The Annotated MAD MEN: LOST HORIZON And The Myth Of Shangri-La

As MAD MEN moves characters to Los Angeles it briefly hints at utopian paradises. 

In these days of wars and rumors of wars - haven't you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?
Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia - Sometimes the Fountain of Youth - Sometimes merely "that little chicken farm."

Those words play on the screen of the giant new TV Don has bought Megan in the seventh season premiere of Mad Men, Time Zones. Before we can get a good look at what movie it is that Don is watching on the Late Show, he turns off the TV.

Astute viewers will know that is the opening crawl of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, a movie about a group of Westerners who crash land in a hidden Tibetan valley and discover paradise. That movie, and what it is about, could have huge implications for the coming season - or at least the West Coast action.

Capra’s film was released in 1937 and was a monumental flop. It was the most expensive film made to date by Columbia, and it went almost a million bucks over budget at a time when a million bucks was a stunning amount of money. It was the kind of out-of-control production that wagged tongues back in the day, with expensive sets that could only be shot at night, millions of feet of film exposed and an initial cut that was a massive six hours long. Capra wanted to release the movie in two parts, but the studio, worried that recent light, fluffy hits showed the public had no taste for heavy, lengthy pictures, vetoed him. It wouldn't be the first time Columbia would take a stand about the film's length.

The version that Don watched wasn’t the one that opened in 1937 as a limited touring roadshow; 14 of the film’s original 132 minutes were cut by the studio before it went into wide release. And who even knows which other version Don saw - there was a rerelease of the movie in 1942 that cut 12 more minutes, and a version that came out in the 50s that trimmed out lots of material that could be construed as pro-Communist. It wasn’t until 1973 that the studio began working to restore the original cut; much of the deleted material had been destroyed but a full soundtrack still existed, so the eventual completed version - which became available in 1985 - including lengthy sequences where sound plays over still images and behind the scenes photos.

The movie was based on a book by James Hilton, and that book made a major contribution to the pop culture of the Western world: it created Shangri-La. It’s hard to imagine, but before Hilton’s 1933 novel Shangri-La simply didn’t exist. Today that name automatically calls to mind utopia, a paradise, and it's been co-opted by restaurants and hotels and apartment buildings, but nobody heard it before 1933.

The book and the movie tell the same basic story: the paradise valley of Shangri-La has been created to preserve humanity’s greatest achievements as the world gets more and more warlike. The inhabitants of the lamasery at Shangri-La live extraordinarily long lives, but the High Lama who has founded the place is, after many centuries, finally dying. He has drawn the Westerners to Shangri-La because he believes one of them has what it takes to keep the valley hidden, safe, and moving forward.

Hilton didn’t make Shangri-La up wholesale; the concept of a hidden paradise comes from Shambhala, a legendary hidden kingdom that was rumored long before Buddhism came to Tibet. Depending on what myth you like and what beliefs you have Shambhala may be a real place, or it may be a state that can be achieved karmically. The Dalai Lama has weighed in on Shambhala:

Although it is said to exist, people cannot see it, or communicate with it in an ordinary way. Some people say it is located in another world, others that it is an ideal land, a place of the imagination. Some say it was a real place, which cannot now be found. Some believe there are openings into that world which may be accessed from this one. Whatever the truth of that, the search for Shambala traditionally begins as an outer journey that becomes a journey of inner exploration and discovery.

Whether physical or metaphysical, Shambhala is a refuge and place of peace and tranquility, much like the hidden valley of Shangri-La, kept green and warm because of its strategic location between Himalayan peaks.

That strategic value is part of why the Nazis launched multiple expeditions to Tibet (they wanted staging areas to attack British holdings in India), but they were also looking for mythical Shambhala. Himmler believed that a group of pure-blooded Aryans had settled in Shambhala, and the Nazis went deep into the mountains three times over the course of the 1930s. In the 1920s Gleb Bokii, the head of the Soviet Secret Police, launched an expedition seeking the fabled lost kingdom.

It seems crazy that Capra’s movie was a financial failure because Shangri-La became almost immediately embedded in the American consciousness. It was such a touchstone that the US Navy named an aircraft carrier the Shangri-La, a huge deviation from standard protocol. The name was something of an in-joke - President Roosevelt was a big fan of the novel Lost Horizon (he originally named presidential retreat Camp David “Shangri-La”) and when he was asked from where the famous Doolittle Raid on Japan, made in retaliation for Pearl Harbor, was launched he laughingly replied, “Shangri-La.” And so an aircraft carrier (christened by James Doolittle's wife) got its name.

Hilton’s fictional take on Shambhala came at just the right time, as the world slid into the darkness of WWII. It doesn’t take much insight to understand how, during a global Depression that led into one of the most desperate fights in human history, the idea of a heavenly place of peace and learning could appeal to so many. As humans showed their worst, Shangri-La represented a world where they could also be their best. And the story has the added advantage of a happy ending - Shangri-La isn’t destroyed, and our hero - who briefly leaves (along with a local lovely who rapidly ages and dies after leaving the valley) - eventually makes his way back and, presumably, is still running the show to this day. There’s still hope hidden in the Himalayas.

Los Angeles feels like Shangri-La in the world of Mad Men. This city of sunshine and endless orange groves, nestled at the base of a mountain range, is a promised land compared to the growing ugliness of New York City. But Shangri-La is a myth, and Megan’s peaceful canyon life is just months away from being shattered by the Manson murders*, which will mark a new dark period in LA’s history.

I do wonder if, somewhere in the city splayed beneath Megan’s window, a movie producer named Ross Hunter was watching that same broadcast and got himself an idea. Hunter, who had produced many of Douglas Sirk’s famous melodramas, was about to have the biggest hit of his career with 1970s’ Airport, which invented the disaster film. In 1973 he would produce a musical remake of Lost Horizon which, like the original, would be a flop. While Capra went on to great things (his next film, You Can't Take It With You, won him a Best Director Oscar, and the year after that he made the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the remake pretty much ended Hunter’s theatrical career. He went off to make TV movies for Paramount. 

But maybe LA is a head fake when it comes to a hidden kingdom where knowledge is stored. Maybe the real Shangri-La is the Draper apartment in New York City. There Don, the High Lama, gives wisdom to an outsider, Freddy Rumsen. But this Shangri-La has been breached, and the protective glass doors no longer keep out the cold.

* The Playboy Don is looking at in Megan’s house is the February 1969 issue. The Manson murders happened in July.