An interview by Archibald Henderson
HENDERSON: Has the enormous development of the cinema industry benefited the drama, or the reverse?
SHAW: No: the huge polynational audience makes mediocrity compulsory. Films must aim at the average of an American millionaire and a Chinese coolie, a cathedral-town governess and a mining-village barmaid, because they have to go everywhere and please everybody. They spread the drama enormously; but as they must interest a hundred per cent, of the population of the globe, barring infants in arms, they cannot afford to meddle with the upper-ten-percent, theatre of the high-brows or the lower-ten-per-cent. theatre of the blackguards. The result is that the movie play has supplanted the old-fashioned tract and Sunday School prize: it is reeking with morality but dares not touch virtue. And virtue, which is defiant and contemptuous of morality even when it has no practical quarrel with it, is the life-blood of high drama.
HENDERSON: In spite of the fame of certain artistic directors—the Griffiths, De Milles, Lubitschs, and Dwans—perhaps it is true that the film industry is, for the most part, directed and controlled by people with imperfectly developed artistic instincts and ideals who have their eyes fixed primarily on financial rewards.
SHAW: All industries are brought under the control of such people by Capitalism. If the capitalists let themselves be seduced from their pursuit of profits to the enchantments of art, they would be bankrupt before they knew where they were. You cannot combine the pursuit of money with the pursuit of art.
HENDERSON: Would it not be better for film magnates to engage first-rate authors to write directly for the films, paying them handsomely for their work, rather than pay enormous prices to an author of novel, story, or play, and then engage a hack at an absurdly low price to prepare a scenario?
SHAW: Certainly not first-rate authors: democracy always prefers second-bests. The magnates might pay for literate subtitles; but one of the joys of the cinema would be gone without such gems as “Christian: Allah didst make thee wondrous strong and fair.” Seriously, though, the ignorance which leads to the employment of uneducated people to do professional work in modern industry is a scandal. It is just as bad in journalism. In my youth all writing was done by men who, if they had little Latin and less Greek, had at any rate been in schools where there was a pretence of teaching them; and they had all read the Bible, however reluctantly. Nowadays that has all gone: literary work is entrusted to men and women so illiterate that the mystery is how they ever learned their alphabet. They know next to nothing else, apparently. I agree with you as to the scenarios founded on existing plays and novels. Movie plays should be invented expressly for the screen by original imaginative visualizers. But you must remember that just as all our music consists of permutations and combinations of twelve notes, all our fiction consists of variations on a few plots; and it is in the words that the widest power of variation lies. Take that away and you will soon be so hard up for a new variation that you will snatch at anything—even at a Dickens plot—to enable you to carry on.
HENDERSON: . . . Have you in mind any definite suggestions for the further artistic development of films?
SHAW (explosively): Write better films, if you can: there is no other way. Development must come from the centre, not from the periphery. The limits of external encouragement have been reached long ago. Take a highbrow play to a Little Theatre and ask the management to spend two or three thousand dollars on the production, and they will tell you that they cannot afford it. Take an opium eater’s dream to Los Angeles and they will realize it for you: the more it costs the more they will believe in it. You can have a real Polar expedition, a real volcano, a reconstruction of the Roman Forum on the spot: anything you please, provided it is enormously costly. Wasted money, mostly. If the United States Government put a limit of twenty-five thousand dollars to the expenditure on any single non-educational film, the result would probably be an enormous improvement in the interest of the film drama, because film magnates would be forced to rely on dramatic imagination instead of on mere spectacle. Oh, those scenes of oriental voluptuousness as imagined by a whaler’s cabin boy! They would make a monk of Don Juan. Can you do nothing to stop them?
HENDERSON: The only way to stop them is with ridicule. That is why I am making you talk. . . . The triumph, almost the monopoly of the American film is uncontested. But are American films superior to all others?
SHAW (decisively): No. Many of them are full of the stupidest errors of judgment. Overdone and foolishly repeated strokes of expression, hideous make-ups, close-ups that an angel’s face would not bear, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on spoiling effects that I or any competent producer could secure quickly and certainly at a cost of ten cents, featureless overexposed faces against under-exposed backgrounds, vulgar and silly subtitles, impertinent lists of everybody employed in the film from the star actress to the press agent’s office boy: these are only a few of the gaffes American film factories are privileged to make. Conceit is rampant among your film makers; and good sense is about non-existent. That is where Mr. Chaplin scores; but Mr. Harold Lloyd seems so far to be the only riyal intelligent enough to follow his example. We shall soon have to sit for ten minutes at the beginning of every reel to be told who developed it, who fixed it, who dried it, who provided the celluloid, who sold the chemicals, and who cut the authors hair. Your film people simply don’t know how to behave themselves: they take liberties with the public at every step on the strength of their reckless enterprise and expenditure. Every American aspirant to film work should be sent to Denmark or Sweden for five years to civilize him before being allowed to enter a Los Angeles studio.
HENDERSON: Well! that’s that! And how surprised and pained some American producers will be to read your cruel words! But . . . can plays of conversation—”dialectic dramas”—like yours be successfully filmed?
SHAW: Barrie says that the film play of the future will have no pictures and will consist exclusively of sub-titles.
HENDERSON: I wonder if conversation dramas are not on the wane—since the public in countless numbers patronizes, revels in the silent drama.
SHAW: If you come to that, the public in overwhelming numbers is perfectly satisfied with no drama at all. But the silent drama is producing such a glut of spectacle that people are actually listening to invisible plays by wireless. The silent drama is exhausting the resources of silence. Charlie Chaplin and his very clever colleague Edna Purviance, Bill Hart and Alia Nazimova, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, have done everything that can be done in dramatic dumb show and athletic stunting, and played all the possible variations on it. The man who will play them off the screen will not be their superior at their own game but an Oscar Wilde of the movies who will flash epigram after epigram at the spectators and thus realize Barrie’s anticipation of more sub-titles than pictures.
HENDERSON: If that is true, then why—since wit and epigram are your familiar weapons—why have none of your plays been filmed?
SHAW (deadly resolute): Because I wouldn’t let them. I repeat that a play with the words left out is a play spoiled; and all those filmings of plays written to be spoken as well as seen are boresome blunders except when the dialogue is so worthless that it is a hindrance instead of a help. Of course that is a very large exception in point of bulk; but the moment you come to classic drama, the omission of the words and the presentation of the mere scenario is very much as if you offered as a statue the wire skeleton which supports a sculptor’s modelling clay. Besides, consider the reaction on the box office. People see a Macbeth film. They imagine they have seen Macbeth, and don’t want to see it again; so when your Mr. Hackett or somebody comes round to act the play, he finds the house empty. That is what has happened to dozens of good plays whose authors have allowed them to be filmed. It shall not happen to mine if I can help it.1
From Archibald Henderson, Table-Talk of G.B.S., Chapman & Hall, London, 1925, pages 55-65. Published here by permission of the Society of Authors and the Bernard Shaw Estate. Title supplied.
1.The first Shaw plays to be filmed were: How He Lied to Her Husband (1930) directed by Cecil Lewis, Arms and the Man (1932) directed by Cecil Lewis, and Pygmalion (1938) directed by Anthony Asquith and starring Leslie Howard (Higgins) and Wendy Hiller (Eliza Doolittle). Shaw received an Academy Award (1938) for writing the year’s best screenplay-Pygmalion.