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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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.