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DVD Review: Eclipse Series 20 – George Bernard Shaw On Film

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Criterion’s Eclipse series is a collection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classic films, bundled and presented in simple editions. Eclipse Series 20 – George Bernard Shaw On Film gathers together three of the master playwright's works as adapted to film by the producer Gabriel Pascal: Major Barbara (1941), Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), and Androcles and the Lion (1952).

The black-and-white Major Barbara follows a bold Salvation Army officer in her quest to save souls, through her disappointment in the organization’s financial dependence on questionable sponsorship, and on to a new type of hope. Featuring a superbly unforgettable  performance by Wendy Hiller in the feature role, and a dreamy, young Rex Harrison as her fiancé “Dollie,” this captivating and emotionally authentic film struck me as the winner of this collection.

Caesar and Cleopatra is a luxuriously produced technical spectacle starring Vivien Leigh (after her Gone With the Wind performance) in an incredibly coy and playful depiction of the Egyptian queen. Claude Rains is her opposite as the suave and confident Julius Caesar who is alternately fascinated and frustrated by this young royal.

This full-fledged costume drama was an economic disaster, with a cost of $5 million, and a loss of $3 million; imported Egyptian sand, moving filming to Cairo, it all added up. Sadly, the film itself is rather ponderous and slow moving, all the more so for those of us with modernized cinema viewing habits firmly entrenched. Still, there are some fine moments of acting amongst the dramatics – the young boy-king Ptolemy was wonderful, as was the charming Apollodorus (Stewart Granger).

Androcles and the Lion is another black-and-white production which abandons any subtle hints of wit and goes for the full-out comedic, interspersed with moments of serious philosophical contemplation. Starring Alan Young as the comical Androcles in Shaw’s adaptation of the classic fable, this is the only film in the collection that wasn’t directed by Pascal himself. Directed by Chester Erskine with Pascal as a producer, this film also received no input from the playwright himself (which perhaps explains the outright comedy).

Again tackling Christianity, the Christian Androcles (who has a remarkable way with animals) is a lovable, naïve fool, while the lovely Lavinia (Jean Simmons) is revealed by the film’s end to be a female version of Shaw himself – passionate about morality but doubting in the existence of any one, true God. While I certainly don’t agree with the renowned playwright and the strong philosophical undertones his works exhibit (mainly religious pluralism and a sort of socialist utopia), they still make for interesting works of study. Even in these adaptations, Shaw’s intellect and wit are clearly apparent, with a depth to each film’s dialogue that must be explored through repeated viewings.

Having been adapted from plays, and in accordance with Shaw’s wishes, with little alteration, there remain large sections of ‘talk’ within each of these films. Monologues, triumphant closing statements that drive home Shaw’s conclusive points, clearly show the origin of these works. Large ensemble scenes with huge casts of extras, elaborate sets, and lovely scores lend a ‘big Hollywood picture feel’ to each inclusion, though only Androcles found a Hollywood backer.

These DVD releases are remarkably well preserved, with no noticeable flaws in the picture. Each film is presented on its own DVD with a simple scene navigation menu included along with a play through feature. The liner notes for each disc from historian Bruce Eder are invaluable and provide a miniature film studies lesson. Eder touches upon the relationship between Shaw and Pascal, their collaborative process, choices of actors, film costs, commercial success, and more.

Though nearly all of us are familiar with My Fair Lady, based upon Shaw’s Pygmalion, that is often as far as our exposure to the works of Shaw on film extends. Shaw devotees seeking to delve further into the film adaptations of Shaw’s plays, will find Eclipse Series 20 – George Bernard Shaw On Film fits the bill.

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