Based on author, James Hilton’s remarkable Utopian fantasy, the source material for Capra’s magnum opus – a departure from his ‘every man’ social commentaries – proved an uphill test of endurance from the beginning; Hilton’s literary exploration of Homeric and Chaucerian themes forcing Capra into some awkward respites, in order to visualize the intangible, though no less compelling platitudes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To this, Capra brought his own unique immigrant’s perspective and passion for the American experience, grafted onto this mythical society, forever thereafter ensconced into our collective memory as Shangri-La.
It is to Capra’s credit Lost Horizon continues to resonate as much more than the sum of its parts; the whirl and whiz of Harry Cohn’s fledgling studio, all pistons firing; production designer, Stephen Goosson’s immaculately conceived and fantastically gleaming (though, at the time, heavily criticized) concept for the escapist retreat nestled somewhere in the Tibetan plateau, inspired by the architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright rather than authentic Nepal, Indian or Chinese influences; the superlative acting from star, Ronald Colman (never better, than as the conflicted statesman of moral conscience, Robert Conway) and an virtuosic supporting cast – including Thomas Mitchell, H.B. Warner, Margo, Isobel Jewell, Jane Wyatt and, of course, Sam Jaffe, as the unforgettably uncanny High Lama.
In its rough cut, Capra’s trials yielded six mesmerizing hours that studio chief, Harry Cohn briefly considered releasing as two separate movies, before hacking into Lost Horizon with uncompromising, though clear-eyed voracity – also, Capra’s expertise - to will 132 minutes of gripping melodrama (later, unceremoniously desecrated down to 90 minutes for its reissue). Yet Lost Horizon survived these wholesale cuts to its intricately structured narrative without ever losing focus or appeal; all this on a $2,000,000 budget Columbia Studios could scarcely afford. The picture’s tangible allure translates superbly into generously appointed entertainment. Above all else, Lost Horizon remains an exercise in sumptuous film-making on a grand scale, given life and form by the legerdemain of two of the West Coast’s most volatile and creative impresarios.  The film is immeasurably blessed by screenwriter, Robert Riskin’s adaptation of Hilton’s prose; a template of conciseness and wit.
Fair enough, cuts made after the initial preview somewhat blunt the metamorphosis of Isabel Jewell’s Gloria; from embittered, tubercular-stricken harlot to a spiritually and physically renewed facsimile of her former self, and, with footage still missing (and unlikely ever to be found), the romance between Colman’s forthright diplomat, Robert Conway and Jane Wyatt’s Sondra, the true believer in this Arcadian-principled and imperishable sanctuary, is marginally deprived of its emotional core. But Lost Horizon shimmers with analogous mirage-like precision; a queerly adult fulfillment of that fanciful promise made to us as children, to find that special someplace we can feel welcomed, safe and warm; a return to the cradle of civilization, or perhaps, the nurturing womb from where it all began and where everything is provided, or rather, managed by an omnipotent and benevolent overseer.    
The implausibility of Hilton’s novella and Capra’s supreme visualization of its extremes has since inherited a mantle of quality far beyond suspension of disbelief. This makes even Jaffe’s 300 year old Methuselah quite palpable to contemporary audiences. If the High Lama is Shangri-La’s éminence grise, then his most faithful disciple is indisputably, H.B. Warner’s Chang; the spectacled and grandfatherly arbitrator of this peaceful valley’s philosophic principles. The first act of Lost Horizon, in which Conway and his fellow travelers are hijacked and taken to Shangri-La by force, their harrowing plane crash in the frozen mountains, and perilous trek to the cloistered lamasery, the epicenter of all human achievement and harmonious perfection, is perhaps the most compelling.  So too, do these early scenes crackle with a strange and moody perversity as Conway and his troop quickly discover they are cut off from the outside world; Shangri-La taking on the ever so slightly alarming flavor of either their prison or tomb. Alas, once the new arrivals have had the opportunity to settle into their new home, the magical spell that seems to halt time as they know it, equally casts an embalming pall upon the production; Capra unable to maintain the tension in his attempt to follow all of the characters in their renaissance of body, mind and spirit.
If Lost Horizon has a flaw, it remains intermittently buried in this second act. Regrettably lost in Capra and Cohn’s edits are Gloria’s more noticeable transmutation from heavily painted and dying prostitute to repentant and sweetly rejuvenated innocence; also, the unsettling evolution of a kindred, if frantic passion between Conway’s brother, George (John Howard) and the mysterious and devastatingly misguided, Maria (Margo); who yearns to escape this perfect paradise by telling a lot of lies in order to convince George she is being held against her will. Instead, Capra focuses on the less than compelling affections blossoming between Sondra (Jane Wyatt) and Conway; his discovery of her bathing nude near a waterfall marking their second ‘cute meet’, and later, her introduction of him to the Tibetan natives and children whom she is schooling, resulting in a few blissful, if vacuous, moments of respite in the sunlit pergolas adjacent the lamasery. These quiescent moments are perhaps meant to counterbalance all the chaotic adventurism of the first and third acts. Regrettably, they also bring the narrative to a screeching halt. 
Mercifully, the middle act of Lost Horizon also features two of the most understated and enthralling episodes in the picture; both involving Conway’s summits with the High Lama. In each instance it is Sam Jaffe’s absorbing performance that rivets the audience to their seats; his curiously mercurial stares into the infinite as he gradually lets it be known he and the priest Chang spoke of earlier; Father Pereaux - the man who founded Shangri-La after a perilous journey forced him to sacrifice a limb. The second and even more startling revelation is made during Conway’s further audience with the High Lama; Conway, appointed the heir apparent in charge of Shangri-La’s welfare and future. This moment of transition is both literal and philosophical; Capra snuffing the flame of a nearby candle with a cruel blast of wind from an open window to denote the passage of the founder and ethereal escape of his careworn soul.
The last act of Lost Horizon is Capra’s stroppy attempt to return to the harrowing action of its first moments: Conway’s reluctant departure from paradise at the behest of a very caustic George and imploring Maria; the trio’s escape into the night as the High Lama’s torch lit valedictory processional makes its way toward the lamasery; Sondra, crying over their sober tomes to be heard by Conway; the discovery too late that Maria has lied to both men about her age. She is, as Chang had insisted all along, more than two hundred years old, her youthful mask withered to aged skeletal remains after transgressing against the enchanted properties of this isolated and timeless community.  
There are conflicting interpretations as to what occurs next; Capra leaving almost every aspect of his narrative open for discussion, beginning with George’s apparent suicide. Does he kill himself after being consumed by the epic guilt from knowing he has doomed his brother to a frozen fate beyond the paradise rightfully belonging to him, or does George merely – and tragically – slip and plummet in terror down the side of the mountain after witnessing the unfathomable horror of Maria’s fate? We are never entirely certain of the motives, only the circumstances that follow; Conway’s inability to find his way back to Shangri-La; his stumbling into a Tibetan village, collapsing at the base of a mausoleum, rescued and restored to his native England; his seemingly manic journey from the life he once knew, aspiring to re-discover Shangri-La recalled by fellow statesman, Lord Gainsford (Hugh Buckler): nearly all of it told in Slavko Vorkapich’s expertly edited montage.   
In the fall of 1936, Capra was likely sitting behind his desk, poker-faced and with sweaty palms as Columbia Pictures banked everything it had on Lost Horizon; a huge undertaking that was, in fact, an artistic gamble at best. In retrospect, Lost Horizon was Harry Cohn’s very public ‘coming out’ party; his first real chance to rival the opulence and glamour of MGM. His studio had acquired the rights to Hilton's best-selling novel of 1933; a fascinating escapist yarn, intellectually stimulating and rife with possibilities for a lavish cinematic treatment. Had Cohn bothered to examine the property a little closer he might have also noticed the major hurdles to be overcome: chiefly in Hilton’s pacifist viewpoint that, while captivating to read, would prove as difficult to convey in visual terms, even more so on the titanic budget necessary to capture the scope of the novel’s fanciful elements and bring everything to life.
Yet Cohn had faith in Capra; Columbia’s fair-haired boy after his Oscar-winning smash, It Happened One Night (1934); a B-budget ‘road picture’ Cohn initially had absolutely no faith in at all. And Capra was on a role, compounding his success with the equally charming, and as much beloved Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Both films had set cash registers ringing around the world. They also reaffirmed for Cohn that Capra possessed the ability to helm a large scale movie like Lost Horizon. Yet, Capra was not entirely certain Lost Horizon was his kind of movie. It was big - well beyond anything he had ever tackled. And it presented logistical challenges Capra was not entirely certain he could satisfy. Cohn gave Capra carte blanche to explore the possibilities and a bottom line that topped the combined allotments for all other movies being made at Columbia in 1937.
So, Capra went to work in earnest with longtime collaborator, Robert Riskin, transforming Hilton's platitudes into a workable screenplay. Riskin’s prose would go through several permutations, even as Capra was shooting his movie. In many ways, Lost Horizon was a troubled production from the onset, with Capra investing himself in a series of false starts before hitting his stride. The initial plan had been to have an aged Robert Conway narrate a pro and epilogue. A few surviving stills in the Columbia archive show Ronald Colman sufficiently grayed and wrinkly. However, Harry Cohn was not pleased with this device – and, in truth, neither was Capra, who next elected to shoot an entirely different prologue, this one taking place in the not too distant future: Conway rescued and reunited with his old friend and British foreign secretary, Lord Gainsford; the pair sailing home to England aboard a luxury liner. Conway is suffering from amnesia, but is stirred to reminiscences after hearing a piece of Chopin music played in the ship’s ballroom. He begins murmuring the word ‘Shangri-La’ over and over again, then, unexpectedly, is spurred to make a daring escape at sea. Both Capra and Cohn agreed this introduction slowed the pace of the movie. It was cut after the first preview.
Capra’s rough cut topped out at nearly six hours; trimmed down to three, then roughly two for its general release, and finally, butchered to a scant 90 minutes; clumsily renamed without Capra’s input as ‘Lost Horizon of Shangri-La for its WWII reissue. Ironically, the novel’s strengths became the flaws of the motion picture; Conway finding little else to do except involve Chang in fruitful discussions about the mechanics of this paradise. Capra’s unusual indecision kept the company on its toes, even as Columbia’s balance sheet veered dangerously into the red. Lost Horizon was released with great fanfare and overwhelmingly positive reactions from critics and audiences. But its lengthy and costly development impacted the movie’s ability to earn back its production costs. It would be years before it showed a profit on the ledgers.
Arguably, Lost Horizon was the wrong movie for its time: a pacifist’s manifesto made to a world precariously perched on the brink of its own Armageddon. Lost Horizon did gain steam at the box office during the height of the European conflict, particularly after President Franklin Roosevelt quipped during a press conference that a squadron of U.S. bombers had taken off on a successful bombing raid from a secret base at Shangri-La. But by then Cohn had elected to yet again hack into Capra’s carefully constructed chef-d'oeuvre; releasing a severely truncated 90 minute version at popular prices. Despite this folly, over the years Lost Horizon would be resurrected regularly as late night television fodder. Even commercially interrupted, the movie worked its spell. Indeed, Capra had created a haunting human tragedy from Hilton’s prosaic literature; spooky, brooding and full of mystery.
The film’s production history bears some discussion. On the Columbia Ranch just outside of Los Angeles, art director Stephen Goossen constructed the largest outdoor set ever built up until that time; the gleaming art deco lamasery - home to the Tibetan High Lama and his idealistic followers. Capra was adamant this secluded 'perfect' world should reflect the modernist view of ‘then’ contemporary western architecture. Thus, Goossen’s designs drew heavily their inspiration from the style known as art deco and from noted designer, Frank Lloyd Wright’s groundbreaking sensibilities. Capra would be criticized by purists for this decision upon the movie’s release. But audiences loved it, and the blueprint for the lamasery was, in fact, much copied in popular housing projects around Los Angeles.
If Capra had fudged the details by forgoing genuine Tibetan architecture in favor of pure Hollywood escapism, he was as committed to making his audience feel the frigidness of the Himalayan plateaus, serving as the natural barrier between this ‘lost horizon’ and the rest of the world. His own 1931 story set at the South Pole – Daredevil – had relied on an old Hollywood trick, incorporated crushed gypsum and pulverized marble dust to simulate snow. Although effective, no breath showed. So, for Lost Horizon Capra contacted the production manager of California’s Consumer Corporation, leasing one of its refrigerated warehouses for 23 days. Inside this mammoth 13,000 square foot warehouse, Goossen built a full-size mockup of the Douglas DC-2 with ice chippers macerating 11 tons of dry ice and propelling it into the air. To add to the scope of these snowy sequences, Capra inserted legitimate stock shots from Arnold Fanck’s German film, Storm Over Mont Blanc (1930).
Casting Lost Horizon became something of a minor nightmare. Capra wanted and successfully acquired the services of beloved British actor, Ronald Colman. It was a major coup for the picture, ensuring star-powered box office cache. Capra had also wanted David Niven for the part of Conway’s younger brother, George; the role eventually going to John Howard instead when Niven proved unavailable. Howard was a last minute decision – one thereafter regretted by Capra as Howard made no attempt at a British accent to compliment Colman. Even today, Howard’s participation on the project remains an oddity. In the meantime, Harry Cohn balked at Capra's initial choice of Sam Jaffe for the pivotal part of the High Lama; preferring the portly Walter Connelly instead.
To some extent, Cohn’s negativity where Jaffe was concerned may have had more to do with Jaffe’s liberal politics than his acting ability. To satisfy both Capra and convince Cohn, screen tests were made of both Jaffe and Connelly with Cohn reluctantly admitting Jaffe’s was the more persuasive performance. This hurdle overcome, Capra hand-picked the rest of his cast, including winsome Jane Wyatt for the role of the effervescent Sondra and Margo to play Maria; the exotic Russian dissident doomed to an untimely end. To add a touch of the comedic, Cohn borrowed Edward Everett Horton from RKO, and Thomas Mitchell – a free agent – signed on in the role of the reformed con artist, Barnard. With his cast in place, Capra dove headstrong into the arduous shoot.
Our story opens in the war-torn city of Baskul where British foreign secretary, Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is desperately working to evacuate by plane the remnants of a panicked and fleeing British colony. The unfortunates includes Conway’s brother, George (John Howard), a playful knockabout, Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), his scatterbrained foil; fossil expert, Alexander P. Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) and a prostitute fatally stricken with tuberculosis, Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell). This sequence was filmed at night at Van Nuys Airport, with 500 local Chinese extras, many who did not speak English and only added to the chaos and confusion of the moment. With Capra’s complicity, screenwriter, Robert Riskin added a sequence not in James Hilton’s novel – the burning of a hanger to illuminate the runway for evacuating planes.  Dramatic? Quite, and utilizing Capra’s preference for tight shots. 
Unbeknownst to these escapees, their English pilot has been murdered and replaced by a mysterious Mongol (Val Durand) who flies into the Tibetan mountains on a kidnapper’s mission to...well…no one’s quite sure. Tragedy strikes after the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack in mid-air, the plane going down and crash landing on a snowy plateau. Disheveled, but unharmed, Conway and the rest of the survivors are ‘discovered’ by Chang (H.B. Warner) who leads them out of the frozen wilderness to a secluded paradise curiously removed from its surrounding, frigid tundra. The initial introduction of Shangri-La is one of cinema’s truly dreamlike – if slightly unsettling – moments; Dimitri Tiomkin’s brooding choral chants underscoring a queerly enchanting, yet somewhat foreboding elixir, unexpectedly reflecting off of the lamasery’s gleaming white façade.
After being shown to quarters befitting their comfort, rest and recuperation from the arduous journey, Chang invites his guests to dine. Before the cuts were made there had been a brief and extremely bitter exchange between Gloria and Chang to emphasize her illness; Chang’s platitudes about seeking inspiration by looking at the top of a mountain as opposed to its base incurring Gloria’s considerable wrath. However, this moment did not survive the final edit. At dinner, George makes several demands of Chang, chiefly to make contact with the outside world and inform the British authorities of their survival. Chang’s cordial explanation - Shangri-La has no means of communication and no regular visitors – even porters - from beyond its sheltered perimeter - is unnerving to all except Conway, whose outward diplomacy belies the fact he feels an immediate kinship with Shangri-La.  
During their arrival, Conway had briefly glimpsed Sondra (Jane Wyatt) high atop one of the lamasery’s turrets; her buoyant laughter causing him to trip on its steps. The next day, while consulting with Chang about the creation of Shangri-La, Conway again catches sight of this bewitching girl, this time playing the piano with an elderly man. Conway is lured away from actually meeting Sondra by Chang who insists that when the time is right the proper introductions will be arranged. But Conway quickly notices how Chang skillfully skirts around his persistent inquiries to get to the gnawing truths behind Shangri-La.
Chang does, however, recall a fascinating tale about one Father Pereaux – a foreigner who nearly two centuries ago, while hiking through the mountains, became lost, then trapped in the snow and was forced to amputate his own leg to spare his life. Making his way to Shangri-La, Pereaux invested himself in the creation of this perfect world forever isolated from the woes of its outside counterpart. Again, when the timing is right, Chang promises Conway he shall meet the High Lama, who presently presides over this enchanted paradise, although as yet it is not made clear to Conway – or the audience – the High Lama and Father Pereaux are one in the same.
It is to Capra’s credit that he did not fall back on the traditional Hollywood flashback to visualize this bit of exposition, but instead allows H.B. Warner his indulgences in a sublime oration. Warner, a largely forgotten actor today, who rose to prominence playing Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1929 version of King of Kings, is arresting in this monologue; his soft-spoken voice a riveting tool exercised with paralytic excitement. Capra has less success maintaining a balance of meaningful interactions and exchanges between the remainder of his characters. In fact, almost immediately after their arrival to Shangri-La, the screenplay jettisons all but a few fleeting references to Lovett, Barnard and Gloria to indulge in Conway’s unravelling of the mystery behind Shangri-La. Surviving notes suggest Capra’s lengthier three hour rough cut paid more attention to these aforementioned survivors; particularly Gloria, who experiences a miraculous regeneration in both her health and attitude, eventually warming to, and falling in love with Barnard. Again, regrettably, none of this survives in the movie as it exists today, although we do get a rather tender scene between Barnard and Gloria early on, where he notices she has removed her pancake-heavy harlot’s makeup and immediately compliments her on looking better for the loss.
In the meantime, we are introduced to Margo as the agonizing Russian exile Maria, first discovered by George in a private room quietly weaving fabric at her loom. Played in silence, we nevertheless sense an immediate attraction between the pair, if only in their united desire to leave Shangri-La and return to the countries of their origin.  Again, not much else survives of this burgeoning romance between Maria and George, leaving the movie’s pivotal sequence of escape (as George begs, pleads and ultimately succeeds in convincing an extremely reluctant Conway to steal away into the night on the very eve of the High Lama’s funeral) rather perplexing and without motivation.
However, before this ill-fated departure Conway meets the High Lama; the decrepit mystic revealing himself to be Father Pereaux. Conway is understandably amazed. After all, how could any man live to be 200 years old? But Conway implicitly believes Pereaux, more so when the Lama tells him their plane crash was no accident, but rather a deliberate attempt made to secure Conway as his successor. It’s a little bit of a stretch, considering there is no way for the outside world to communicate with this secluded paradise; hence, just how the High Lama knows Conway is the right man for the job remains an enigma never entirely explained away. Nevertheless, the High Lama has been closely monitoring Conway’s career and recognizes he is a man truly dedicated to peace.
Sometime later, Sondra is discovered by Conway while skinny dipping in a pond – a sequence shot with dreamy flourish through heavy gauze by cinematographer Joseph Walker on the Columbia Ranch near a cascading waterfall. Thus begins Conway’s great love for this virgin-esque woman who has never been far from his heart since his arrival to Shangri-La. Sequences cut to illustrate their growing mutual affection included a moment where Sondra – while educating local Tibetan children – is encouraged to give Conway the same opportunity, and another scene where the pair visits an elaborate bird house; Sondra showing Conway her flock of doves. Pereaux recalls Conway to his side, confiding in him that the hour of succession is at hand. In one of Lost Horizon’s truly disquieting moments, the Lama’s head gently tilts forward; his visage suddenly ravaged by extreme age, a shadow falling across his body as a strong breeze blows out the wavering flicker of candlelight just behind him, signifying the expiration of his mortal life and simultaneous release of the soul. It remains a terrifying, yet exhilarating moment of realization; Conway immediately forced to come to terms with his newfound responsibilities.
Unhappy circumstance for Conway that George has grown sullen and irate; threatening one of the houseboys with Conway’s gun before insisting his brother take him and Sondra away from Shangri-La.  Earlier, Chang had attempted to explain to Conway how the space/time continuum reacts differently within Shangri-La; the lifespan of an individual extending well beyond the chronological stretch of years. However, if any inhabitants were to ever stray beyond its borders this spell would be broken. Conway relays this message to George who regards it as more of a threat, designed to keep them prisoners. Maria comes to George’s side, declaring Chang has lied to them. She is no older than what she appears – presumably, a girl in her mid to late twenties. Torn between his promise to the High Lama and a gnawing devotion to his brother, Conway makes a disastrous decision; to leave Shangri-La with George and Maria just as the High Lama’s torch-lit funeral processional begins. His departure is witnessed by a tear-stained Sondra and very concerned Chang from the lamasery’s outdoor mezzanine.  But it’s too late. Conway, Sondra and George have left Shangri-La to endure the harsh elements beyond its borders.
Several days on their perilous expedition, Sondra collapses in the snow, hoisted over Conway’s shoulder before George suddenly realizes she has reverted to a mummified corpse. The tragedy – or rather, reality – that Maria is, as Chang suggested, a woman more than one hundred years old, haunts George. In his frenetic attempt to run away, he plummets off the side of the steep snow-covered mountain, leaving Conway as the sole survivor of their ill-fated expedition; now completely lost in this frozen purgatory. Days indiscriminately pass. Conway grows frail and gaunt, collapsing near a Tibetan mausoleum where he is discovered by some compassionate locals. Capra reverts to montage herein; a series of cablegrams and radio broadcasts heralding the confounding news: Robert Conway is alive!
Gainsford arrives in London’s Men’s Social Club to recall his reunion with Conway; a baffling experience. He regales his contemporaries with Conway’s fanciful details about his journey and exile from Shangri-La before disappearing from his stateroom in pursuit of that mythical paradise he gave up. The final shot of Conway scaling a snowy peak; stubble-frozen beard and eyes gleaming with renewed hope as he stares into a distant horizon, merely suggests he may have rediscovered Shangri-La. Viewing Capra’s rough cut, Harry Cohn had Capra reshoot this sequence with a cutaway to Sondra clutching at her breast on the windswept precipice leading into the forbidden mountain, waving to Conway who realizes he had made it full circle back to the only place where he could ever belong. Cohn used this ‘happy ending’ for Lost Horizon’s WWII reissue. Thankfully, it did not survive future reissues as it completely belies the movie’s message: that heaven on earth is a decision made by its human inhabitants – either to embrace life as it comes or callously toss its exalted rewards aside in favor of chasing a vaguely inspired human facsimile.
As Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe would later do with Brigadoon, Lost Horizon’s mythology is both deeply enriching yet exquisitely spine-chilling all at once. For it suggests that to embrace true happiness one must leave behind every last vestige of a life better known to them. Sacrificing family, friends, career, et al is only part of the plan. The rest resides in Shangri-La’s medicinal properties, given over to the promise of near – but not quite - eternal life, yet only as long as one remains a prisoner of its cloistered domain. If Shangri-La truly is heaven on earth, then it remains unscrupulously unforgiving if this pact is broken, as it ultimately is with Maria. While many fantasy films have relied on the dualities of the traditional fairy-tale – revealing both darkness and light, Lost Horizon demands a more exacting and uncharacteristically ominous ‘high price’ from those seeking its earthly perfections. 
The quid pro quo of Shangri-La’s pact with humanity is what is most unnerving. In effect, the movie asks ‘Can we truly be happy at peace, knowing we are confined to a small world buried inside our greater one?’ This question is never resolved and neither is the outcome to Robert Conway’s harrowing trek. We would like to think Conway, even half-frozen and mentally/physically drained, made it back to Sondra and Shangri-La before the final fade out, as this clearly is where Conway’s heart and soul reside. But Lost Horizon – unlike Brigadoon - is vague about this reunion. The possibility Robert Conway has sacrificed human perfection and his own chances for contentment besides – never again to return to him – is a catastrophe that continues to gnaw at our level of expectation, unfulfilled in Capra’s cut minus Cohn’s proverbial happy ending.  In these final moments, Lost Horizon achieves its epiphanies about life and man’s pallid pursuit to improve upon God’s works with his own fumbling hands.
The film’s suggestion of a possible reprieve for Robert Conway – arguably, an extraordinary individual apart from the rest of humanity – is only modestly nurtured in Capra’s finale, but ironically even less so in Cohn’s more obvious conclusion. To paraphrase the Bible: for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Either Conway’s acceptance or rejection of everything he could possibly ever want is stained in human sacrifice. Consider Maria and George both come to truly horrific ends. How can Conway justify his return to this perfect world having conspired to deprive two of its residents of this same ‘almost eternal’ happiness? This remains a nagging concern, one that perhaps the precepts of Shangri-La will neither permit nor allow to go unpunished.
At some level, Lost Horizon proved a disappointment for both Capra and Cohn. In the end, Capra lost six reels to Cohn’s insistence for a tighter narrative. As a result, there remain inexplicable gaps that leave a choppy first impression on the viewer. Yet, it is the lasting impression that counts. And Lost Horizon is quite unlike any movie of its generation. Certainly, very unlike anything even remotely attempted today. It continues to tantalize the peripheries of our mind by sheer memory: too great a puzzle to simply unravel upon repeat viewings or dismiss outright; too lush an exercise, even in the philosophical, to excuse as mere pontificating socially-conscious fantasy film-making. There is something disturbingly unsure about its scenario and even more genuinely appealing and enriching about Capra’s aspirations to do more than simply entertain us.
Prior to the film’s release, Capra had hoped for another success. Unhappy chance, for both director and mogul Lost Horizon’s 3 ½ hour first preview in Santa Barbara was a disaster. Disappointed and disillusioned by the lack of immediate response to his opus magnum, Capra reluctantly gave in to Cohn’s demands for a shorter movie; distilling his masterpiece to 132 minutes – still functional and compelling – though hardly inclusive of all the hard efforts he had put forth in the preceding months. Even so, this general release of Lost Horizon failed to recoup its $1,200,000 outlay. But the story of Lost Horizon – the film - did not end there. For its 1942 reissue, Harry Cohn took to modifying the film even further, cutting its runtime down to 107 minutes and changing its main title to the more awkward Lost Horizon of Shangri-La. From this moment on, Lost Horizon fell into a sort of artistic limbo. Infrequently, it played on late night TV. Rarely was it shown at private screenings. Shelved for years thereafter, Lost Horizon’s original camera negative was allowed to deteriorate almost to the point of no return, its edits presumed to have been thrown away long ago – leaving only truncated second and third generation prints available for public viewing.
However, in the mid-1970s UCLA preservationist Robert Gitt undertook to conduct a comprehensive fact-finding mission into the missing footage. From varying source materials gathered around the world and still photos inserted to compensate for the (as yet) absent seven minutes of footage, Gitt and his associates managed to cut together a facsimile of the original roadshow engagement. Sadly, Lost Horizon remains a partially lost film; a tragedy even as what exists continues to sparkle with rare ghostly brilliance.
Last year Sony Home Entertainment, the custodians of the old Columbia/Tri-Star catalog, marked a stunning debut of Lost Horizon in a limited theatrical engagement, sporting nearly a full minute of newly discovered footage and a brand new 4K digital restoration. At the time, I had sincerely hoped this meant a Blu-ray was not far behind. Alas, we are already in the middle act of 2015 and no Blu-ray announcement as yet. Pity that! Meanwhile, Sony Home Entertainment has done the very best possible with Lost Horizon on DVD; a transfer made when DVD was still in its infancy and under the long since retired ‘Columbia Classics’ branding. Nevertheless, the studio’s commitment to preservation holds up rather well, considering the historic leaps and bounds in digital mastering since discovered and applied.
Herein, when print elements derived from the original nitrate stock serve as the source material for this DVD the B&W image exhibits a fairly accurate reproduction of what the original opening night experience must have been; albeit with more than a handful of scratches that today could be removed digitally for a smoother presentation.  Owing to these less than perfect surviving elements elsewhere, the image is understandably grainier than one would hope for; contrast occasionally suffering and fine details intermittently lacking. In their search for the best possible preservation elements, Sony has also utilized some truly miserable third generation 16mm footage, discovered in Canada many moons ago, filling in the rest of the absent 35mm footage with still images synced to a complete 132 min. soundtrack. These portions of Lost Horizon are of an extremely poor quality, but preserve some crucial sequences in the film that we otherwise would not have for posterity.
Again, working from fragile source materials, this is the best possible image quality currently available and likely to remain so until we can get Sony to give us a hi-def Blu-ray. Finally, there are some rare 16mm inserts, the least desirable of all – overly contrasted and with an excessive amount of built-in flicker and heavy grain creating nominal image distortion. The complete 132 min. audio has miraculously survived these many years and permutations. It is mono, but quite acceptable. Extras include a fascinating ‘reconstruction’ featurette with noted historian, Kendell Miller waxing affectionately about Lost Horizon’s original pro and epilogue, combined with rare stills taken of these sequences. Alas, the raw footage no longer survives. UCLA film preservationist, Robert Gitt also provides a compelling audio commentary.
Cobbled together, Lost Horizon is still a mystifying motion picture to behold. Capra, who regarded light comedy as his cinematic forte, performs a minor miracle herein with what might have easily become a stolid melodrama. Instead we are treated to a harrowing first and last act; the middle third, only moderately hampered by the fact nothing suspenseful happens and Capra falls back on a relatively straight forward romance between Conway and Sondra to provide causal linkage between his beginning and end. However, Lost Horizon is immeasurably aided by its superb cast. The Sandra/Conway romance notwithstanding, there is plenty to keep the viewer’s mind enthralled; from Chang’s mysterious musings to the High Lama’s mystical confession, to Margo’s bitterly cryptic lies that seal her own fate, Lost Horizon continues to evoke an unearthly, even ghost-like presence that gets under our skin. The film’s prologue suggests we all yearn for an escape from our troubled times. Capra’s interpretation of this communal desire may not represent everyone’s ideal of what heaven on earth is, but he manages to suggest an almost hypnotic allure for that other worldly retreat beyond the mountains.
On a personal note: Lost Horizon is a perennial favorite. I recall seeing it as a child and being spellbound, made anxious and confused by its imagery and by its story of one man's decision to abandon everything he has ever known for a chance to live as most men would desire, but few – if any – actually do. Even in its fragmented state of disrepair, I simply adore this movie - despite incongruities created by absent footage and more absent-minded idiocy that allowed for such a brilliant piece of cinema art to decay almost to a point of no return. It is from this perspective that Lost Horizon comes very highly recommended. This disc will hardly give you a perfect presentation. But the film's timeless quality of longing for something better than perhaps even life itself remains indestructible and intoxicating. Arguably, Lost Horizon shines through the weariness of its print master. The elements may disappoint. The story never does.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3 (considering source material deficiencies)


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

BELLE: Blu-ray (Fox Searchlight Pictures 2013) Fox Home Video

We live in uncertain times, with a racial divide that continues to plague and infect our social fabric, threatening the solidarity of a nation founded on principles of justice and equality for all. Never in my lifetime have I witnessed such a derisory and politicized thrust to ignite, renew and stir abject contempt between blacks and whites; to deliberately incite and haul out the ancient specters of Uncle Thomism as though virtually no progress has been made in the intervening centuries since the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immortal literary classic.  The subject of racial prejudice has remained ever present in American history, perhaps because it can never, or rather, ought never to be forgotten or mislaid within the annals of time. But banning The Dukes of Hazzard on the basis that its trademarked ‘General Lee’ Charger sports the flag of the rebellion, or, campaigning for the obliteration of such iconic touchstones in the entertainment industry as Gone With The Wind and Song of the South on the basis ‘some’ may find such imagery offensive, is no more supportive to the cause of stamping out racism than suggesting an end to poverty by denying Steinbeck his Grapes of Wrath. In fact, in and of itself, such idiotic precedence and fear-mongering remain equally as hateful statements of another social prejudice; the first step toward the ominous, and yet strangely – dangerously - appealing Hitlerian road to censorship.  
I have begun my review of Amma Asante’s superbly executed period drama, Belle (2013) with a formal plea of reconsideration, primarily directed at those responsible for this present-day implosion festering as America’s cultural divide; not because Asante’s movie directly addresses the current situation in America at all (in fact, the movie is all about a landmark decision against such racial intolerance in 1800’s Britain), but rather, because from the vantage of two years removed, Asante’s message of ‘promise and hope’ – unlike the derisive and failed promises made in America nearly eight years before, for ‘hope and change,’ point to an alternative purpose and approach that might diffuse and surrender our conflicted notions of ‘solving’ any multifaceted challenge, bordering on a national crisis, merely through ever escalating acts of embittered violence. If the wounds of history are to be mended – if, in fact, never entirely healed - then first and foremost, they must be contemplated by keener probative minds, clear-eyed and unencumbered by the obvious sense of entitlement and rage afflicting so many present-day pundits, who continue to suggest they crusade for a cause other than their own, when in reality, they have yet to even consider any achievement for a peaceable reconciliation, never more eloquently expressed than by the immortal words and doctrines spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  
In England’s Kenwood House there hangs a most remarkable portrait painted in 1779, depicting the observable mutual affections shared by two women: ‘sisters’ in the purest sense of the word; not of blood or even race, but by an affectionate bond of shared humanity, compassion and understanding.  In reality, Dido Elizabeth Belle (played in Asante’s film with spectacular humility, passion and questioning tenacity by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (the sublimely understated, Sarah Gadon) were cousins by an unlikely love match between British Captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman living in the West Indies. Asante’s direction, cribbing from Misan Sagay’s splendidly fictionalized screenplay, extols both the virtues as well as the vices of this rigidly structured caste system, exposing the similarities that bind all humanity together, despite outward physical differences, while magnifying the disparities of a social structure that would allow a woman of mixed racial heritage to occupy the same living quarters as the rest of her family within a stately manor house, yet preclude her from sharing supper at the same table when guests are present. Belle boasts all the lavishness of a sumptuously mounted period melodrama, augmented by an outstanding cast.
Limitations in the historical record have afforded Asante and Sagay unprecedented economy to be both inspired by the painting and yet creatively at liberty to ply their craft as authors of this richly satisfying historical fiction.  Each has shown great discipline in their artistic license. What is known for certain is William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield (and great uncle to Dido and Elizabeth) was also Lord Chief Justice from 1756 to 1788. During his tenure in office he presided over two very important cases: Somerset v Stewart in 1772 and the Zong insurance claims case of 1783; the latter proving a fascinating subtext for the movie, Belle. Each of Mansfield’s rulings helped lay the groundwork for Britain’s Slave Trade Act of 1807; then, considered a progressive piece of legislation.  Dido’s involvement in the Zong case, absconding with critical files she later shares with John Davinier (Sam Reid), the impoverished son of a vicar, come to study law at her uncle’s house, and the man desperately in love with her, whom she too will come to love and marry in the end, is wholly fabricated, as is actor, Tom Wilkinson’s Mansfield, adjudicating wisely in favor of the insurance company not to pay out its claim, not on a point of law; rather, a bold and progressive assertion to abolish slavery, which he comes to regard as an abomination, thanks to Dido’s imploring. John is a staunch advocate for social reform. But both men brought to the brink of conflict, then resolution in their love for Dido. It all weaves a miraculous spell of pure conjecture, intoxicatingly romantic and satisfying as cinema fiction. Personally, I leave truth to history. In movies, I seek intelligence and artistry above all else, and Belle has both commodities in spades.
Our story begins in 1769 with Britain a capital of the slave trade. Eight year old Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is rescued from her impoverished circumstances by her natural father, the kindly Sir John, a British Royal Navy officer who loved her mother, now deceased.  Forced to embark upon another campaign at sea for King and country, Lindsay entrusts the welfare of his daughter to his uncle, William Murray Mansfield and his kindly wife, Lady Elizabeth (Emily Watson) and a spinster aunt, Lady Mary (Penelope Wilton); all of whom reside at the pastoral retreat, Kenwood House in Hampstead. At first, Mansfield is outraged Lindsay should have concealed Dido’s mixed heritage from the family. “Have you not considered my position, boy?” he sternly chides his nephew. However, Mansfield is not without compassion. He and his wife elect to raise Dido as a free gentlewoman, referring to her as a playmate for their other niece, Lady Elizabeth, who came to their care after her mother’s death and father’s remarriage. The girls are a great comfort to one another and evolve into the best of friends throughout their childhood and youth.
Upon entering adulthood, Lord Mansfield commissions a noted painter to immortalize their likenesses. Dido is stricken with nervousness at the prospect, inadvertently interrupting a conversation between Mansfield and his new pupil, John Davinier. Earlier, Dido and John had gotten off to a very rocky start. Again, here he attempts to remain above her curt replies, meant to discourage any conversation. In Dido’s presence, Mansfield asks John what he believes is the purpose of the law. “To provide certainty where otherwise none might exist,” is his reply. John then cites the Zong case as his example, suggesting the slave owners ditched their human cargo, claiming it to be diseased property, when in reality they planned to fetch a more handsome price by drowning the slaves to collect the insurance money. Dido is understandably horrified to learn of this event, more so when Mansfield defends the company’s decision to collect on the claim based solely on a point of law. Neither man knows the particulars of what transpired aboard the slave ship as yet, so their opposing viewpoints are based on nothing more substantial than pure conjecture.
A letter arrives at Kenwood, explaining Dido’s father has died in service to the King. In his Will, Lord Lindsay has bequeathed Dido an inheritance of £2,000 a year; in essence, insuring she is to remain her own woman and sustain herself without taking a husband. By contrast, Lady Elizabeth has been left no income by her father, whose new wife has since become his sole heir. The focus of the story now shifts toward acquiring a rich husband for Elizabeth. Soon, she becomes fixated on James Ashford (Tom Felton), a contemptable young man whose extreme racial prejudice colors his opinion of Dido and her friendship with his older brother, Oliver (James Norton), who is, in fact, quite smitten with her. Alas, upon learning of Dido’s inheritance, the prospect of marriage acquires a new and unflattering allure neither girl is, as yet, made aware. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) is a sly and arrogant prig, conscious of Oliver’s lack of inheritance and therefore, like Elizabeth, his dependence on securing a rich spouse to support him.  The courting commences - awkwardly; James eventually ordering Dido to steer clear of Oliver, placing his hands on her person in a most unflattering way. Dido confides to Elizabeth that James is an unsuitable love match. However, colored by her own desperation to marry, Elizabeth admonishes Dido, despite Dido offering Elizabeth a portion of her own dowry, thus making both women independent.
Dido, who has been helping Mansfield in his correspondences on the Zong case, and debating him at the breakfast table no less, begins to siphon information to John which she believes will advance the abolitionists’ cause. Unaware of these clandestine rendezvous, Mansfield is nevertheless displeased with John’s insistence to overturn a point of law. Believing John is responsible for Dido’s spirited interest in the case, Mansfield orders him not to see his niece anymore. Meanwhile, Lady Mary seeks to steer Dido into an engagement with Oliver, mostly out of concern the girl might become a spinster like herself; a lonely existence she hopes to avert for her niece. James, who has discovered Elizabeth is penniless, loses all interest in pursuing their ‘romance’ – such as it was.
Eventually, Lord Mansfield begins to suspect Dido of visiting John at a local pub near the waterfront to share secret information with him about the Zong case. Mansfield tails Dido’s carriage to the wharf and confronts the pair; John declaring openly he will not stand by passively on the Zong case, but also passionately professing his abiding love for Dido. A short while later, Lady Ashford and Oliver are summoned to Kenwood in Lord Mansfield’s presence. It seems Dido has elected to refuse Oliver’s proposal of marriage. Lady Ashford is outraged. How dare a mulatto suppose herself to be above the station of a nobleman? But Dido reveals to Lady Ashford certain truths about her family; of their ignoble quest to have their sons marry for money rather than love, and of Lady Ashford’s bias toward her which, in time, would certainly drive a wedge into the heart of their union.
The painting of Dido and Elizabeth illustrates both women as contemporaries. Dido is stricken by the hypocrisy. How can the art reveal a truth that the reality of her situation in life and the society she resides in is as yet unwilling to embrace? Still, Dido suggests to Lord Mansfield the portrait proves he can defy convention – perhaps, even the rule of law, not on a matter of point, but to a higher justice for which it must be bent in order to comply. Mansfield is moved by her argument. Dido sneaks into the gallery of the Inn of Court as Lord Mansfield rules against the Gregson slave-trading syndicate. There will be no insurance payout. The ship’s officers were unjust in destroying their human cargo. Indeed, their sailing route illustrates they had plenty of opportunities to dock at various ports for fresh portable water but did not; later, claiming to have murdered their slave cargo to conserve their depleted rations. Instead, Lord Mansfield reasons the company, knowing the overcrowded conditions caused the slaves to become sick, thereby unlikely to fetch a fair price at auction, were negligible in sacrificing them for the much higher insurance claim sure to follow.  Having adjudicated wisely, Lord Mansfield emerges from court in time to observe John and Dido in each other’s arms. Indeed, she has found the ideal suitor who will satisfy her in matters of love as well as temperament. Realizing John possess certain merits as a born solicitor, Mansfield offers to procure him an apprenticeship.
Belle achieves a level of extraordinary satisfaction; Simon Bowles’ exquisite production design lensed to perfection by Ben Smithard’s sublime cinematography. Claudio Campana and Ben Smith’s art direction is, likewise, impeccable; the entire production imbued with a level of craftsmanship rarely seen in American movie-making these days. Certainly, nothing like it has been witnessed since the days of Merchant/Ivory.  It’s an elegant style, lush and evocative; a moving tableau with well-bred, though occasionally less than well-mannered citizenry occupying its cultured social circles and manicured gardens, prone to the gallant and exuberantly staged garden party, complete with fireworks and a gavotte. Gorgeous film-making, however, will only get you so far.
But Belle is imbued with superb performances as well; beginning with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s predominant star-making turn as Dido ‘Belle’. She is appropriately demure, self-sacrificing, yet undiminished and triumphant in her increasingly impassioned declarations, even as she steadily acquires a moral compass and social conscience directly at odds with the courtly and polished façade of social mores and mannerisms designed to keep her in her place. It really is a sensitive performance, stirred with unquenchable fires of frustration that intersect an internal music of the imperishable soul, yearning to come to terms with a new world that, according to the movie, she has had a hand in helping, not only to master, but mold. The rest of the cast, particularly Tom Wilkinson, offer stellar support. But Belle remains Gugu’s show and she runs the gamut from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ with peerless effort.
20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, via their ‘Searchlight’ label has released a positively stunning 1080p hi-def transfer. Shot digitally, this gorgeous image exhibits all the blessings of a period epic photographed on film; richly saturated hues, superb clarity and sumptuous amounts of fine detail oozing from the peripheries of every frame. ‘Wow’ doesn’t begin to describe the image quality, exhibiting very strong contrast levels even during the dimly lit dinner scenes and others shot under the cover of night and natural lighting conditions. Belle is a resplendent period costume piece and this hi-def transfer does virtually every inch of it justice. Using location to maximum effect, a few brief CGI sequences in the navy yard appear just a tad more softly focused by comparison. But this is a minor quibble. There are no untoward digital anomalies. The image is solid, sharp and almost perfect.
The 5.1 DTS audio is appropriately placed with atmospheric subtleties that truly enliven the sound field. There is very nice contrast between the cluttered noisiness of London and the vivacious breezes blowing through the open-air courtyards at Kenwood; Rachel Portman’s evocative underscore enveloping the surround channels. Extras are rather disappointing. What they boil down to are a series of very brief junkets slapped together at the time the movie was being made. Cumulatively, they present a very superficial ‘look’ at the behind-the-scenes investment of time and money. We get only snippets of reflection from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson and director, Amma Asante that barely scratch the surface. Disappointing, but typically assembled fluff stuff to bolster interest in the movie prior to its release. Bottom line: Belle is a resplendent human saga whose attributes place it just this side of a bona fide masterpiece.  It deserves to be seen and treasured. The Blu-ray gifts us the pluperfect home-viewing experience.  Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)