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Major Barbara

Major Barbara(1941)

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teaser Major Barbara (1941)

Gabriel Pascal's film adaptation of Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara (1941) remains the strongest adaptation of a Shaw play after Pygmalion (1938), thanks to the director's close collaboration with Shaw and to its outstanding cast.

The play was originally staged in 1905 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, with Annie Russell in the title role, Louis Calvert as Undershaft, and Granville Barker as Cusins. A comedy of ideas in the same vein as Shaw's Man and Superman (1903) and John Bull's Other Island (1905), Major Barbara pits the title character, an idealist member of the Salvation Army, against her father Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy arms manufacturer. Besides making a religion out of wealth, Mr. Undershaft regards poverty as a disease that should be eradicated, not as an opportunity for salvation. In his rambling 1906 Preface Shaw even refers to Undershaft as the "hero" of the play, despite his own Fabian Socialist beliefs. In fact, one working title for the play was Andrew Undershaft's Profession, playfully alluding to Shaw's banned play Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893). At the same time, Shaw also clearly admires the passionate conviction of the Salvationists to a certain extent.

Some of Shaw's other plays such as Pygmalion are more frequently revived today, but Major Barbara nonetheless stands out as an example of how Shaw can create witty dialogue and full-blooded characters around a conflict of ideas or world views. Act II in particular is brilliantly structured around Barbara's attempt to save the dissolute Bill Walker, culminating in a crisis in faith precipitated by her father arriving to make a large donation to the church. Running about three hours uncut, the play presents a considerable challenge for actors, especially the part of Andrew Undershaft. After the play's premiere, Shaw complained about the difficulty Louis Calvert had delivering Undershaft's lengthy speeches.

According to Gabriel Pascal's ex-wife Valerie, Pascal met Shaw during the mid-1920s while swimming nude at the French Riviera. Impressed by Pascal's knowledge of his plays, Shaw later granted him permission to film Pygmalion, which became a remarkable success and even earned Shaw an Oscar® for Best Screenplay. This time, unlike Pygmalion, Pascal served as both director and producer in order to retain more control over the finished product. However, his tendency to run over budget and his overly generous profit-sharing deals with financiers meant that he personally earned very little money from Major Barbara, as was the case with Pygmalion.

For the film adaptation, at Pascal's suggestion Shaw cut many pages of dialogue from the play and added new scenes such as: the prologue in which Cusins first meets Barbara, Bill Walker's failed attempt to fight with Todger Fairmile, and Cusin's drunken spree at Undershaft's house. Shaw didn't always agree with Pascal's proposed changes--in particular he objected to having Bill Walker reappear at the very end--though for the most part the finished film reflects his intentions and thus should be understood as a legitimate variation on the play.

In addition to Wendy Hiller, Marie Lohr and David Tree were carried over from the cast of the film version of Pygmalion to play Lady Britomart and Charles "Cholly" Lomax, respectively. Pascal and Shaw originally wanted John Mills to play Cusins, then Maurice Evans and Alec Guinness. However, the outbreak of war complicated their plans and they eventually went with Rex Harrison. For the part of Bill Walker, they first considered Ralph Richardson and John Clement before settling on Robert Newton. Shaw wrote the part as a tour-de-force of Cockney slang, using non-standard spelling to indicate the pronunciation: "Aw'm nao gin drinker, you oald lawr; bat wen Aw want to give my girl a bloomin' good awdin Aw lawk to ev a bit o devil in me: see?" It might seem that Newton didn't push the accent as far as the written dialogue indicates, but his memorable incarnation of Walker threatens to steal Act II and anticipates his unforgettable, menacing turn as Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948). Shaw himself was pleased with the performance.

Ultimately, Major Barbara took six months to shoot, from June to December of 1940. From July to October of that year, the country was literally under siege from Germany during the Battle of Britain. Because of the war, the film was shot at Denham Studios rather than Pinewood Studios, and at a reduced budget. An even greater challenge was finding good quality film stock, since American Kodak stock could no longer be imported. To make matters worse, Donald Calthrop passed away on July 15, before his part as Peter Shirley was finished shooting, requiring Pascal to redistribute some of the lines and to use a stand-in for the remaining shots that required Shirley's presence. Fortunately, the finished product hardly betrays these difficulties.

Producer and Director: Gabriel Pascal
Screenplay: George Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal, based on the play by Shaw.
Cinematography: Ronald Neame
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Art Direction: John Bryan and Vincent Korda
Music: William Walton
Editing: Charles Frend and David Lean
Cast: Wendy Hiller (Major Barbara Undershaft); Robert Morley (Andrew Undershaft); Rex Harrison (Adolphus Cusins); Robert Newton (Bill Walker); Sybil Thorndike (The General); Emlyn Williams (Snobby Price); Stanley Holloway (Policeman); Marie Lohr (Lady Britomart); Penelope Dudley-Ward (Sarah Undershaft); Walter Hudd (Stephen Undershaft); David Tree (Charles Lomax); Deborah Kerr (Jenny Hill); Donald Calthrop (Peter Shirley); Marie Ault (Rummy Mitchens); Cathleen Cordell (Mog Habbijam); Torin Thatcher (Todger Fairmile).

by James Steffen

Shaw, Bernard. Major Barbara. Edited by Nicholas Grene. London: Methuen Drama, 2008.
Pascal, Valerie. The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
Dukore, Bernard F., ed. Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

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