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Friday, May 6, 2011

MAJOR BARBARA (1941)

When a penniless Hungarian named Gabriel Pascal wangled permission from a bemused George Bernard Shaw to film his plays, he struck gold the first time out with PYGMALION/’38. Three more followed, to diminishing acclaim. But if this second production has the feel of filmed theater, it’s great filmed theater; a magnificent play with an unbeatable line-up of natural Shavians. Wendy Hiller & Rex Harrison are the Salvation Army couple who fight poverty, ignorance & the contrarian logic of her father, Robert Morley, a titan of cannon & gunpowder. Emlyn Williams & Robert Newton are rabble waiting to be saved (or, at least, working the system) while Sybil Thorndyke and the debuting Deborah Kerr are pragmatic Christian Soldiers in uniform. Everyone gets their say, this being Shaw, and it’s delicious talk, thought-provoking & entertaining; he even comes up with a dandy plot, not always the case with GBS. The film moves along in its eccentric manner, and it’s pretty obvious that no one’s in charge of the production. Pascal optimistically took credit as producer/director, but he knew his limitations and hired stage director Harold French & film editor David Lean as his assistants. And look, there’s Ronald Neame as D.P. and Charles Frend as the editor. That’s a total of five once & future directors . . . well, four if you subtract Pascal. Don’t worry about this one being ‘filmic,’ whatever that is. Enjoy the clever sets by Vincent Korda; the chance to watch Rex Harrison & Stanley Holloway working together ages before MY FAIR LADY; the masterful way Shaw builds the first half of the story (that is, right up to when Barbara leaves the mission); and the utter perfection of Hiller & Harrison in these parts in 1941. Will we ever see Shaw played more beautifully?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You might not think of Shaw as 'Family Friendly' fare, but high school kids with a bent for debate really pick up on his paradoxical moral dilemmas, and how he turns logic on the head of a pin. Try this one after PYGMALION, and perhaps THE MILLIONAIRESS after. (The BBC production from 1972 w/ Maggie Smith.)

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