Bernard Shaw on Cinema

Source: Letter from George Bernard Shaw to Mrs Patrick Campbell, 19 August 1912, reproduced in Bernard F. Dukore, Bernard Shaw on Cinema (Carbondale/Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997), pp. 5-6

Text: Do you ever study the cinema? I, who go to an ordinary theatre with effort and reluctance, cannot keep away from the cinema. The actor I know best is Max Linder, though I never heard his voice nor saw his actual body in my life. But the difficulty is that though good looks and grace are supremely important in the cinema, most of the films are still made from pictures of second, third and fourth rate actresses, whose delighted willingness and energy, far from making up for their commonness, make it harder to bear. There is one woman whom I should shoot if her photograph were vulnerable. At Strassburg, however, I saw a drama which had evidently been played by a first rate Danish (or otherwise Scandanavian) company, with a really attractive leading lady, very sympathetic and expressive, without classical features but with sympathetic good looks, like Kate Rorke in the best days of her youth. Here I saw a femme fatale who was a fine figure of a woman, but so hard that she wouldnt [sic] have been fatal to anything in my house except a black beetle if her foot happened upon it. Also a belle mère who was a little more fascinating – so much so, indeed, that the audience applauded loudly when her husband, on looking out of the window and seeing her squeezing lemon juice into the medicine of her stepdaughter (to whom acid was fatal) seized a gun and shot her sans phrase. It is something to have people care whether you are shot or not. But she was only £15 a week at the very outside. Now all these Dramas are dramas of Bella Donna in one version or another. Twice I have seen a version called The Judgment of Solomon, which would have pleased me better if the had mother hadnt [sic] been absurdly like Florence in her most maddeningly goodnatured aspect. Besides, the baby, in spite of all the efforts of the performers to stifle it half the time and hide its cavernous mouth the other half, was evidently howling all through; so that Solomon would have been jusitified in having it cut in two merely to stop the noise.

Now I ask myself why should those mediocre ladies be preserved to all posterity whilst nothing of you but a few portraits which cannot produce your living charm. Nobody who has not seen you move – seen you ‘live and move and have your being’ – has the faintest idea of your fascination. I could make prettier photographs of women who, in action, are grimacing kangaroos. It would well be worth Pathé’s while to pay you £5000 for a film, even if you do make it a condition (which I should by no means advise you to do) that it was not to be exhibited in London. Think of that immortality – of beauty imperishable! Suppose you learnt that Mrs Siddons had had the opportunity of doing this, and hadnt [sic] done it through some snobbish scruple or other, wouldnt [sic] you swear at such little-minded folly? Think of being a beautiful old lady with white hair, able at last to enter a room full of men without seeing them all coming on guard at once with the Almroth Wright terror of sex slavery in their souls, and yet able to see yourself at the height of your vigor and militant beauty! You say you want a job; why not this job, since Lubin is away and THE job must wait for him or some other Adonis capable of standing beside you without being ridiculous.

Your G.B.S.

Comment: The Irish playright Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) corresponded regularly with the London stage actress Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865-1940), who was the first Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Despite his pleas, she never appeared before motion picture cameras. The Scandanavian film actress to whom Shaw refers could be Asta Nielsen, though such was her fame that one would expect Shaw to have known her name, and she bears little resemblance to the young Kate Rorke, another London stage actress. Florence is Florence Farr, another stage actress. Sarah Siddons was a celebrated eighteenth century actress.

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