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4.0 out of 5 stars G.B. SHAW ON FILM, February 5, 2010
This review is from: Eclipse Series 20: George Bernard Shaw on Film (Major Barbara / Caesar and Cleopatra / Androcles and the Lion) (The Criterion Collection) (DVD)
The works of George Bernard Shaw are like the works of William Shakespeare. They were written to be performed on the stage, not on film.

If you want these great plays to work in the motion picture medium, then adjustments must be made.

Shaw's comedies, in particular, though filled with colorful characters and brilliant wit, are also burdened with his social commentary and speechifying, which might work well in the theatre, but taxes the patience of a movie audience.

Such a "burden" was lifted when Lerner & Lowe turned the playwright's PYGMALION into the hit musical, MY FAIR LADY. Songs took the place of the cumbersome speeches.

Shaw was personally involved in both the casting and production of the first two films in this collection, MAJOR BARBARA (1941) and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945), and the result is pure Shaw. That is not, necessarily, a bad thing if you approach these pictures as a filmed version of a stage play.

Yes, in both movies, director Gabriel Pascal does his best to "open up" the action, even to the extent of incorporating some brief battle sequences into the Technicolor CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, but at the end of the day, these are still two filmed stage plays with all of the playwright's long speeches seemingly uncut and too many key events taking place off-stage.

Again, that is not to say that pure Shaw cannot be entertaining. It can be, particularly when the splendid casts of these pictures deliver his clever dialogue.

MAJOR BARBARA stars Wendy Hiller, a favorite of the playwright, as the daughter of a wealthy munitions manufacturer (Robert Morley). She works as a Salvation Army officer and speaks out against the hypocrisy she believes exists in her organization. Rex Harrison, Robert Newton and newcomer Deborah Kerr co-star.

Although Shaw was not happy with her performance, Vivien Leigh is absolutely charming as the kittenish Cleopatra in CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, which co-stars Claude Rains in a brilliantly subtle performance as the Roman leader.

Stewart Granger and Flora Robson are also in the cast of what was, at that time, the most expensive British film ever produced.

Pascal produced, but did not direct ANDROCLES AND THE LION, the first Shaw play to be filmed after the playwright's death. The directing assignment fell to Chester Erskine.

Although it has other issues, this 1952 release is certainly the most audience pleasing of the Eclipse trio, probably because it's more movie than filmed stage play. The witty dialogue is still present, but Shaw's lengthy social commentary has been kept to a minimum.

Do you think this movie caused the great man to turn in his grave?

Also contributing to the picture's success is the extremely likable performance of funnyman Alan Young in the title role of the shy, animal loving, Christian slave who pulls a thorn from a lion's paw and, as a result of his kind act, is spared from death in the Roman Colosseum.

Jean Simmons, Robert Newton, Maurice Evans, Elsa Lanchester and Reginald Gardiner contribute to the fun. Indeed, a confrontation scene between Gardiner and Newton with Young trying to intercede, is a comic highlight.

Only Victor Mature, as the Roman centurion who falls in love with doomed Christian Ms. Simmons, seems a bit out of his league in his role. The actor is certainly adequate, but a James Mason or a Laurence Olivier might have delivered a more interesting reading of Shaw's words.

© Michael B. Druxman
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 16, 2010 12:16:48 PM PDT
I certain agree in general with this perspective, but have to take issue, a bit, with Shaw as a writer being damned with faint praise. I just watched two of these films--Major Barbara and Caesar and Cleopatra--last night. Both are, and remain, long term favorites, particular Major Barbara. Shaw is, without question, the greatest playwright in the English language after Shakespeare. Modern audiences have a bit of a problem with them because he is, unabashedly, a playwright of ideas, and his works sparkle with an unparalleled combination of verbal wit and invention and philosophical dexterity. In my judgment, there is no reason why they should not work as well on screen as on the stage--Major Barbara alone is proof of that--as long as the packing is brisk and the actors are intelligent. Much as I love My Fair Lady, the ending is sentimental twaddle and completely untrue to the characters--not an improvement as the reviewer would have it. Shaw is in fact a standing rebuke to the intellectual, philosophical, and moral poverty of most contemporary literature.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2010 12:32:02 PM PDT
Certainly I agree that Shaw is second only to Shakespeare.

However, movies are a totally different medium than the legitimate stage.

These films may be great Shaw, but they are not great movies.
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