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Eclipse Series 20: George Bernard Shaw on Film

Major Barbara: Stage to Screen

It was one of the most improbable linkups in the history of either theater or cinema—as unlikely as Andrew Undershaft’s turning over his munitions empire to Adolphus Cusins, his not-quite-yet son-in-law (and newly declared “foundling”), in the denouement of Major Barbara (1941). On one side of the partnership was the renowned Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), at the time the foremost literary figure in the English-speaking world, a man whose life—in terms that Undershaft would have appreciated—had bridged the development of the revolver and the hydrogen bomb and who was nearly eighty years old. On the other side was Gabriel Pascal (1894–1954), an expatriate Hungarian almost four decades Shaw’s junior, whose origins and early life remain a mystery. He claimed to have been an orphan, raised by Gypsies and trained as a beggar and an acrobat; he had spent time in a military academy before discovering a deep devotion to theater and the arts; he turned to acting and to producing movies in Europe, and then tried to establish himself in Hollywood, where he became known as the Hobo Producer.

By the middle of the 1930s, Pascal had run out of money and stowed away across the United States to England, arriving in London with not much more than a pound to his name. He talked his way into a meeting with Shaw to discuss filming his plays. Anyone in the cinema world then would have thought Pascal mad for even bringing up the subject—Shaw was a well-known iconoclast who had turned down a knighthood and nearly refused the Nobel Prize in Literature (he did refuse the monetary award), and who had frustrated producers and movie studios for years with his insistence that his plays be filmed exactly as written. He wanted his characters to be his characters, presenting his words and his arguments, not the work of some adapter filtering (or eliminating) his messages. This had made it all but impossible to translate his plays profitably to the screen, as British International Pictures had discovered with a pair of adaptations, How He Lied to Her Husband (1931) and Arms and the Man (1932), each shot as a filmed play, precisely as authored for the stage, and each losing a large amount of money.

Shaw had long been fascinated by film, had happily appeared in newsreels, and had even been a member of the London Film Society. But his enthusiasm disappeared when the subject turned to putting his own work on the screen. This was of a piece with his general dissatisfaction with adaptations of his plays to other genres—he’d been singularly unhappy with an operetta of Arms and the Man, called The Chocolate Soldier. And he rejected overtures to turn Pygmalion into an operetta, to have been composed by Franz Lehar.

And then Pascal came along, with his personal fervor for Shaw’s art, charming and beguiling the playwright and all those around him, and winning Shaw over with his frank admission of being flat broke. Shaw apparently appreciated his honesty, as well as the sincere appeal of a fellow eccentric, and, after persuading Pascal that his original plan to film The Devil’s Disciple was too risky a project, agreed to a film of Pygmalion.

It took Pascal nearly two years to put the production together, and what he ended up with was something of a miracle—born partly of inspiration and partly of luck, owing to the recession that had left a major portion of the British film industry idle, including some important young talents, among them director Anthony Asquith and editor David Lean. The other key elements lay in a young actress named Wendy Hiller, whom Shaw had seen onstage and who would play Eliza Doolittle, and, in the starring role of Henry Higgins, the international box-office draw Leslie Howard, who would also serve as codirector with Asquith; Shaw didn’t think Howard was right for the part, being too appealing, but saw him as necessary to draw audiences. The real secret to getting Pygmalion (1938) made, however, was Asquith’s persuading Shaw to change the play, by creating the embassy ball scene (which, true to Shaw’s sense of humor, included a little satirical portrait of Pascal, in the person of the conniving Hungarian elocution expert, Karpathy). That scene, and the ending implying a possible relationship between Eliza and Henry, added an emotional hook to the Shavian wit and the playwright’s ideas about language and class that put the film over with audiences around the world.

The great success of Pygmalion proved that Shaw’s work could be brought to the screen to the satisfaction of the playwright, producers, and the public. And in its wake, Shaw granted Pascal the right to make films of any of his plays, an agreement that would result in three more projects and an extraordinary creative relationship between the Fabian socialist and the theatrical eccentric, both relatively new to the world of cinema. Their voluminous correspondence concerning the plays and the films (much of which had been thought lost, but which in recent years has started to appear in publication) reveals a unique devotion to each other’s goals.

Major Barbara came three years after Pygmalion and was made under vastly different circumstances. England was now at war, and rather than being underemployed, many of the most talented people in the British film industry were working full-time, either in the business or in the armed forces. The project was in production through the difficult year of 1940, with German air raids disrupting filming. Andrew Osborn, originally to have played Adolphus Cusins, was called up for service and replaced by Rex Harrison. Actor Donald Calthrop, who portrayed Peter Shirley, died of a heart attack on July 15. And yet the film ended up an extraordinary achievement, for reasons that weren’t obvious to most observers at the time.

Officially, Major Barbara was produced and directed by Pascal. In reality, Pascal relied on two “assistants”: David Lean and Harold French. Lean had had his career breakthrough as a film editor (and very nearly a codirector) on Pygmalion, and in the three years since had gone to the top of his profession, and was about to make the official leap to the director’s chair; French was an actor turned director who’d had an immense stage hit with Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears in 1937.

In French’s description, Pascal would walk around the set, yelling instructions and waving his arms. But in terms of what showed up on-screen, French worked with the actors on their dialogue while Lean dealt with such matters as camera placement and the devising of shots. And between them—with Shaw himself on the set, as well, for much of the shoot—they made an amazingly dexterous and entertain­ing motion picture, especially given the density of ideas being traded among characters.

In some ways, Major Barbara could be considered a distant cousin of King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (1949), another fiercely intellectual drama, adapted by Ayn Rand from her novel. The two authors aren’t often compared as creative figures, Shaw being a socialist while Rand’s work is steeped in a reverence for the idea of the individual against the collective (i.e., anti-Communism), but both were polemicists—Shaw often wrote explanatory introductions to his plays that were longer than the plays themselves, and Rand is famous for her philosophical tracts, as well as for extended speeches voiced by key characters in her novels. Both films are populated by figures who, to varying degrees, function more as spokespersons for (or embodiments of) their creators’ ideas than they do as dramatic characters. Of course, Major Barbara offers more wit in a single line than Rand would infuse into the whole of her work.

Major Barbara was, indeed, criticized in some circles in 1941 for being overly long and talky. But the passage of time and the gradual dumbing down of most cinema have only made the film seem more clever, even sprightly at times. And it was a box-office success, if not quite to the extent of Pygmalion.

Major Barbara marked the peak of Shaw’s direct involvement in film. The playwright was so enthusiastic during production, in fact, that he actually ran onto the set amid the extras during the staging of the Salvation Army rally, interrupting the shot. He made nineteen major changes to the play, each of them based on a serious consideration of the needs of visual storytelling, most notably the rally and the tour of the Undershaft & Lazarus factory, a cinematic tour de force accompanied by a rousing score by William Walton. The resulting mix of visuals, music, and performances, especially those of Wendy Hiller, Robert Morley, Robert Newton, Donald Calthrop, and a young Deborah Kerr, made Major Barbara, philosophizing and all, alternately dazzling, charming, and engrossing entertainment.

Caesar and Cleopatra: The War Effort

With two consecutive successes in Pygmalion and Major Barbara, producer Gabriel Pascal went forward in 1942 with planning his next adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw play. He actually wanted to film Saint Joan but was advised by the government that it was probably not a good idea, in the middle of a war in which France was a key ally, to make a movie about a French saint martyred by the English. He ultimately set his sights on Caesar and Cleopatra, a work dating from 1898 that Shaw himself was dubious about filming, dismissing it as a “dead thing.” Additionally, and prophetically, Shaw was concerned that it would be difficult to film affordably.

But Pascal was looking forward to the opportunity to make a huge spectacle rivaling the grandest works of Hollywood. And he had as an enabler the wealthiest film producer in England, J. Arthur Rank, who had already green-lighted what would be a groundbreaking Shakespeare adaptation in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, and sought to make a double-barreled assault on Hollywood with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). Like Henry V, it would be shot in Technicolor. And it would showcase Vivien Leigh, then Olivier’s wife and the top female star in the world, thanks to Gone with the Wind.

Pascal started shooting just a few days after the Allied invasion of France, in June of 1944, and there were crippling problems from the outset, starting with Leigh’s pregnancy and miscarriage, which kept her from working for almost two months. German bombing raids on London were also a serious complication, as was the sheer size of the production in the midst of wartime austerity. In the end, filming was moved to Cairo, resulting in further delays. (The tying up of scarce Technicolor cameras by Pascal also forced postponements in the shooting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.) The initial budget of a quarter of a million pounds (just over a million dollars) ultimately quintupled, making Caesar and Cleopatra the most expensive movie ever produced in England up to that time, an issue important enough in the middle of the war to become the subject of debate in Parliament.

The movie’s outsize dimensions, mixed with Shaw’s droll dialogue, made for an oddly compelling blend—Claude Rains’s wryly cynical Caesar was as riveting a screen role as the actor ever had (despite the instant dislike that he and Pascal took to each other). But the film was a box-office flop, losing three million dollars. The spectacle ended up dwarfing the performances, fine as they were, and not even Freddie Young’s superb photography could entice audiences.

Shaw, by then approaching ninety, was present for most of the shoot, but his work on the screenplay was minimal, as were his concessions to the needs of the medium—although he did make an essential contribution by casting Rains. After the film’s release, Shaw pulled back from active involvement in Pascal’s activities; his approach to the screenplay, coupled with Pascal’s extravagance, had led to financial disaster (and gotten Pascal all but banned from further work in England). Pascal would continue to shop Shaw’s plays around, but the playwright withdrew from the film world.

Androcles and the Lion: The Lion Roared

Gabriel Pascal entered the second half of the 1940s a kind of stricken figure in the cinematic world. The box-office disaster of Caesar and Cleopatra had all but wrecked his career. Making that film, with its five million dollar budget, had been his version of storming Olympus on the winged Pegasus—its three million dollar loss, then, akin to his being thrown from his mount, like the mythical Bellerophon, that crippled, wandering beggar. Pascal still owned the screen rights to the George Bernard Shaw plays, however, and he traveled the world seeking backing for another film adaptation, without success. Meanwhile, the elderly Shaw had withdrawn from participation in Pascal’s efforts, or any consideration of the film world, after Caesar and Cleopatra. A few months before his death in November of 1950, Shaw wrote a letter encouraging Pascal to find a new focus for his professional life, a “young Shaw” to tie his talents to.

Ironically, by then Pascal had found a backer, in, for the first time, Hollywood—and, even more amazingly, at RKO, a studio that Shaw had taken the trouble to personally insult during negotiations (ultimately failed) over The Devil’s Disciple in 1932–33, and that, after some rough times, was run by financier Howard Hughes. The play to be adapted was Androcles and the Lion, a lesser-known work from 1912 that retold the story of the Christian slave saved from the Romans by a lion in terms that wittily emphasized religious tolerance. The 1949 success of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, had kicked off a public fascination with ancient-world epics, and Androcles (which would also star Mature) seemed tailor-made to feed into this phenomenon. Pascal handled the casting, which included many inspired choices, notably the hauntingly beautiful Jean Simmons as Lavinia, Maurice Evans as the emperor, Elsa Lanchester as Megaera, and, most of all, Robert Newton, who dominates every scene he’s in as Ferrovius, the fervent, aggressive Christian convert. Mature, as the captain, is actually the weak link, his portrayal lacking the needed irony. Originally, Harpo Marx was to play the quietly devout, gentle, animal-loving Androcles—no one is sure if he was to do it mute or with dialogue—but Hughes apparently vetoed this casting. The role ended up going to Alan Young, who brings to it a beguiling innocence.

The movie has its lapses into silliness, but in its better moments, of which there are many, it gets Shaw’s message and humor across beautifully. Chester Erskine, a stage veteran with writing experience, was brought in to direct and coadapt the screenplay. And amid the superb acting, the film has a wry charm, as well as a special appeal for animal lovers—the closing scene of Androcles and the lion leaving Rome unmolested has stayed with this writer for decades.

This project ended Pascal’s cinematic career with Shaw’s work, but not his devotion to the playwright’s legacy. He spent the remaining two years of his life putting together his long-cherished idea of a stage musical of Pygmalion, which came to fruition two years after his death as My Fair Lady.

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