Shavian and a haircut, six bits: Shaw on Cinema


I just got a book on George Bernard Shaw and cinema (The Serpent’s Eye by Donald P. Castello). It’s not about all the movies made from the plays he wrote. Only about those he was personally involved with himself, as well as his views toward cinema. I’ve barely started it, but I’m already finding it fascinating.

In many ways, he was ahead of his time. He immediately saw the potential greatness of film as an art form and believed it could be the beginning of the revolution he dreamed of (especially once the poor witnessed on a regular basis how much better their betters were living, which he believed would make them want to rectify the situation). His hopes were quickly dashed when he realized that for a film to make money, it would have to appeal to as many different people as possible in as many different countries as possible, which would require the dumbing down of the ideas and morality Shaw saw as essential to changing the world (how often have we heard that complaint made today). He soon saw an art form dominated by greed (his most famous quip, the one given to Samuel Goldwyn “[t]he trouble with you, Mr. Goldwyn, is that you’re interested only in art; while I’m only interested in money” was not said by Shaw, according to Mr. Castello, but by Howard Dietz, a Hollywood press agent; Shaw at another time said “You cannot combine the pursuit of money with the pursuit of art”). Perhaps his most interesting idea was to suggest to the U.S. that the government put a limit of $25,000 on the making of a film, which he thought would be an huge improvement in the way films were written and produced (can you imagine if studios were limited to spending no more than one to five million on a movie—how would Spiderman defeat the bad guys).

Where Shaw seems to have missed the boat was his belief that movies should be no more than an extension of the legitimate stage and that the visual aspect of the cinema was less important, though it could be beautiful. He had little use for silent films which he called dumb shows. He did think that movies could have a beneficial effect on the theater, though. Since the stage could never compete with the realistic sets of the movies, he hoped that the theater would start backing away from the realism of the well made play which had become de rigueur for the stage for some time. He hoped the theater would go back to depending even more on words and ideas.

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