Major Barbara 1941 Based on the George Bernard Shaw novel. Directed by Gabriel Pascal. Barbara Undershaft (Wendy Hiller), a Salvation Army officer, speaks out against hypocrisy in ‘her’ charity organization. Her father, Andrew Undershaft (Robert Morely), a rich weapons manufacturer, is looking for an heir to his empire. While being courted by professor turned preacher Adolphus Cusins (Rex Harrison), Barbara either thinks she might save more souls as head of her father’s company or comes around to his way of navigating the world.
Bosley Crowther called it “wry and impudent.” The grand cast also includes Dame Sybil Thorndike, Emlyn Williams, Stanley Holloway, Robert Newton, Deborah Kerr (film debut), Donald Calthrop. Free on HBO Max; YouTube.
Blithe Spirit 1945 Adapted from the Noel Coward play whose title derives from the line “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” in the Percy Blythe Shelley poem To a Skylark. Directed by David Lean. Utterly charming. Researching background for a novel, Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) invites eccentric Medium Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to his home to conduct a séance. Much to everyone’s surprise- including Madame herself, she conjures Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond). Only Charles can see her. Elvira gleefully causes mischief.
When Charles finally convinces second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings) of Elvira’s existence, Ruth pleads with the Medium to send Elvira back, but the Madame can’t. Wife number one wants her husband back. Bubbly, sophisticated dialogue only the British can muster. Coward turned down several Hollywood offers to make the film in England and maintain control, yet against his will, the ending was changed. The author narrates. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir 1947 Based on the novel by Josephine Leslie under the pseudonym R.A. Dick. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Utterly charming. Young widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), daughter Anna, and housekeeper Martha (Edna Best), move into a seaside cottage haunted by the rakish spirit of Sea Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). It was his plan to turn Gull Cottage into a home for retired seamen and he doesn’t appreciate her presence. The headstrong woman won’t leave. Daniel can’t help but be intrigued and only shows himself to her.
When the widow runs out of money, Daniel suggests he dictate his memoirs to her. A life of great manly adventure, it’s related in salty language. (Harrison excels in the telling.) He and Lucy fall in love. Blood and Swash becomes a bestseller. One day in London, the widow meets children’s book author Miles Farley (George Saunders) who courts her. To give the lady a chance at real life, Daniel plants in Lucy the idea that he’s just her imagination. Miles has a fatal flaw and Lucy becomes a recluse until…Wonderfully romantic. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Unfaithfully Yours 1948 Written and Directed by Preston Sturges. Internationally successful conductor Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison) returns from a tour to discover his brother-in-law has misinterpreted a request to watch over Alfred’s young, beautiful wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) and hired a private detective. At first outraged, he can’t resist looking at the report, however, and comes across a late night visit to his secretary, Anthony Windborn (Kurt Kreuger). The conductor’s jealous fantasies become so histrionic and ornate, he resolves to murder her.
Attorneys were worried about similarity between Sturges’ character De Carter and the real-life English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. He was warned to eliminate parallels, which were nonetheless noted in many reviews. Not a success at the time, the film was faulted for portraying a bungling murderer. Also with Rudy Vallee, Edgar Kennedy, and Barbara Lawrence. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Reluctant Debutante 1958 Based on William Douglas-Home’s play. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Pretty, if dated froth, glued together by the splendid Kay Kendall as Sheila Broadbent and secondarily, Harrison, playing her tone deaf husband Lord Jimmy. (They were married at the time.) Jimmy’s daughter Jane (Sandra Dee), who was raised in America, comes to London at 17. Her stepmother decides she must have a season and makes copious plans for lofty connections. Jane, however, falls for musician David Parkson (John Saxon) instead of her mother’s rogue, if well-born choice. Things must be ironed out. Rent on Amazon Prime.
My Fair Lady 1964 Adapted from the stage musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. (Itself a splendid film.) Directed by George Cukor. The big scandal here was casting Audrey Hepburn (songs dubbed by Marni Nixon) instead of Broadway’s Julie Andrews, who created the stage role. Rex Harrison (who refused to prerecord), Stanley Holloway, Gladys Cooper, Wilfred Hyde White, Jeremy Brett (also dubbed). Eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor. Tailor made for Harrison. I can’t imagine you’d need a synopsis here.
Gene Allen, Cecil Beaton, and George James Hopkins deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Costumes are wonderful, musical numbers beautifully staged. As stunning as its star is, however, one can’t help missing someone who actually sings and perhaps a face less picture perfect. Otherwise loverly. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Agony and The Ecstasy 1965 Partly based on Irving Stone’s biographical novel of conflicts between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II during the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Directed by Carol Reed. The artist finds commission stipulations uninteresting, but can’t afford to turn down the chapel. He goes away for inspiration, returns with renewed ideas and works like a madman only to be threatened by replacement. The Pope withdraws and then restores patronage. The men become frenemies. Full of visuals and bombast. History is there under the Hollywood paint.
Critic Bosley Crowther called the film an illustrated lecture. Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston didn’t get along. Twelve years later, while filming The Prince and The Pauper, Harrison completely avoided Heston. Rent on Amazon Prime.
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