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).