Androcles and the Lion (1952)

Having watched Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941), I continue my G. B. Shaw refresher with Androcles and the Lion (1952).

As I mentioned when reviewing the earlier films, Shaw takes pains to get his point across, one way or another. His preface to Androcles runs longer than the play itself. Bottom line: Jesus had some good ideas but they mostly died with him. Let’s not worry about it (says I, not Shaw). Aesop, who wrote the original, would be scratching his head, I presume.

This is only about half Shaw, anyway, the other half being Hollywood, or Gabriel Pascal’s notion of it. After Pascal’s successes with Pygmalion and Major Barabara, he went all in with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), filming in Technicolor with Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains, in Egypt (or not. Conflicting info on this), before the war ended. When that flopped, he backed off on Androceles and left most of Shaw’s thoughts on Chrisianity out of the movie, substituting fun with the lion and gladiators. Being dead, Shaw probably didn’t care. [Or maybe there is another whole history here that I’m missing. Androcles came seven years later and was released into a different England that CAC. If I ever do the research, I’ll come back and edit this. Or get it right in my CAC review.]

When I saw Victor Mature gazing down from a balcony upon Jean Simmons in this one, I immediately asked myself, what chemistry is this? Victor, dressed in his Roman legionaire togs, looked tired, world weary, aging. Just his role, or too many late Hollywood nights? I remember when I first noticed Pacino looking old. He never tried to hide it and I respected him for that. It turns out, I like haggard. Some, age hardly touches. Paul Newman. Some age early. Tommy Lee Jones got the gig in Space Cowboys (2000), side by side with Garner, Eastwood, and Donald Sutherland, and didn’t look out of place with those three geezers at all. Supposedly, he was their contemporary. Either way with Victor, the true ravages of age or a role calling for a worn-out legionaire, I took his interest in Simmons, who was dressed, or wrapped, in a simple white fabric and was in her early twenties at the time, radiating a mixture of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor with plenty of black-and-white closeups, and at least one moment in that white shift when we can tell she’s excited to be hanging with Victor, I took Victor’s interest, I say, to be that of an older man called upon to reflect on life’s beauty and missed opportunities. Then I discovered that he was only 38 when he made the movie and that whole train of thought went out the window. Just as well, cause later when he and Jean start to breathe heavy whilst discussing religion, he looks younger, though still with that mug of his.

The two of them, Mature and Simmons, went on the next year to make The Robe (1953), wherein Burton takes pride of place and wherein Simmons wears the same white clingy thing that she’s flaunting in Androcles (well, she’s flaunting what’s in the clingy thing, I guess), and then The Egyptian (1954), again with the white clinger. The Egyptian is the effort that occasioned that famous quote about the male star’s bosom being larger than the female’s. More tanned, too.

Jean Simmons, like Wendy Hiller as Eliza Dolittle and Barbara Undershaft, gets more than 50% of the spunk and argument in the movie. Here, though, rather than facing a Professor Higgins or Barbars’s  magnate father, Simmons deals with a diffuse collection of hypocrites, plus the hunky lunk.

Shaw taken up by Rex Harrison, Leslie Howard, and Wendy Hiller is one thing; Shaw taken up by Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Jim Backus, well, that’s something else. It’s not exactly that this is Shaw 4 in the franchise, but Gabriel Pascal picked the best for 1938, then the next best for 1941. Shaw worked with him on those; but by the time Androcles  rolled around, Shaw had left the building. Not to worry. Innumerable Shaw plays have been filmed, and filmed again, since then. I have seven more on reserve, just in case I haven’t had my fill yet.

[Taking a break to remind myself what a catbird seat is. Ah, that’s better. But still not where it came from in the 1800s.]

What else? Androcles later played the owner of Mr. Ed. Alan Young. 91 and still working. Has been associated with a cultural treasure trove of properties, from The Hulk to ER to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to Doogie Howser to Batman to the Chipmunks. My God, the man is a legend.

Movie notes:

Robert Newton, who owns the most amusing moments in Major Barbara (1941) as Bill Walker, is back here ten years later, to again provide LOL moments in the movie, as Ferrovius.

Jim Backus , with Mr. Magoo straining to get out, puts me in mind, for some reason, of The Phil Silvers Show (1955). Similar vibe.

As they march along, back in A.D. 161 (or whatever year it is supposed to be), the Christians sing a lusty version of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Never mind the anachronism. Between verses, the members of the group remind each other that every man jack of them is about to become lion chow. Some soldiers.

“man jack” comes from cricket, where the worst batsman is listed at number 11 (i.e., 8, 9, 10, jack).

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