George Bernard Shaw Profile
Shaw's father was an alcoholic and his mother left home when he was sixteen, taking her daughters with her to London where she lived with her music teacher, Vandeleur Lee. Shaw remained behind with his father in Dublin, working at a real estate agency until he was twenty, when he joined his mother in London. There, he was given a pound a week by his family for ghost-writing Lee's music column in the Hornet newspaper. Shaw spent his time haunting libraries and the British Museum, reading and writing novels, which were unsuccessful at the time they were written but were published after Shaw became famous. Until he was nearly 30, Shaw was unable to make a living as a writer until he became an art critic for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 and drama critic for The Saturday Review from 1895 to 1898 which made him well-known for his hatred of the overblown Victorian theater and his desire to see more realistic plays.
Shaw began to write his own plays around 1890 and his first, Widowers' Houses was produced in 1892. His first real success came in 1897 with the American actor Richard Mansfield's production of The Devil's Disciple, and by the end of the decade he was a successful playwright, writing sixty-three plays in all. In addition, he wrote short stories, novels and pamphlets, often for socialist causes, of which he was an ardent supporter; social inequities were a major theme in his work. His outspoken personality made him as famous as his plays. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to literature, but refused it. He eventually accepted it only because his wife, Charlotte, believed it to be a tribute to Ireland. Neither wanting nor needing the money nor being in favor of awards in general, he refused the cash prize. He asked that it go toward translating Swedish books into English. Shaw treated his Academy Award no better. At the time of his death, it had tarnished so badly that it was nearly unrecognizable and his housekeeper was using it for a doorstop. It was later repaired by the Academy.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, George Bernard Shaw embraced motion pictures at a time when they were considered low-class entertainment without much value. As Michael Holroyd wrote in his biography of Shaw, "He predicted that the cinema would be an invention of even more revolutionary significance than printing. Films told their stories to the illiterate as much to the literate 'that is why the cinema is going to produce effects that all the cheap books in the world could never produce'. He foresaw a time when motion pictures would 'form the mind of England. The national conscience, the national ideals and tests of conduct,' he had written in 1914, 'will be those of the film.' One day pictures would be 'brought to my home for me' and it was in this direction, he told a journalist, 'that you must look for the most important changes.'"
Shaw himself appeared several times in the newsreels, billed by the Fox Movietone news as "The World's Outstanding Literary Genius" on his first appearance in America. The newsreels, which are available for viewing on YouTube, reveal a tall, Irish-accented man with a snowy white beard. In the 1930 newsreel for Fox, Shaw pretends the audience has dropped in on him. Having acquired the reputation of a curmudgeon, he used the opportunity to show his lighter side. "I like people to see me. I don't know how it is but people who only know me from reading my books or sometimes even from seeing my plays get a most unpleasant impression of me. The people who really meet me see that I'm a most harmless person, I'm quite a kindly person you know." He then proceeds to imitate different faces, including Mussolini, who he kids for looking stern despite having a 'kindly' nature. These newsreels were made, he explained later "to satisfy my curiosity and enable me to acquaint myself with the technique of the lens and microphone as I believe that acting and drama can be portrayed far more effectively as well as lucratively from the screen than from the stage."
Shaw's first work to be made into a motion picture came in 1921 when a Czech company adapted his first novel, Cashel Byron's Profession. In 1927 Shaw oversaw an experimental talkie short of the actress Sybil Thorndike doing the Cathedral scene from his play Saint Joan. Two versions of Pygmalion had been produced in 1935 in Germany and in 1937 in the Netherlands before Shaw met film producer Gabriel Pascal.
Their first meeting was unusual. Pascal had been swimming nude in the sea off of Cap d'Antibes when he came across Shaw, who was treading water. The two introduced themselves, with Pascal saying that he wanted to make films of Shaw's work. As Pascal swam away, Shaw reportedly called out, "When you are utterly broke, come and call on me and I will let you make one of my plays into a film." Sometime later, at the end of 1935, Pascal turned up at Shaw's home unannounced. The two got along famously, with Shaw calling him "a genius, quite outside all ordinary rules.' As Shaw's secretary remembered, "G.B.S. never met a human being who entertained him more." Shaw explained the formation of their partnership, "When Pascal appeared out of the blue, I just looked at him, and handed him Pygmalion to experiment with." Pascal said, "I was the happiest man in the world." His enthusiasm, which at times bordered on obsession, moved Shaw to write, "I have had to forbid Pascal to kiss me, as he did at first to the scandal of the village."
Despite Pascal's promises to Shaw that he would "make you even more famous and very rich," he was more a dreamer than a pragmatist, especially when it came to money; something that Shaw was never very interested in. While he personally adored Pascal, Shaw must have been aware of this. He protected his works fiercely, as his letters of agreement were for only one play at a time with the rights restricted for Pascal to make the films only, keeping contractual rights to a five year license; with control of script and a royalty of ten percent of the gross receipts going to Shaw. These made it difficult for Pascal to get the films made, as Shaw explained, "Film work, or anything else of a theatrical nature is fatal to business habits."
Eventually, Pascal was able to come up with the financing and Pygmalion went into production on March 11, 1938, with Shaw appearing at a press luncheon at Pinewood studios. It was seen as a celebration but it was really to get the investors to pay up. Although Shaw had promised not "to interfere in the direction of the picture, since I cannot, at my age, undertake it myself," he did want a say in casting. Wendy Hiller was his first choice to play Eliza Doolittle, saying she would be the "film sensation of the next five years." Shaw's choice for Henry Higgins was Charles Laughton. He believed Pascal's choice of Leslie Howard was completely wrong for the role because "he thinks he's Romeo" and that public would want him to marry Eliza, "which is just what I don't want."
Shaw's love of Wendy Hiller was not shared by Pascal. Hiller remembered, "There was a terrible row and throughout the whole shooting of the picture we were never on speaking terms. But as the direction was in the expert hands of Anthony Asquith we managed remarkably well." Pygmalion would be nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actor (Leslie Howard), Best Actress (Wendy Hiller), Best Picture, and Best Writing, Screenplay (for Shaw, Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis and W.P. Lipscomb), which it won. It was also a box office smash.
In all, Pascal produced four films based on Shaw's plays, Pygmalion, Major Barbara (1941), Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Androcles and the Lion (1952) before his death at the age of 60 in 1954.
To date, over 120 film and television adaptations have been made from Shaw's works, including The Devil's Disciple (1959) with Laurence Olivier, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, and The Millionairess (1960) with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, again directed by Anthony Asquith. Sadly, Shaw did not live to see My Fair Lady (1964) with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, which was based on Pygmalion, but the longer he lived, the longer it would have been delayed. Shaw hated the 1908 musical production of The Chocolate Soldier (which Oscar Straus had based on Shaw's 1894 play Arms and the Man) so much that he forbade any musical versions of his works during his lifetime. My Fair Lady was first produced on the stage in 1956, six years after Shaw's death from complications from a fall, on November 2, 1950. He was 94.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Holroyd, Michael Bernard Shaw: The Lure of Fantasy 1918-1951
Weintraub, Stanley Shaw: An Autobiography