Follow That Camel

Gabriel Pascal, the penniless Hungarian émigré who somehow convinced George Bernard Shaw he was a genius, and got the go-ahead to adapt MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA as movies.

I couldn’t remember, offhand, which of my late friend Lawrie’s stories I’d perpetuated here on Shadowplay concerningproducer/director/charlatan Gabriel Pascal. I found some of the stories here, but there are more. Pascal was Lawrie’s first boss in the film industry, as he exited WWII and entered the less murderous but not dissimilar madness of the motion picture industry.

All Lawrie’s stories are true — the ones I’ve been able to check, anyway. Some of the unconfirmed ones seem decidedly fantastical in a David Niven kind of way, and it’s worth recalling that Lawrie doubled for Niven in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH…

Lawrie entered the film business after exiting the armed forces under circumstances I wasn’t quite clear about. The war was still on, and he was in the Air Force Air Sea Rescue. His war stories are as colourful as his film stories. He mentioned something about pretending to be suicidal so he could  escape duty for a day and go to the cinema, which worked fine until the men with the straitjacket came for him a few days later. He also talked about being adrift at sea alone in a lifeboat, with only a newspaper for company. In the paper was an article about the film producer who discovered Leslie Howard. Lawrie resolved to look the man up and ask for a job, if he ever got out of this…

On his release from the army, he presented himself to the producer. “I’ve come about a job,” he said. The man looked delighted. “Oh, thank God! What kind of job do you have for me?”

Only slightly deterred by this early proof of the shakiness of a career in moving pictures, Lawrie went to Rank Denham. The doorman was going to send him away, but when he gave his name as Knight, the man asked “Captain Knight”? Lawrie lied and said yes, and was shown in. (Captain Knight was a celebrated explorer and sometime actor, who appears, with his pet eagle, in Michael Powell’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING — and Powell would play a major role in Lawrie’s career). Lawrie was show in to see the top man, who was in conference with Claude Rains. His imposture was immediately rumbled, but he somehow landed a job as assistant on the current super-production, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA.

The movie was insanity itself. “We shipped sand to Egypt for the desert scenes!” exclaimed Lawrie. “During wartime!” He also reported that when a group of local extras was outfitted with soft sandals, they immediately ate them. A scenic artist painted elaborate murals all over the sets, and director Pascal chose to shoot all the action in front of the only bare wall in the studio.

But Lawrie’s most unlikely anecdote concerned a camel. It was supposed to be led into a shot, bearing one of the stars on its back, and halt on its mark. But in take after take, it refused to do so. Pascal was apoplectic. The camel wrangler tried to explain to him that a camel simply could not be made to perform as precisely as Pascal demanded. Pascal dismissed this, and promtly put on the camel herder’s costume and did the scene himself.

The camel stopped exactly where it was supposed to. “There!” exclaimed Pascal, gesturing in satisfaction, and the camel bit him. Everybody crowded around the bleeding hyphenate, who insisted he was alright. “We’d better get you a doctor.” “No, I’m fine!” “But what about the VD?” “What are you talking about, VD? I don’t have VD!” “No, but all camels do. We’d better get you a doctor.”

The doctor was called. He bandaged the wound.

“What about the risk of VD infection?” asked a crewmember.

“I doubt you have to worry. But if you really think it necessary, I can give the camel some penicillin.”

As I say, this story may not be absolutely truthful. All I can say is, the stories Lawrie told which I was able to check, were.

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14 Responses to “Follow That Camel”

  1. Are all Hungarians fabulous con men?

    (Insert Orson Welles’ F For Fake in it entireity)

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    Well Powell always did say that most of his best opportunities came from Hungarians and Americans.

    Pascal’s PYGMALION is a fine film, though. Among British Hungarians he isn’t as good a director as Alexander Korda was himself but then who is.

  3. On Pygmalion, Pascal had quite a lot of help from David Lean, I believe. I do give Pascal credit for picking the talent, but Lean may even have had more to do with the filmmaking than Pascal.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Maybe, although David Lean was still a young editor then. But then with the kind of technicians, cast and story(and the screenplay by Shaw), it’s hard to go wrong.

    One of Pascal’s Shaw films, ANDROCLES AND THE LION was partially shot by Nicholas Ray, it was one of the patchwork jobs he did as favour for producer Howard Hughes, in return for which the latter protected him from the blacklist, or so legend has it.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    As with so many movies, the off-camera stories from CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA are infinitely more entertaining than anything we see on screen. Personally, I blame much of the boredom on George Bernard Shaw, a profoundly tedious playwright who had to be radically rewritten (as in MY FAIR LADY) if he was to have any hope at all of working on film.

    According to rumour, GBS once received a letter addressed to a ‘Mr Shawm’. Irate that some mere mortal should misspell his name, he then got curious and looked up ‘shawm’ in the dictionary. The definition was “an old-fashioned wind instrument.” That sums it up rather nicely.

  6. I got a Shaw play to study at school and found it kind of dull, I must say. Wasn’t he violently opposed to the idea of Pygmalion as a love story? Seems to argue that he didn’t understand his own title.

    I’ve been meaning to watch Androcles and the Lion, although the other part-Ray movie, Macao, doesn’t really express much of his personality.

  7. I love GBS, myself, although he could be quite an odd duck.

    As for as the “Pygmalion” thing is concerned … what he objected to, I believe, is the people who wanted to make it *simply* a love story, to say that what it was about was the Eliza/Higgins relationship. In “Pygmalion,” as often in his plays, what he showed was an eroticized renouncing of The Love Relationship. Which was interpreted, by its first performers, in such standardized 19th-century ways as tossing flowers off balconies, etc.

    GBS also made the point, in connection with the “Pygmalion” movie, that if Eliza returns to Higgins at the end, she is (in effect) returned from flesh back into stone. If she’s transformed, she’s transformed.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Shaw may not be topical or au courant right now but he was one of the best dramatists in English theatre.

    The best Shaw film, of course, is SAINT JOAN. His greatest play, adapted by Graham Greene, and directed by Preminger. After Dreyer, it’s the best film on Jeanne d’Arc and Preminger understands that magnificent Shavian dialogue and how to stage it.

  9. Shaw is hard to adapt partly for his vices, but probably largely for his virtues — like all the great playwrights, his work lives on the stage and can’t be transferred directly, and any careless tampering is fantastically destructive. Greene was probably a good choice since he wasn’t primarily of the stage or the cinema, but had a strong feeling for the latter. And what he primarily was was a storyteller.

  10. There was a time when Greene was considered capable of almost anything. In The Pleasure Dome, his collected film reviews, he tells of being invited to lunch at the Dorchester by Sam Zimbalist who asked if GG would re-write the ending of a script for a Ben Hur remake. “You see,” said Zimbalist, “we find a sort of anti-climax after the crucifixion.”

  11. I’m not sure if it was the script that finally got made!

  12. I think it’s the same script, but they had Gore Vidal do the polish in the end, hence the gay subtext. Poor Zimbalist died under the strain of making it, and Wyler finished the film as both director and producer.

    Wyler: “It would be nice to be nice. But you can’t make pictures that way.”

  13. Shaw is my favorite playwright; “Pygmalion” is my favorite story of all time and has been since I was ten. That I am now two years away from the age James Villiers was when he played Higgins to Lynn Redgraves’ TERRIBLE Liza simply makes me feel old.

    I could rant endlessly about “Pygmaliom.” But I won’t.

    I am ass over tea kettle for Claude Rains in “Caesar and Cleopatra”. The power play dynamic between the title characters is… well… erotic in it’s dirty “daddy/daughterness”.

    I’m considering naming a frittata after Ftatateeta– The Frittatateeta.

    Francis L. Sullivan as Pothinus was a happy surprise! I loved his idiot Nazi character in “Pimpernel Smith”.

    By the way- I also recommend the filmed version of “Major Barbara”, not just to see Rex Harrison bang a bass drum, but to witness Wendy Hiller’s perfection… and Shaw did the screenplay.

    For more James Villiers action, try Shaw’s “The Millionairess” (BBC Play of the Month) with Maggie Smith. Jimbo is a riot as her boxing husband, Alastair Fitzfassenden.

    Rant over, back to Claude Rains in “Deception”…

  14. Deception — Irving Rapper’s an interesting director sometimes, with a minimalist, graphic style. And John Collier contributed to the screenplay.

    Major Barbara’s good. Pascal was always better when he had David Lean to help out. “The Whispering Director,” as he was known (I guess he learned to shout later.)

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