Friday, July 01, 2011


This is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. I've always struggled a bit with the plays of George Bernard Shaw: his dialogue is witty and his characters are interesting, but the messages feel muddled to me, perhaps because I'm unfamiliar with the specific social contexts of the plays, most of which were written between 1890 and 1920. The major of the title is Barbara Underschaft (Wendy Hiller), daughter of a wealthy weapons manufacturer. She believes the family business is evil and she has renounced it (though she still lives her family and relies on their money personally) and works for the Salvation Army saving souls and feeding the poor. When Adolphus (Rex Harrison), a Greek scholar who gives streetcorner classes for workers, sees Barbara electrify a crowd with her sermon, he falls in love with her. He offers himself up to be saved, but is direct with Barbara about his feelings for her. Strange plotpoint #1: She basically says, OK, no problem, we're now a couple, and suddenly what one might expect would be the entire plot of a Hollywood romantic comedy is dispensed with in five minutes. Barbara takes Adolphus home to meet her family and it happens to be the night that Barbara's mother has invited her estranged husband (Robert Morley) for dinner for the first time since the children have grown up. Strange plotpoint #2: The family tradition for passing on the reins of the business is that they must go not to a biological child, but to an adopted child, and Underschaft feels the need to find an heir. Underschaft and Barbara spend much of the rest of the film sparring over their philosophies; he winds up donating a huge amount of money to the Salvation Army to keep it running, and when the Army accepts it, Barbara, feeling it's tainted money made by war and death, resigns. Eventually, Underschaft takes Barbara on a tour of one of his plants, which he runs like a working man's mini-utopia (strange plotpoint #3) and decides to adopt Adolphus (who is technically an orphan) to run the business. Barbara sees that capitalism is more beneficial than giving handouts to the poor, so she joins them.

And that's only about half of the plot of the film. There are other major story threads involving folks at the Salvation Army: Robert Newton plays a drunkard who is upset that his former girlfriend has been saved; he winds up smacking young Army worker Deborah Kerr across the face, and spends the rest of the movie torn between not caring and trying to make it up to her. Emlyn Williams is a poor but sly artist and Marie Ault is an old but sly woman; the two have a particularly good scene together. The movie works fairly well until the last third, but the whole weird "utopia" solution at the end feels like Shaw, who wrote the screenplay based on his own play, is trying to have his socialist cake and eat his capitalist cupcake, too. The fact that England was in the middle of war when the film was made may have had something to do with the contradictory presentation of Morley's weapons work. Harrison, though present for much of the film, isn't a very active presence, and acting-wise, Hiller (pictured above with Williams) carries the movie well, along with Morley and Williams. There are witty lines; my favorite, from Barbara's mother: "You go on as if religion were a pleasant subject." A very odd experience indeed. [TCM]

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