It was James Hilton’s best-selling 1933 novel Lost Horizon that first brought us the term “Shangri-La,” but it was Frank Capra who immortalized it with his epochal 1937 film version of the story starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Sam Jaffe and Edward Everett Horton for Columbia Pictures. A money-loser upon its initial release, Lost Horizon has over time matured into a beloved classic. It remains today a wonder to behold, a visually stunning experience with credit due both to Capra and cinematographer Joseph Walker, but most importantly to art director Stephen Goosson, whose remarkable streamline moderne settings rank among the most spectacular and memorable film sets ever created.
The Michigan born Goosson was one of a number of architects such as Lyle Wheeler and Carl Jules Weyl who found new careers in movies. Goosson entered films in 1919 working first for Lewis J. Selznick, then Joe Schenck, Cecil B. De Mille and others before finally settling as the head art director at Columbia Pictures for some twenty-five years, picking up five Oscar nominations along the way and a well deserved win for Lost Horizon. In some ways, Goosson’s sets were so arresting that they upstaged the film’s plot, a situation Capra himself candidly admitted in an oral history conducted in the 1950’s and quoted in Joseph McBride’s 1992 biography of the director The Catastrophe of Success. “I got lost in the architecture, in Utopia,” Capra related, “in the never, never land, and it was only toward the end of the picture that I got back on the track with human beings…” Capra could hardly be blamed for getting sucked into the wonderous Utopia of Shangri-La as invented by Hilton and brought to life by Goosson. It is, in fact, the de facto star of the picture and in my humble opinion, the most memorable thing in the whole picture.
The sets in Lost Horizon were so compelling they led at least one person, mining magnate Harry E. Huffman to want Shangri-La for his own personal paradise and being a mining magnate he had the funds to do it. In 1937, the same year the film came out, Huffman wrote out what must have been a big check and engaged well-known Denver architect Raymond Harry Ervin to design a duplicate of Goosson’s Shangri-La for a hilltop site Huffman had purchased in Denver, Colorado at 150 South Bellaire Street. Ervin did such a great job on the house it has led Denver architectural blogger Tom Lundin on The Denver Eye to declare it may even surpass the original. In 1939, a blue ribbon panel of noted Denverites concurred, naming the Denver’s new “Shangri-La” estate one of the best buildings recently constructed in the Mile High City in a survey conducted by The Architectural Record.
As for the remarkable Stephen Goosson, he was quite obviously a talented art director and I find it intriguing that in between his many film assignments he managed to design some real-life buildings of his own including some structures on the Columbia lot. He also designed a soundstage on what was then the Cecil B. De Mille Studios in Culver City (Culver Studios) that was, at the time of its construction, the largest single soundstage in the entire world. He also designed a very beautiful beach club called the Westport Beach Club in Palisades Del Rey, which sadly, has been demolished, but my ultimate favorite Stephan Goosson design was the magnificent Spanish hacienda he created for silent film star Milton Sills and his wife Doris Kenyon in 1927 at 315 North Saltair Avenue in Brentwood, which was given the literally dreamy name of El Sueno. To me it is one of the most sublime versions of a Spanish Colonial Revival hacienda I have yet seen and I’m happy to report that although the land surrounding it has suffered the inevitable subdivision, the home itself remains. It would be my version of Shangri-La! After all, we all have one in the back of our minds, don’t we? What’s yours?
Lastly, credit where credit is due belongs to the photos I borrowed from Tom Lundin and his two wonderful blog sites The Denver Eye and MidModMid. And to NZ Pete who has a great site devoted to the remarkable and now lost art of matte painting and the artists who produced them. It was the unsung matte artists who transformed Burbank into “Shangri-La.” It was from his site that I got some of the production stills and he should get a special thanks for chronicling the achievements of the matte artists. Check these sites out!