DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: George Bernard Shaw on Film: Eclipse Series 20

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  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    George Bernard Shaw on Film: Eclipse Series 20
    Major Barbara/Caesar and Cleopatra/Androcles and the Lion
    Directed by Gabriel Pascal, Chester Erskine

    Studio: Criterion/Eclipse
    Year: 1941-1952
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
    Running Time: 121/128/98 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
    Subtitles: SDH
    MSRP: $ 44.95

    Release Date: February 23, 2010
    Review Date: February 16, 2010
     
     
    The Films
     
    Overview
     
    When film producer Gabriel Pascal finally convinced Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw to allow him to bring Pygmalion to the screen, the result won the temperamental Irish writer an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Delighted with its financial success and acclaim, Shaw allowed Pascal to bring three more of his celebrated plays to the movies, each represented in this new Eclipse set George Bernard Shaw on Film. Though none of these plays as films reached the sanctified status of the initial collaboration Pygmalion, each brought to worldwide audiences the very cream of the British film industry both before and behind the camera.
     
     
    Major Barbara – 4/5
     
    Barbara Undershaft (Wendy Hiller), daughter of a multi-millionaire (Robert Morley), sincerely works to save souls as the Salvation Army major in the Limehouse slums, and she is very good at her job. Adolphus Cusins (Rex Harrison), a Greek scholar and professor, falls in love at first sight with her and joins the fold just to be near her. Barbara is suddenly disillusioned from soul-saving when heavy financial aid is gladly accepted by her Salvation Army general (Sybil Thorndike) from her munitions-making father matching funds contributed by an equally wealthy distiller. Can money from a corrupt source really not sully the reputation of an organization known for its saintly purposes? Barbara must do some serious soul-searching to decide exactly in whose service she wants to use her life.
     
    Shaw’s social satire is quite contemptuous of just about everyone and everything in the piece, but it’s so hilarious and fraught with such witty lines and banter that the sour attitudes get camouflaged by the dazzling wordplay. Gabriel Pascal not only produced this film but also took the director’s reins (assisted by David Lean and Harold French) while Shaw once again contributed the screenplay. Pascal proves to be a journeyman director here allowing for long, static dialogue scenes (Shaw cut very little from his play this time out, and the film is the poorer for lack of judicious editing: you can sense the act breaks every time they occur) without much in the way of inventive staging or camerawork. But he’s working with some of Britain’s greatest stars and character actors, so he lets them have their head, and they’re marvelous. Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Sybil Thorndike, Marie Lohr, and Emlyn Williams all do remarkably precise work with the great lines they have at their disposal. Look closely and you’ll see Deborah Kerr in a small role in her screen debut, and farther down the cast list is the wonderful Stanley Holloway acting with Rex Harrison fifteen years before they’d be reunited on stage in My Fair Lady. But the prize of the film is Robert Newton as the raging dockworker Bill Walker fighting Major Barbara with every fiber of his being from the grace she’s offering and the salvation she wants for him. His fiery temper and honest struggle with his faults lights up the film, rescuing it temporarily from the torpor of too many words.
     
     
    Caesar and Cleopatra – 3/5
     
    When he arrives in Egypt to discuss with the defeated Pompey Magnus terms for returning to Rome, Julius Caesar (Claude Rains) finds him already slain and Egypt in something of a police state with warring brother and sister Ptolemy (Anthony Harvey) and Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh) dividing the country in two with Roman soldiers striving desperately to keep order. In smoothing things over between the squabbling siblings, Caesar finds Cleopatra a juvenile and inexperienced queen, something he takes a serious interest in changing if he and his two legions are to make it out of Alexandria alive. But Caesar must also fight Cleopatra’s strong-willed nurse Ftatateeta (Flora Robson) and Ptolemy’s loyal guard Pothinus (Francis L. Sullivan), both crafty adults with many tricks up their sleeves.
     
    Shaw’s rambling plot for his play and film is further weighed down by an overly elaborate production, the most expensive of its kind made in England to that time. Pascal’s lumbering direction doesn’t help things either even though he’s blessed with a superb cast who provides today the only real interest the production has to offer. Claude Rains’ beautiful enunciation makes Shaw’s words waft over the cast making him the center of attention despite his short stature and lack of classic leading man looks. Vivien Leigh spits and purrs well enough as the immature monarch (though she’s obviously too old to be playing the teenaged queen). And as for the playwright’s assertion that the world never changes: wars and disputes and men at each others’ throats with always the best of intentions will continue through mankind’s history, 128 minutes is a lengthy film for so obvious an observation.
     
     
    Androcles and the Lion – 3.5/5
     
    Milquetoast Christian Androcles (Alan Young) comes to the aid of a lion in distress by removing a thorn from its paw, but he’s later captured by centurions and escorted to Rome with a group of other Christians to face certain death in the Coliseum. Among those in the Christian party are the beautiful, spiritual Lavinia (Jean Simmons) and the strong, fierce Ferrovius (Robert Newton). In Rome, Lavinia enchants a Roman captain (Victor Mature) who wants her desperately to renounce her faith so she can escape being fed to the lions and marry him. Reigning Caesar (Maurice Evans) expects a good show in the arena and counts on his lion keeper (Gene Lockhart) to make sure the lions are especially hungry.
     
    Shaw’s examination of the struggles of maintaining faith for all believers in anything is wrapped around the fable of Androcles, but the interesting premise is mired in a really stagebound production filmed in America at RKO with a mix of American (Alan Young, Jim Backus, Victor Mature) and continental (Maurice Evans, Jean Simmons, Robert Newton, Reginald Gardiner, Elsa Lanchester) talent. Though the performances keep it going (especially Robert Newton in another mesmerizing turn as a firebrand and Jean Simmons in a role similar in tone to the one she’d play the next year in The Robe), it’s still a talky play rather than an involving film though Chester Erskine does what he can with the makeshift effort at doing a period piece with painted backdrops and footage borrowed from other larger-scaled epics. Surprisingly, as it turns out, the Androcles story is almost incidental in the film to the other ruminations about fleeting faith and taunting temptations.
     
     
    Video Quality
     
    Major Barbara – 3.5/5
     
    The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced here without windowboxing. Sharpness is excellent in the transfer, and the grayscale features excellent contrast and a pleasing depth to the blacks and no blooming whites. But as this is an Eclipse release, little cleanup and repair has been attempted, so there are scratches especially along the left side of the frame, a fair amount of dirt and debris, and even a couple of places of momentary print damage. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
     
     
    Caesar and Cleopatra – 2.5/5
     
    The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is faithfully represented in this new transfer, and again there is no windowboxing. Sadly, the Technicolor brilliance is relegated to the transfer’s final two reels. There the hues are richly saturated, sharpness is excellent, and the contrast quite apt. Elsewhere, however, the image seems somewhat faded and too light. Reds come across brightly, but other colors are pale and washed out. There are also a few scratches here and there, and shadows obscure detail with what appears to be some emulsion inconsistencies. The film has been divided into 13 chapters
     
     
    Androcles and the Lion – 4/5
     
    The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered without any windowboxing. By far the best transfer in this three-film set, the sharpness is so superb that the painted backdrops, the use of rear projection, the stunt double for Robert Newton in the arena, and the switching back and forth between a real lion and a dummy (along with a guiding wire for the real lion) are all easy to discern. The grayscale is quite beautifully realized in this transfer with superb contrast and only some fleeting bits of dirt or debris to momentarily distract. The film has been divided into 13 chapters
     
     
    Audio Quality
     
    Major Barbara – 3/5
     
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is quite serviceable for the film’s overly heavy amount of dialogue, delivering it clearly into the center channel. Otherwise fidelity is average with a fair degree of hiss and some crackle noticeable at several points.
     
     
    Caesar and Cleopatra – 2.5/5
     
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is erratic in quality, occasionally solid with above average fidelity and other times with unmistakable hiss and some low level crackle.
     
     
    Androcles and the Lion – 3.5/5
     
    The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is the best of the three films in the set. Though fidelity is naturally limited by the low budget, the hiss level is much reduced compared to the other films in this set. It’s a perfectly respectable mono mix of its era.
     
     
    Special Features
    1/5
     
    The Eclipse releases do not feature any bonus supplements on the disc, but the set is heightened by the critical essays of the excellent Bruce Eder which are contained in each of the set’s slimline cases.
     
     
    In Conclusion
    3.5/5 (not an average)
     
    George Bernard Shaw on Film is an essential addition to the shelves of classic film lovers. Despite the up and down quality of the productions, each has its strong points, and this Eclipse box set is a welcome release for each of these three famous productions.
     
     
     
    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC
     

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