Plot: Major Barbara (Wendy Hiller) is a member of a mission devoted to saving souls, and she promotes temperance, non-violence, and socialism. Adolphus Cusins (Rex Harrison), a classics professor, falls in love with her, but before she accepts his proposal, she insists that he must meet her family. He is surprised to find out that she is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist.
Her father, Andrew Undershaft (Robert Morley), a munitions manufacturer, returns to the family after an absence of many years. He tries to convert Barbara to his views by presenting her with an ethical dilemma. Will she accept large contributions to her mission from the makers of munitions and liquor, the very things she opposes? She cannot, and is disillusioned but understanding when her superior accepts the funds, reasoning that despite their source, the money will do some good.
Barbara visits the munitions factory and sees that her father is right about capitalism. It does not mean much when someone accepts her views in order to get food and shelter. But if she can persuade people simply by the force of her ideas, those are converts worth having. Furthermore, she can aid the poor by providing good jobs, good wages, and good benefits. Her father says that being a millionaire is his religion. Christianity is Barbara’s religion, but she will pursue it through capitalism.
Discussion: More directly political than “Pygmalion,” this provides a good opportunity for a discussion of what is now termed “corporate social responsibility,” and the role of the government, the church, and the corporation in meeting society’s needs.
Questions for Kids:
· How socially responsible should corporations be? How should they balance the interests of employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, and the community?
· Who is in a better position to help society, government, religion, or business? Which kinds of help are each uniquely able to provide?
Connections: Robert Morley, age 32 when this movie was made, was only four years older than the actress who played his daughter. A very young Deborah Kerr appears as Jenny Hill, and Emelyn Williams, author of the autobiographical “The Corn is Green,” appears as Snobby Price. Wendy Hiller, picked by Shaw himself to appear in this movie and “Pygmalion,” also appears in “A Man for All Seasons” and “Murder on the Orient Express.”
Playwright and co-screenwriter Shaw was one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant writers, well known as a dramatist, essayist, critic, and social reformer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. His play, “Pygmalion” (also filmed with Wendy Hiller) became the musical “My Fair Lady.” Among the many pleasures of his work are the superb female characters — strong, intelligent, and principled.
Activities: Teenagers may want to read or even act out some of Shaw’s other plays, including “The Man of Destiny,” “Misalliance,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and “Arms and the Man,” and will also enjoy his essays and criticism.