THE DVD SHELF: George Bernard Shaw on Film and the Animated "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"

News   THE DVD SHELF: George Bernard Shaw on Film and the Animated "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"
We look at a box set of three Shaw plays on film — two under the direct supervision of GBS himself — and the 1985 animated version of the Off-Broadway musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
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Eclipse, Criterion's no-frills, low-price division, has given us several highly interesting sets, and they now do it once more with the 20th box in the series, George Bernard Shaw on Film [Criterion]. The big title, "Pygmalion" starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, is a Criterion staple and not included in this set. Rather, we get "Major Barbara" (1941), "Caesar and Cleopatra" (1945) and "Androcles and the Lion" (1952).

All three came from director-producer Gabriel Pascal, the colorfully flamboyant Transylvanian who was also responsible for "Pygmalion." (He did not direct the final film, "Androcles," apparently due to health issues.) "Major Barbara" and "Caesar" contain a virtual who's who of fine British actors, and with good reason; Shaw, then in his late 80s, worked on the films. Few actors were likely to pass up the opportunity to work with the legendary playwright. If the scripts are somewhat altered from the original stage versions, that's okay too; Shaw did it himself, and in some cases seems to have consciously tried to improve his 40-odd-year old plays.

"Major Barbara" is arguably the finest of the three. Wendy Hiller, of the 1938 "Pygmalion," gives a wonderful performance in the title role. Robert Morley, that delectable character man, performs Andrew Undershaft with relish, and Adolphus Cusins is played by Rex Harrison. (The prologue features an exchange between Harrison and a policeman who happens to be Stanley Holloway, putting the two together 15 years before they reconnected for My Fair Lady.) Also on view is a young Deborah Kerr, in her film debut, as Jenny Hill; Sybil Thorndike as The General; and playwright-actor Emlyn Williams as Snobby Price. "Caesar and Cleopatra," like "Major Barbara," was filmed during the War. Due to difficulties in production and various artistic whims of Mr. Pascal — importing authentic sand from Egypt!!!! — this became the most expensive British film thus far, and lost a bundle when it was first released. It is a good and highly watchable film nonetheless, and vibrantly Technicolored. Vivien Leigh, midway between "Gone with the Wind" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," plays the teenaged queen and is one of the film's prime assets. As is Claude Rains, best known today as Bogie's buddy Captain Renault in "Casablanca" but a fine actor with memorable roles in "The Invisible Man," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Now, Voyager" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious." Also on hand is Flora Robson as Ftatateeta.

"Androcles and the Lion," from Shaw's 1912 play, is the lesser of the three, although not without its charms. (The play itself holds a relatively low rating among the plays of the master.) Chester Erskine, a Hollywood type, directed. Alan Young, who already had a Best Actor Emmy award, plays the title character. (He went on to become famous acting not against a lion but a horse, with the unlikely moniker "Mr. Ed.") Jean Simmons — who died in January 2010, and who was the finest Desiree Armfeldt I've seen — plays Lavinia; Victor Mature plays the Captain; and Caesar is here in the hands not of Claude Rains but Maurice Evans. We also get the chance to see both Elsa Lanchester and Reginald Gardiner.

In keeping with the Eclipse format, the films come without bonus features. There are, however, brief but informative printed notes from Bruce Eder. All told, this "George Bernard Shaw on Film" box offers Shavians a chance to hear the words, for the most part exceedingly well-spoken, and in the first two cases to see what Shaw himself had in mind when he stepped into the movie studio.

bum ba-da dum-bum bum-bum (boom! boom!)

bum ba-da dum-bum bum-bum (boom! boom!)

Sound familiar? Those martial strains herald the title song of Clark Gesner's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown [Warner], which has now appeared in a "remastered deluxe edition" on DVD. This is not the stage version, with actors, but the 1985 animated special. An abbreviated version of the 1967 Off-Broadway musical, based on Charles Schulz's iconic comic-strip (which first started coming off the inkpad in 1950).

Television producers Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez started making Peanuts specials in 1965, finding instantaneous success with "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." It was at this point that Clark Gesner, a staff writer for Captain Kangaroo, contacted Schulz (through Mendelson) in hopes of getting the rights to musicalize the strip. (The animated specials didn't have songs, so there apparently wasn't thought to be a conflict.) Schulz liked what he heard, authorizing Gesner to make "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," a ten-song, 1966 concept album starring Orson Bean as Charlie Brown (and Gesner himself as Linus).

The results were favorable enough to instigate an expanded Off-Broadway production, with the key participation of director Joe Hardy, choreographer Patricia Birch and musical director Joe Raposo. This opened at Theatre 80 St. Marks on March 7, 1967, running an impressive 1,597 performances. Having depleted the Off-Broadway audience, the producers decided to reopen uptown at the Golden. This was a bad idea; the intimate show, which opened on June 1, 1971, looked especially cheesy on a Broadway stage, and shuttered after only four weeks. Ten or so years ago I mentioned this in an On the Record column, bringing forth an angry e-mail from Gesner who claimed that the Broadway production was a long-running success. I calmly responded with the opening and closing dates of the 32-performance run, at the same time assuring him that I had always loved the show. Further, I offered my first-hand observation — as a teenaged college student, I happened to be selling candy at the Golden that month — that the short run was attributed to non-existent promotion and lackadaisical handling. This calmed Mr. Gesner down.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown returned to Broadway in 1999 in a revised-altered-and-rewritten production which only served to make the inferiority complex-prone Charlie Brown look more inferior than he was. This version featured a couple of flashy new songs and two Tony-winning performances, said songs and performances only serving to diminish the charms of the exceedingly charming original version. Enough said about that.

In the meantime, Mendelson and Melendez decided — in 1985 — to include You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in their string of animated Peanuts TV specials. This required cutting down the material to one hour, which in TV land at the time meant which meant 48 minutes. This resulted in the cutting of two songs, Linus' "My Blanket and Me" and the Lucy/Charlie segment "The Doctor Is In." They also saw fit to remove the character Patty, replacing her with Charlie's sister Sally. Otherwise, this is a reasonable facsimile of the show. Warner has added a new featurette, "Animating a Charlie Brown Musical," which is actually fairly interesting although it includes none of the 1967 group. Participants include producer Mendelson, Mrs. Charles M. Schulz, and Dean Stolber — who played the title role during the 1971 Broadway engagement (and, for that matter, was the original Harvey Johnson in Bye Bye Birdie). Too bad they didn't get Joe Hardy, who is very much around and could no doubt tell us a thing or two.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown has, from the first, been a tremendously popular stock and amateur title; this is just about the perfect material for eight-year-old beginners. My daughter's fourth grade class did a reduced version a few years back, with double and triple casting so everybody could get into the act. Not long afterward, Jules Feiffer stopped by to visit the class for some sort of career day program. When told he was a cartoonist, they demanded that he draw Charlie Brown. "I don't draw Charlie Brown," he said; but after much prompting he more or less had to. So somewhere on the Upper West Side there is a Jules Feiffer portrait of Charlie Brown. A mighty canny one it is, too!

This schoolhouse popularity means that the newly released DVD of the animated Charlie Brown special should clean up with the juvenile market, and it well deserves to. Unlike the usual Peanuts specials, this one has a bit of an edge; it was, after all, devised for a somewhat more sophisticated audience than the TV fare. Those of you who have listened to the You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown original cast album too much for your own good might be thrown off a bit, as the animated DVD was voiced by children (as were all the Peanuts specials). This can be a little jarring, but you'll quickly get used to it. Overall, though, watching this DVD is like revisiting that innocent, clever, charming and incisive Off-Broadway musical from 1967. (Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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