Judge Christopher Kulik owns George Bernard Shaw on black velvet.
What price salvation now?
&qout;Friend, what you are about to see is an idle tale of people who never existed and things that could never have happened. It is a PARABLE.
Do not be alarmed; you will not bored by it. It is, I hope, both true and inspired. Some of the people in it are real people whom I have met and talked to; one of the others may be YOU.
There will be a bit of you in all of them. We are all members of one another. If you do not enjoy every word of it, we shall both be equally disappointed.
Well friend, have I ever disappointed you? Have I not been always your faithful servant?&qout;
-- George Bernard Shaw, written prologue to Major Barbara
Facts of the Case
In 2007, Criterion introduced the Eclipse Series. Each set is released in a month, and includes several hard-to-find films, focusing on a specific theme or director. Previous releases are comprised of works by Ingmar Bergman, Samuel Fuller, and Alexander Korda. The 20th set gathers three adaptations of George Bernard Shaw plays, all released on DVD for the first time.
Caesar And Cleopatra
When Caesar (Claude Rains, The Invisible Man) visits Alexandria, he meets the young princess Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh, Gone With The Wind). Caesar is taken aback by Cleopatra's ethereal beauty, and she finds him to be a good-hearted man who might be able to train her to be Queen of Egypt. Their friendship is soon jeopardized by tensions arising between the Romans and Egyptians, calling for immediate action before war begins.
Androcles And The Lion
Set in Rome, 161 A.D., this retelling of an ancient fable follows the kind, animal-loving Androcles (Alan Young, Mister Ed) after removing a thorn from a lion's paw. While he befriends the lion, he soon gets arrested by Roman soldiers who accuse him of being a sorcerer. Now, Androcles must trek with a band of other Christians to the Colosseum, where they will be suited up as gladiators and condemned to death.
Being a G.B. Shaw devotee, I was automatically interested in this Eclipse set. I studied his masterpiece Pygmalion in college, and even wrote a critical essay on its various screen adaptations. What I find interesting about Shaw is he never wanted to work with Hollywood; by the 1930s, the iconoclast already had a negative history with producers and studios, who all demanded changes to his plays for profit protection. Since Shaw adamantly refused for others to tamper with his work, who was he going to trust?
Enter Gabriel Pascal, a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in England both penniless and inexperienced. An avid admirer of Shaw's work, Pascal set out to persuade the playwright to give him the rights to adapt several of his plays, promising him ultimate authority on the scripts. Shaw was won over by Pascal's sincerity, and four films would result from the duo's partnership. The first being the well-known 1938 version of Pygmalion. Miraculously, the next one would be equal in terms of public acceptance and box-office dollars. Filmed during the Blitz bombing in London during WW2, Major Barbara managed to survive the catastrophe, emerging as a total triumph. Boasting superlative acting and Shaw's supremely witty dialogue, the film is now, just like its predecessor, an obscure classic.
Originally performed on stage in 1905, Major Barbara is a social satire attacking such topics as religion, morality, and redemption. The primary conflict is between the title character, who values humanity over wealth, and her father, who considers industrialization the pathway to true salvation. Barbara converts the downtrodden by means of spiritual enlightenment, while Andrew thinks the answer is as easy as writing a check. She's offended by the donation because of how the sources (arms and alcohol) contradict the Salvation Army's goals of gentle assistance for the needy. Wisely, Shaw doesn't paint Barbara as an idealistic saint, even though she has the ability to inspire and convert others with her passionate speeches. The patriarch is written as someone who has flourished via sheer force of will, simply wanting the poor to benefit from his business enterprise. With Shaw having complete creative control on Major Barbara, the themes and characterizations transfer to the screen wonderfully.
Modern audiences may be disappointed by the romance between Barbara and Adolphus being brushed off to the side, but it isn't the central thrust of the story. Instinct, not love, drives Adolphus to marry Barbara. Indeed, the heart of the story is really Barbara's spiritual love of her fellow man and how it's threatened by money and power. At one point, she attempts to save a miserable wretch named Bill Walker (Robert Newton, Treasure Island), who angrily shows up one day to snatch his already-converted girlfriend from the shelter. Right before she's able to cleanse his menacing demons, her father offers him a job. This allows Andrew, not Barbara, to give Bill redemption, making her feel like a failure. I won't give anyway anymore for the sake of first-time viewers. All you need to know is Major Barbara avoids staginess and consummates its story with extraordinary efficiency; the finale is so joyous its worthy of applause!
Along with Shaw's sharp satire, the film is filled with memorable performances. Shaw loved Wendy Hiller's turn as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, and no doubt insisted on the actress filling Barbara's shoes as well. We fall in love with her from the very beginning, and she remains commanding throughout. As for Harrison, he's only in half of the picture, yet still displays his remarkable adeptness at light comedy. Morley, who was purposefully made to look like Shaw, is also excellent. The late Deborah Kerr (From Here To Eternity) makes her film debut as Jenny Hill, one of Barbara's assistants. Finally, Stanley Holloway appears in the beginning as a policeman who talks with Harrison; ironically, he would partner up with Harrison again in My Fair Lady, playing Col. Pickering.
Still, for my money, the real scene-stealer is the irreplaceable Robert Newton. After appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn and a couple of Vivien Leigh vehicles, he was given a solid supporting role here as this rude ruffian who spits and smacks people in the face without an ounce of remorse. Granted, he doesn't utilize the Cockney accent the character had in the play, but he's still brilliant in all his squinting glory. While alcoholism would later damage his film career, Newton will always be remembered as Long John Silver in Disney's version of Treasure Island.
Following up on Major Barbara's success, Pascal chose Shaw's 1901 play Caesar And Cleopatra as his next project. This time he wanted to go in an entirely new direction; instead of black-and-white, Pascal opted for an epic production in Technicolor. Reportedly, the film was the most expensive to ever come out of Britain at the time…and the result was a gargantuan flop! The film's destruction not only seriously damaged Pascal's career, but also his friendship with Shaw, who told him it might be best for him to find younger, fresher talent to take his place. What went wrong? Did Pascal overstretch his bounds? Or, was Shaw's play not commercial enough? The answer turns out to be a little of both.
Caesar And Cleopatra is far from terrible, yet it's still guilty of being sluggish, overproduced, and astonishingly barren. Even with splendid production values and two of the greatest actors of all time in the title roles, it still never rises above mediocre. It makes no sense, too, as the film starts out well, having the two monarchs meeting under intriguing circumstances and discovering a palpable connection. When they separate early in Act II, however, the film begins to suffer irrecoverably. Clearly, Shaw's intention here is to smack English imperialism by contrasting the old Rome and the new Roman Empire. Problem is the film spends way too much time with Cleopatra discussing politics with her staff, ordering her slaves around and figuring out how she's going to rule Egypt while maintaining good terms with Caesar. We see the monarchs' relationship grow, but when they're separated the film fizzles, quickly losing focus. By the second half, it's really becomes much ado about nothing.
The picture still has enough virtues to make it watchable. Some of Shaw's trademark dialogue survives intact, particularly in the opening sequence when Caesar meets Cleopatra under the paws of the Sphinx. The production design, costumes, and Oscar-nominated Art Direction (courtesy of John Bryan, Becket) are all period-friendly and worth looking at for at least a few minutes.
The casting isn't exactly ideal, but most of the actors do marvelous work here. I've always found Rains more exciting as villains, but he's still very good here; he gives Caesar a laid-back charm amidst all the tiresome court debates. As for Leigh, I think she's without a doubt the finest (and most beautiful) actress of the 20th century but, frankly, her turn as Cleopatra doesn't rank among her best performances. Don't get me wrong, though; she's positively fetching, her striking radiance in full force. Unfortunately, during the scene near the beginning where she whips the slave out of the throne room it's difficult not to think of the horrible miscarriage she suffered. It was soon afterward when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and manic depression.
On a final note, keep a sharp lookout for familiar faces in smaller roles. Michael Rennie (The Day The Earth Stood Still) plays a quayside Centurion; Stanley Holloway once again has a bit part; Leo Genn (terrific as Starbuck in Moby Dick) has a brief role as Bel Affris; and Jean Simmons (later starring in Androcles And The Lion) appears as a harpist. Still, the one you really need to look out for is an uncredited Sir Roger Moore, in his second film, as a Roman solider. I think he's in the first sword duel, but it was hard to tell as all the soldiers' faces are hard to see in those blasted helmets.
The last film in this set is Androcles And The Lion, also set during the Roman Empire. Despite the huge blow of the previous film, Pascal somehow managed to get funding from Howard Hughes (who owned RKO at the time) to release this final adaptation, one of Shaw's least-known plays. Not a great film by any standards, but a vast improvement over Caesar And Cleopatra, and it remains thoroughly enjoyable. The major downside is the film's tendency to become juvenile at times. This family-friendly aura was due to studio pressure, as Shaw's themes were, once again, much too heavy for executives to swallow. Examples of this include several scenes with our hero and the lion (where a ridiculously fake head was used), and Androcles being depicted as a child-like simpleton who actually names the lion Tommy (no, really!).
That being said, it's amazing the playwright's satirical thesis transfers to the screen with little compromise. At its core, Androcles And The Lion is a commentary on Christianity and how it doesn't mesh with newly-implemented Roman beliefs. Questions on sacrifice, honor, and faith are sprinkled in the dialogue by Shaw and Charles Erskine (The Egg And I), who worked on the adaptation and handled directing duties.
Interestingly enough, Androcles was going to be played by Harpo Marx, and the comic was actually onboard for several weeks before being replaced by Alan Young. The reasoning behind the replacement is unknown, yet it would be interesting to find out if Harpo was going to speak or remain silent. Young does a fine job in the role, as he convincingly exhibits humor and pathos in equal doses. The lovely Jean Simmons is well-cast as the prisoner Lavinia, and Elsa Lanchester (The Bride Of Frankenstein) is very funny as Androcles' demanding wife. Maurice Evans (Rosemary's Baby) makes a strong Caesar, but Victor Mature (Samson And Delilah) is stiff and charisma-free as the Roman captain. The real relish is provided by Newton, now playing the brutish warrior Ferrovius, whom Androcles refers to as having "the strength of an elephant and the temper of a raving bull." The character has noticeable similarities to Bill Walker from Major Barbara, but Newton is so awesome it's impossible to complain.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When it comes to Criterion's treatment, complaints are warranted. I understand the Eclipse series doesn't get the same attention as regular Criterion discs so they can more be affordable, but a marginal restoration would be satisfactory. Major Barbara suffers from a fair amount of print damage, including heavy amounts of grain, slashes and flickering. Luckily, it's not near as bad as Caesar And Cleopatra; the picture is extremely chalky throughout, flesh tones lean on the pinkish side, and there's also an abundance of scratches. Of all three films, Androcles And The Lion is easily the best visually; blacks & whites are saturated well, and anomalies are only present in the minimal stock footage taken from The Last Days Of Pompeii (1935).
Things are strikingly analogous on the audio side. Mono tracks on Major Barbara and Caesar And Cleopatra contain heavy cracks and pops, with Androcles And The Lion being clean for the most part. Those who find the dialogue arduous will want to select the English SDH subtitles provided on each film. Extras are also a bummer, as all we get are some production notes on each film provided by contributing writer Bruce Eder. The only thing I really give Criterion points for is the very attractive packaging, with each film fitting snuggly inside clear slimcases.
Shaw devotees should find this set rewarding, while newcomers are encouraged to at least check out Major Barbara. While Pygmalion is not included in this set it is available separately for a decent price as part of Criterion's Essential Art House series.
All three films are free to go, but Criterion is found guilty for the underwhelming tech specs.
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Scales of Justice, Major Barbara
Perp Profile, Major Barbara
Distinguishing Marks, Major Barbara
• Production Notes
Scales of Justice, Caesar And Cleopatra
Perp Profile, Caesar And Cleopatra
Distinguishing Marks, Caesar And Cleopatra
Scales of Justice, Androcles And The Lion
Perp Profile, Androcles And The Lion
Distinguishing Marks, Androcles And The Lion
• Production Notes
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