George Bernard Shaw's theatrical heyday at the wake of the 20th century was arguably the last of any British playwright wholly immune to cinema's ubiquitous influence. With the generation immediately following him—Noël Coward, for example, is generally viewed as Shaw's social axiom-spouting descendent—we detect, if not precisely the earnest anticipation of screen adaptation, then at least a distinct awareness of the representational potential of filmic grammar and its effect on the masses. Shaw was enthralled with film from its inception (what writer wasn't, at least at some level?), but it's hard to imagine his besotted devotion to language allowing any more than a passing hands-on curiosity with an art form anchored helplessly to the succession of wordless, nearly primally affecting images. Consider that the central conflict of Pygmalion is not between an icily prodigious linguist and an uncultured waif he's been challenged to tutor, but between a class-conscience society and the way we don elocution and diction as aesthetic indicators of our blood worth: Here was a socialist who saw in words not just power or pleasure, but the equalizing stuff of human salvation.
Film eventually added synchronized sound, of course, and Shaw responded to producers who inevitably came a-courting for rights with the demand that his dramas be reproduced word-for-word—a fair stipulation, as his brilliance is most evident in the ruthless specificity of his punctiliously catenated verbiage. (Shaw writes arguments as though he were bickering with himself rather than depicting theoretical spats between characters, but his incomparable theses and antitheses interlock and overlap with one another like massive blocks in prosodic games of Tetris.) Gabriel Pascal, an odd stage director with little cinematic sense and even fewer financial resources, wooed Shaw with the ultimate writer's ego-stroke—complete control over his words—and as a result, any slight discrepancies between Shaw's original texts and Pascal's four film adaptations are the playwright's own doing.
It's by now common knowledge that writers cannot be trusted with their own work, not even—or perhaps especially—highly celebrated ones, but by the '30s Shaw had already been awarded a Nobel prize, and with screenwriting still in its skittish infancy it seemed both logical and preferable to recruit the Irishman to helm scenario and dialog on his own films. Yet to watch Anthony Asquith's sleeper hit Pygmalion—Pascal's first essay at big-screen Shaw and Criterion spine number 85—as well as the three films collected in Eclipse Series 20, George Bernard Shaw on Film, is to in many ways observe paramount cinematic clumsiness, the work of a chained band of monstrous filmic talent buttressing a collection of incurably stagey ideas. Admittedly, Pygmalion, the most enduring and financially successful of all non-musical Shaw adaptations, benefits the most from its creator's cluelessly procrustean tinkering, as the play's third act was indelibly enhanced with a crucial embassy ball scene intricately unpacking the hypocrisy of upper-crust interaction. Elsewhere, however, Shaw's input (or simply recalcitrant dedication to preserving the entirety of his own exchanges), along with Pascal's aesthetic ignorance, reduces even ace cameramen Ronald Neame and Jack Cardiff to eye-level receptacles without intimacy or regard, like bored theater patrons.
Still, there's no doubting the formidable genius of Major Barbara, easily Shaw's best play. With the dialectic between the titular Salvation Army saint (Wendy Hiller) and her armament-producing titan of a father (Robert Morley) Shaw explored both the careful logic of benevolence and the inimitable sensuality of industry, finally making his impossibly utopian politics palatable in the process. David Lean, acting as directorial assistant and de facto technical director, occasionally fumbles in his efforts to keep the action visually interesting; a chunky conversation between a meek Salvation Army volunteer (a stunning Deborah Kerr in her debut) and the jilted husband of a proselytized runaway rather far-fetchedly has characters solving their problems with an endless stream of hypothetical situations, and there's not much to do but point and shoot. But the film's finale in the Elysian underbelly of the Undershaft factory is the Eclipse set's finest moment, a Shaw-inspired wet dream of ethical dubiety, molten assiduousness, and spiritual fulfillment.
The remaining two movies in the collection are far more terminally handicapped, partly due to lackluster source material, with Caesar and Cleopatra the cornerstone turkey; like 20th Century Fox's Cleopatra after it, the film's failure nearly bankrupted its backers, and left Pascal in the monetary lurch. Shaw ironically had resisted the adaptation, referring to the play as a "dead thing" (though he could have just as easily been speaking more generally of the theater in light of cinema's flourishing), and the resulting adaptation is no more lively: Only Claude Rains can work his lips around Shaw's sleepily ersatz-Elizabethan lines, and Pascal's frustratingly rudimentary framing nearly wrecks Jack Cardiff's lovingly-colored shots. Androcles and the Lion, made seven years after the gritty plume left behind by the explosion of Caesar and Cleopatra had cleared—and after Shaw's death—is far more entertaining in its satirical modesty and squishily tolerant ethos, though Alan Young's Gomer Pyle-isms in the lead role seem to miss the crux of Shaw's comedy. Never one to stoop to actual wise-cracking, Shaw truly believed in municipal miracles; Pascal, however, reads his reworked fable less as a shrugging apology for the admirable essence of Christian values than as an oddly obvious plea for Good Samaritanism.
I knew an English professor in college who refused to read Shakespeare, claiming that the Bard's words were worthless until leaping to life through the throats of dutiful actors. Most drama does indeed seem incomplete without emotive interpretation and human depiction, but much of the sturdy, mellifluous dialogue rendered in George Bernard Shaw on Film, arguably some of the rhapsodically rhetorical that the English language has to offer, seems to leap to its death, leaving only flukes of nascent brilliance from British filmmakers-in-training. The sight of Rex Harrison peeking through a row of poised trombones, or Vivien Leigh dipped in fiery, faux-sunset blue and red light, may not bring us any closer to Shaw's work, but they do instill within us a newfound awe for the numinous zenith British cinema would achieve in the mid-to-late '40s.
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Despite being part of Criterion's under-restored Eclipse line, all three films in this set look fantastic; the prints are crisp and lucid, with surprisingly strong blacks, and the telecine transfer appears spotless when upconverted to 1080p. Each film possesses its own visual intrigue (the industrial revolution milieu managed by Vincent Korda's dustily darkened sets enhances the content of Major Barbara in magical ways), but Caesar and Cleopatra is a Technicolor triumph. Even the hideously stereotypical black slaves are worth seeing for the way Jack Hildyard and Jack Cardiff bounce pearls of light off their perspiration. Unfortunately, the sound hasn't survived quite as well, and without English subtitles Shaw's dialogue occasionally becomes too muddy to comprehend.
As with all of Criterion's Eclipse releases, there are no supplements, but Bruce Eder contributes some historically minded liner notes on the Shaw-Pascal partnership.
Though its entertainment value doesn't go much further than the magisterial Major Barbara, Eclipse's George Bernard Shaw on Film is essential viewing for the dramatist's fans, and anyone interested in tracing the rough-trod path to the phenomenon of My Fair Lady.