George Bernard Shaw on Film (1938-1952)

Pygmalion (1938)
Directed by Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
UK, 96 minutes
Starring Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller

Major Barbara (1941)
Produced & Directed by Gabriel Pascal
UK, 121 minutes
Starring Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
Produced & Directed by Gabriel Pascal
UK, 128 minutes
Starring Vivien Leigh, Claude Rains

Androcles and the Lion (1952)
Directed by Chester Erskine
Produced by Gabriel Pascal (RKO Radio Pictures)
UK, 98 minutes
Starring Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Alan Young

George Bernard Shaw was easily one of the most well-known writers in the English speaking world in the first half of the 20th Century. When Gabriel Pascal managed to get Shaw to agree to make a film, the world was surprised because Shaw had been so adamant that his plays would not be filmed. The first picture out of this agreement was Pygmalion (1938), a brilliant picture, for which Shaw actually won the Best Screenplay Oscar (which of course, he refused to accept). It is truly a masterpiece, helmed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and one that deserves to be mentioned in the discussion of late-1930s great films. It is truly wonderful and what makes it so great is the fantastic performance by Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle. Her character is abused by Henry Higgins, played by Howard and her strength mirrors the power that Shaw instilled in the character.

Hiller appeared in Pascal’s second Shaw film, which he credited himself with directing (even though David Lean and Harold French probably did all the heavy lifting). Major Barbara was finally released in 1941. The film is easily the next best of Pascal’s series. Rex Harrison replaces Howard as Hiller’s costar and while he is no Howard (although he remarkably looks like him in his younger days, doesn’t he?), he pulls off a charming performance. Robert Newton steals the show though, with his role as annoying tough guy Bill Walker. My problem with the film though lies in its third act. I haven’t read the play yet, but Barbara’s shift back to falling in love with Cusins and accepting her father’s factory felt rather sudden to me.

The last two films in the series take us back to the days of Ancient Rome and the sudden drop in quality is impossible to ignore. Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), a play Shaw supposedly had his own reservations about, proved to be a financial disaster. It isn’t too hard to see why. For a ‘swords & sandals’ epic, you have to admit that there’s very little action. Caesar… is very political and talky and while that can play on stage for three hours, it is very hard for that to keep  a movie audience’s attention for 128 minutes. Still, I think Claude Rains’ fine performance as Caesar keeps this from being totally unwatchable. Vivien Leigh doesn’t help though, since she practically plays Cleopatra as Scarlett O’Hara in an Egyptian headdress. She also looks deathly pale in the film. I think this film might have benefited from being in black and white, but Pascal’s growing ego forced him to use Technicolor.

Even though Shaw died in 1950, Pascal felt he had to make one more Shaw work and so in order to capitalize on the sudden public infatuation with ancient epics, he chose Androcles and the Lion in 1952. The play was based on the story of a Roman Christian slave being thrown to a lion, who refuses to kill him because Androcles pulled a thorn from his paw. The film’s humor, combined with Jean Simmons’ shocking beauty made it much more enjoyable. However Victor Mature was just never that great an actor (he can only pull off one facial expression), so it’s easy to see why My Darling Clementine is probably one of his only films that we remember him for today. Mature just never looks all that great compared to Simmons and I think his stoic performance hurts the film a great deal.

Janus Films owns the rights to all four films and Criterion has released them all on DVD. Pygmalion was an early mainline release with no bonus features whatsoever. That edition was brought out of print in 2008 and was re-issued under the Essential Art House banner with a lower MSRP. The remaining three were all released in 2010 in their 20th Eclipse Series release, titled George Bernard Shaw on Film. Like all Eclipse sets, it includes no features beyond notes.

As for their technical specifications, the transfers are all pretty average. Pygmalion‘s is, unfortunately, the worst. Both editions use the same dirty, worn-out transfer with very harsh sound. The films in the set fare better though, with Androcles looking the best.

The Verdict: Pascal was a very interesting character and batted at .500 with his handling of Shaw’s work. The two modern plays, Pygmalion and Major Barbara are two of the finest Pre-War UK films I’ve seen. However, the two Ancient Roman films leave much to be desired. If you have no pressing interest in Shaw, the Eclipse set is hardly a necessity, unless you happen to be a fan of the actors. Pygmalion, on the other hand, is a fantastic film and one of my favorites.


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