Major Barbara (1941)

Major Barbara (1941) – I sat down to watch this one mainly to see Wendy Hiller again. Wasn’t disappointed. Looks great in her Major uniform. Looks great in her modest rich-girl’s frock after abjuring the uniform. Shows chemistry with her squeeze here, Rex Harrison, just as with Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938) and Roger Livesey in “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945). In the opening scenes, I mistook the film for a romantic comedy. I forgot for a moment that I was watching a Shaw play, possibly because the opening scenes weren’t in the original play.

After being away from Shaw for a long time, I was looking for something to read on vacation the other day, and took along Man and Superman (which Shaw wrote two years before Major Barbara, in 1903). I had forgotten what an interesting blend of romantic comedy, conversation, politics, and religion some of Shaw’s plays present (he wrote more than sixty). Man and Superman scoots along as a comedy of manners, which we could use more of these days, as a change from rom com. Scoots along,  except for Act 3. This monster is often cut from the play and/or performed by itself and as I read it, I could not believe that any human being without an eidetic memory could regurgitate its dialog without a prompter of one kind or another supplying half the lines. Things to listen to before you die: the ’50s concert version of Act 3 with Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander, and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana. The play comes with a 58-page appendix. Shaw’s characters tell you what he thinks, during the play, and in case you weren’t paying attention, Shaw himself tells you what he thinks again, afterward, in print.

Or in the case of Major Barbara, he tells you in advance, in a preface, just so you don’t go into the play with any wrong ideas in your head about the points he’s about to make. Unfortunately, his performance of the preface, in the original movie, is not to be found on the DVD. Bummer.

Major Barbara, the play, was produced in 1905. Young penniless academic fellow (Harrison) falls hard for young Major in the Salvation Army (Hiller), who turns out to be a daughter of the world’s most successful (richest), but eccentric (so you’ll like him) maker of weapons (Robert Morley)  – as opposed to, in Pygmalion, not-so-young well-off academic fellow (Leslie Howard) falls hard for poor young flower-seller (Hiller). Major Barbara is a comedy of ideas, with romance included to provide a little oomph. The words flow and in the original play, which consists of three hours of nonstop talking, the actor playing Barbara’s dad had a lot of trouble remembering the lines in his speeches, to the author’s annoyance. I shouldn’t wonder, at the forgetting or the annoyance. The movie is cut to an hour and a half, with several lively scenes added (with Shaw’s approval) and a lot of speechifying removed. The result moves along nicely.

After the movie introduced me to the Salvation Army Major and her academic woo-er, and her rich siblings and her rich parents, I gradually came to see that the central issue in the movie/play was: How can Barbara best serve society? By helping the poor directly, or by moving among the rich and co-opting her father? While the ins and outs of this question played out, I kept asking myself how I was expected to react to Barbara’s father, and how the London audiences of 1941 reacted to him. He is clearly sympathetic, as he searches in vain for an heir amongst his children, an heir to whom he can leave his mega-company. In due course, his attention falls upon Barbara’s fiancee. This causes her to ask herself whether she is prepared, in essence, to take money from the devil to do good in the world. What interested me, however, was the fact that Shaw takes it as written that the world’s greatest weapons maker was fundamentally in the wrong, whereas the movie was shot during the Battle of Britain and the death and destruction from that period was fresh in the audence’s mind, even as the country braced for invasion by the Germans.  Cast and crew would run to the bomb shelters during filming in London, and then return to the set when the all-clear sounded. (Or the film was shot at Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. Or both.) Did the audience agree with Shaw about weapons barons, with Krupp in mind? Or did their thoughts turn  toward the U.S., which was not yet in the war, as a source for weapons with which to answer the Germans. Note to self: research this question on some rainy day; a twenty-year-old audience member of the time would be ninety now, so begin by calling around to retirement homes in the London area.

As for Shaw’s take on how to deal with the poor, I refer you to the movie. Shaw was a Fabian socialist. He articulates many of his ideas for the improvement of society via the speeches of dad the magnate in the movie’s final act.

I read a review of Major Barbara in which the critic opined that there was much to relish in the movie but that in the end, it just sort of sat there. Hmm. If you watch a Shaw play, you will be lectured; perhaps it was the critic himself who just sort of sat there while he took his medicine.

Movie notes:

– Deborah Kerr’s first movie.

– Major Barbara has a great deal of dialog in it that, it seems to me, would be of great interest to Kurosawa (who, like Shaw, had an abiding interest in the poor and what to do with/about them). Discussions of right behavior. I’ve got to Google Shaw and Kurosawa and see if there is any connection between them… Well, there is someone named Shaw Kurosawa.

– The producer/director, Gabriel Pascal, and Shaw met while swimming nude on the Riviera.

– Shaw especially liked Wendy Hiller, but, alas, there is no indication that he met her while swimming nude.

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