Back from Pandora? Remember when Hollywood made movies with fully-developed plots and characters, before special effects hijacked movie budgets? And playwrights were called in as script doctors? Two of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights—Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett—not only refused such lucrative jobs, but frustrated producers, directors and studios to no end with their disdain for adaptations of their work.
“Beckett on Screen: The Television Plays” by Jonathan Bignell (from Manchester University Press in hardcover) is a scholarly analysis of the TV and film adaptations of the author’s dramas, and his original plays for television. A discussion of Buster Keaton’s influence (and Beckett’s short “Film,” in which the comedian starred) add value to the study, but it proves a little too esoteric at times.
The Criterion Collection’s “George Bernard Shaw on Film” (a 3-DVD set in their Eclipse series) is illuminating, on the other hand, both in the works it handsomely restores to public view–all three on DVD for the first time–and in the lucid annotation that accompanies them. Shaw thwarted most efforts to film his plays with his unyielding insistence the work be transferred to the screen exactly as written, until an odd character named Gabriel Pascal entered the picture. The Irish prince of letters and the expat Hungarian pauper somehow hit it off; Pascal produced four film versions of Shaw’s plays. His idea for a musical adaptation of “Pygmalion” (the first of the four films, not included here), came to fruition after his passing as “My Fair Lady.”
Wendy Hiller, who starred in “Pygmalion,” plays the title role of a Salvation Army worker in “Major Barbara” (1941). Co-starring as her suitor Adolphus Cusins, coincidentally, is Rex Harrison—destined to eventually play Prof. Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” Robert Morley is Undershaft, the munitions manufacturer; Robert Newton and Deborah Kerr are prominent among the stellar supporting cast. Future directors David Lean (assistant to Pascal) and Ronald Neame (cinematographer) contribute to this elegant, witty film, made in London during the Blitz.
It’s happily unapparent that German air raids disrupted not only “Barbara” but “Caesar and Cleopatra” (1945), a spectacular Technicolor adaptation of Shaw’s 1901 play. This is no faded rose, like so many color films of that era, but a beautifully restored classic—befitting its epic scale and exorbitant cost (at $5 million, it was then the most expensive film ever made in England). Vivien Leigh is as impish as she is beautiful as the Egyptian queen, opposite Claude Rains in perhaps the best role of his career as the Roman ruler; the cast includes Stewart Granger (as a Sicilian soldier), Flora Robson (as Cleopatra’s servant), Ernest Thesiger and Francis L. Sulliivan. Jack Cardiff and Freddie Young are but two of the four cinematographers.
“Androcles and the Lion” (1952) was made in Hollywood after the box office failure of “Caesar” all but doomed Pascal’s efforts to make another film (he still had the screen rights to Shaw’s plays). The producer went around town promising the role of Androcles to one actor after another, including Harpo Marx, Jose Ferrer and Cantinflas; Alan Young, who would later make his fortune playing opposite a talking horse in TV’s “Mr. Ed,” ended up with the part. Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Robert Newton co-star in this entertaining fable, directed by Chester Erskine.
About the Author: JORDAN R. YOUNG is a playwright, journalist and show business historian whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. His plays have been presented in Hollywood, New York and Australia, and broadcast on public radio; his books include Spike Jones Off the Record, Acting Solo, and The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV’s Golden Age. Visit his blog at http://examiner.com/x-4129-LAOC-Theatre-Examiner