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Two months into 2010, the most interesting DVD release of the year so far is Eclipse's George Bernard Shaw on Film, a three-picture disc set based on plays by the extremely individualistic Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Gabriel Pascal directed two and produced all three. The story goes that Shaw rebuffed big studio offers but allied with Pascal based upon the young man's persistence. Their most famous adaptation by far is the glowingly successful 1938 classic Pygmalion with Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard. Cast with talented stars and humming with Bernard Shaw's precise and witty dialogue, all three of these pictures are great entertainment.
Shaw is renowned for turning his plays into freewheeling social debates, and 1941's Major Barbara examines the nature of organized charity, satirizing its effect on a very imperfect London. Fresh from Pygmalion, Wendy Hiller has a standout role as the highly motivated and charismatic Salvation Army Major Barbara Britomart. Barbara finds an acolyte and husband in Adophus Cusins, a penniless scholar of Greek surprised to discover that Barbara comes from a wealthy family. The play's conflict and much of its humor are provided by Barbara's estranged father Andrew (a hilarious Robert Morley). He's a big wheel in the munitions game -- a highly profitable business in conflict with Barbara's Christian philosophy. The fun comes when the "devilish" Andrew sets out to prove to his daughter that money, not morality, is the key to human happiness. Barbara must resist temptation while simultaneously winning the soul of Bill Walker (Robert Newton), a belligerent Cockney ne'er-do-well who fights tooth and nail to avoid enlistment in the Salvation Army's legion of believers. In for extra fun is the very young Deborah Kerr, in her first film role.
Bernard Shaw adapted Major Barbara personally, and although the text has been shortened his characteristic complexities are untouched. The play takes several unpredictable turns, foiling attempts to predict the direction Shaw's impish "debate" will take. Just when we expect Barbara to triumph, surprises follow at the rate of one every three minutes. After throwing our preconceptions about charity, progress and happiness into a spin, Shaw endorses a radical new kind of humanist "faith": instead of winning souls by feeding the hungry, Barbara should first work for an equitable society and bring faith to the masses afterwards.
We're told that Major Barbara was filmed as bombs fell during the London Blitz. It's still a filmed play but director Pascal and his topnotch art directors Vincent Korda and John Bryan see to it that the visuals are stunning. The Salvation Army Mission is in a run-down lot near the docks and Andrew Underschaft's massive armaments factory / worker's city of the future is like something out of Things to Come. But the colorful characters are what we cherish, from Rex Harrison's likeable scholar to the Mission's "saved" freeloaders. They invent disadvantaged backgrounds so that, when they find God, the charity workers can feel more accomplished. The mischievous wink of author Shaw is evident in every scene: when Barbara suddenly feels the bitterness of disillusion, Bill Walker is right there to twist the knife: "What price salvation now, sister?"
1945's Caesar and Cleopatra is Gabriel Pascal's massive attempt to trump the Yankees in the Technicolor epic stakes. Despite its commercial failure it now plays as an intelligent, funny and charming antidote to overblown and pompous Hollywood treatments of similar material. George Bernard Shaw's 1898 play has been opened up with massive sets and location filming -- in Egypt, before the finish of the war -- but retains Shaw's refreshingly cynical views on political and military power. Although one of the main characters is Brittanus (Cecil Parker), an opinionated Celtic advisor from a certain backward isle to the West, Shaw's agenda includes a sly comparison of Rome's corrupt empire and that of modern England.
The cast is ideal. Claude Rains has one of his best roles ever as Julius Caesar, a clever conqueror who befriends his enemies and conceals his moral convictions behind a cynical front. Vivien Leigh, perhaps the most in-demand actress of the time, plays Cleopatra as a teenaged contradiction, alternating between childish antics and destructive willfulness. Cleopatra meets Caesar under a sphinx at night and is immediately captivated by the Roman's playfulness, wisdom and natural authority. She allows Caesar to occupy part of Alexandria while Egypt's leaders (including Francis L. Sullivan's imposing Pothinus) scheme to put Cleo's brother Ptolemy (Anthony Harvey) on the throne. The confusion allows Caesar's few soldiers to hold the palace and keep Pothinus a prisoner for months. Adding to the fun are Apollodorus, a Sicilian merchant to the queen (Stewart Granger, costumed like a sword 'n' sandal hero), and Caesar's faithful "sidekick" general, Rufio (Basil Sydney).
Shaw's expanded play indulges an almost slapstick feel in some scenes, as when Cleopatra hides in a carpet to smuggle herself to Caesar's battle lines at the Pharos lighthouse. The author gets in some choice digs at conquerors when the legendary Library of Alexandria goes up in flames: Caesar allows the old scholar Theodotus (Ernest Thesiger, as fruity as ever) to fight the fire, but only because doing so fits into his battle strategy.
The relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar begins in a comedic vein but soon becomes more complex. Cleo looks upon Caesar as an infallible guardian yet is determined to assert her newfound authority as Queen. She threatens the lives of her slaves, ignoring Caesar's teachings to the contrary; he enjoys the loyalty of all yet threatens nobody directly. The relationship finally turns on Cleopatra's pride, when she commands her personal handmaiden Ftatateeta (Flora Robson, magnificently savage) to murder a man who has called the Queen a liar. Cleopatra doesn't realize that this act will destabilize all that Caesar has worked to achieve. Only the Roman's customary brilliance saves them all from death at the hands of a mob.
Openly playing with familiar historical facts, Shaw dutifully returns Caesar to his fate in Rome (which he seems to fully predict) and opens the door for the return of the next man in the short life of the Egyptian queen, Mark Antony. Sometimes verging on farce, Caesar and Cleopatra has an uncommonly witty perspective on those who presume to rule over their fellows. Ftatateeta is Shaw's spokesperson on this point: she considers herself suitable to lead not because she's so smart, but because everyone else is so stupid.
Vivien Leigh skips, dances and slinks her way through this eccentric epic. Her royal costumes are dazzling, even when she can't maintain the pageantry and reverts to adolescent silliness. Claude Rains is equally fascinating as a leader who responds to imminent disaster as just another opportunity for a brilliant strategic maneuver. When Cleo fails to heed his advice, he delivers a stern rebuke, a defense of his personal leadership style that could profit any of us. Shaw encourages us to think about the ideas within his entertainments -- behind the sarcastic wit is a teacher of moral lessons.
Wartime problems and unavoidable delays inflated Caesar and Cleopatra's budget, and the film's cool reception put a damper on Gabriel Pascal's career. He would collaborate with the aged George Bernard Shaw only once more, and under diminished circumstances. 1952's Androcles and the Lion was made in Hollywood at RKO on a tight budget, with Shaw's 1912 play adapted and directed by Chester Erskine (producer of The Wonderful Country). The play's deeper critique of Christian principles was pared away and more slapstick added, making Androcles less faithful to its source but still a bright entertainment. It was once a staple on television, where children could ignore what was left of Shaw's satire and laugh themselves silly. In the film's mirthful arena scene, Androcles (Alan Young of The Time Machine) waltzes with the lion that just a moment before was preparing to devour him.
When the Romans round up Christians to serve as an intermission amusement at the Emperor's circus, the milquetoast Androcles takes the opportunity to try to escape his nagging wife Megaera (Elsa Lanchester). After his legendary thorn-removing appointment with a lion, Androcles is captured and marched to Rome with other semi-willing martyrs. Chief among them is the gorgeous Lavinia (Jean Simmons, trying out the toga she'd use eight years later in Spartacus. Lavinia catches the eye of a handsome Roman Captain (Victor Mature). The former warrior and now reborn Christian Ferrovius (Robert Newton, gaily hamming it up) has forsworn violence, and cannot be tempted into fighting by the Roman guards.
Shaw's play is still a charming diversion, even in this condensed, somewhat disordered form. Gene Lockhart, Alan Mowbray, John Hoyt and Jim Backus approach their comic roles with varying success, but apparently nobody told Victor Mature that he was filming a comedy. Although quite striking, Mature is just as serious as he is in the next year's The Robe. The various gags and character bits are quite funny, especially Robert Newton's attempts to restrain his natural urge to slaughter. Sent into the arena, Ferrovius swears that he'll use his courage to die a noble martyr's death, but we all know that's not going to happen. As Caesar, Maurice Evans (Planet of the Apes) provides some jolly comments on the frustration of being an absolute dictator, changing his mind about who will and who won't become a show-time snack for the hungry cats. The magic comes full circle when Androcles has his surprise reunion with his furry friend -- neither the visible tethers on the real lion nor an obvious lion costume diminish the fun. I've seen kids jump for joy at this finish, applauding; never was an Aesop's Fable adapted so amiably.
All three titles in Eclipse's George Bernard Shaw on Film set are in fine shape, with clean film transfers. The Technicolor-sourced Caesar and Cleopatra is rich and vibrant in nighttime scenes and sometimes a little light during day exteriors, but not by much. Clear audio tracks showcase Shaw's rich dialogue as voiced by so many fine actors. The three films also sport excellent scores by famed composers: William Walton, Georges Auric and Frederick Hollander. Bruce Eder provides concise and informative liner notes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
George Bernard Shaw on Film rates:
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