George Bernard Shaw’s play has never been able to live up to that grand sounding title. But those who can downsize their expectations may well find themselves enjoying this ten-ton turkey in spite of its obvious shortcomings. Gabriel Pascal, the Hungarian charlatan who won the film rights to the GBS catalog with a promise of material fidelity instead of cash, had no business directing street traffic let alone this mammoth production, which became, financially, the HEAVEN’S GATE of its day. Hordes of extras roam around vast sets like a lost chorus in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, and just like THE MIKADO, half the joke is watching all those Brits pretending to be foreigners. Between the acres of scenery & costumes, Claude Rains (over-parted as Caesar) plays a Shaw self-portrait, the wise & wily dictator who mentors, rather than falls for Vivien Leigh’s deliciously mean little vixen of a Cleopatra. With Pascal unable to help, the actors undoubtedly did their own staging while a legendary generation of craftsman took charge of decor (Oliver Messel) & cinematography (Jack Cardiff, Jack Hildyard, Robert Krasker and Freddie Young). Frustratingly, the Criterion DVD isn’t able to get a consistent color resolution from the materials, giving Leigh a particularly hard make-up until she blossoms at the very end. Flora Robson is tremendous as the unfathomable (not to say, unpronounceable) Ftatateeta while a young Stewart Granger makes a handsome, if floatable Sicilian and an equally young Michael Rennie is quite the noble Roman. In fact, with heaps of tasty perfs scattered about, it’s probably best to think of Shaw’s odd little play like the proverbial Curate’s Egg, which was good . . . in parts.
DOUBLE BILL: The second half of the infamous Liz Taylor/Richard Burton CLEOPATRA/’63 is drear, but the first half has Rex Harrison’s superb Caesar which scripter Joe Mankiewicz quite obviously based on Shaw’s model. Harrison did play Shaw’s Caesar on-stage, against Elizabeth Ashley’s Cleopatra, but like most attempts at the play, it sounded so good everyone wound up being a bit disappointed.