Gabriel Pascal

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Gabriel Pascal
Born 4 June 1894
Transylvania, Austria-Hungary
Died 6 July 1954
New York City
Cause of death Cancer
Known for "My Fair Lady"
Religion Roman Catholic
Spouse Valerie Pascal
Children Peter
Relatives Orphan

Gabriel Pascal (4 June 1894 – 6 July 1954[1]) was a Hungarian movie producer and director.

Gabriel Pascal was born in Transylvania (which is now part of Romania) in 1894. Pascal is best known for having turned some of the best plays by the famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw into successful movies. His most famous movie made from one of Shaw's plays was Pygmalion in 1938. Pygmalion tells the story of a bet that two rich men made over whether one of them, Professor Higgins, could turn a poor uneducated girl into a sophisticated lady. The movie was so successful that after Gabriel Pascal died it was made into a huge Broadway musical called My Fair Lady, and amazingly this musical was then made into another movie. So Pygmalion was first a play, then a movie based on the play, then a play based on the movie, and then a new play based on the movie made from the old play. It is therefore quite a remarkable history and it was Gabriel Pascal's idea to make the play a musical, though he did not live long enough to do it himself.

Early life[change | edit source]

Gabriel Pascal invented his name and no one seems to know his real one. He claimed to have memories of being rescued by Gypsies from a burning building when he was a tiny child and that the Gypsies taught him to beg, steal, and do acrobatic tricks, but no one knows if this is true.[2] It is unclear what parts of his fabulous account of his childhood are true as there are no formal records of him prior to the age of 17 when he was enlisted in military school in Holics, Hungary, by a mysterious Catholic priest. Gabriel Pascal, who was decidedly unfit for military life, became interested in theater and studied at the Academy of the Hofburg Theater in Vienna. Later his interest expanded into the newly burgeoning cinema and he made movies in Germany and Italy with sporadic success.

Pascal had one son, Peter, conceived in Germany during the delirium of a fever with his landlady's sister Elsie. Unable to care even for himself, Pascal fled to Holland. After WWII ended, at last on his feet with the success of Pygmalion and Major Barbara, Pascal rushed to Germany to search for his son Peter, but he was listed among the missing Hitler Youth. Elsie had been killed by a bomb.

Early career[change | edit source]

As a young man, Pascal found a job tending horses in Hungary. Leading the horses through the forest to a stream each day, Pascal developed the habit of riding bareback naked through the Hungarian countryside. One day he accidentally rode stark naked through the outdoor set of a silent movie in production and was "discovered." The film's director asked him to repeat the ride for the cameras and he joined the group. Soon he was making his own movies.

Pascal had another auspicious encounter when he was young while walking along the shore of the Mediterranean. An old man, George Bernard Shaw, was swimming naked holding onto a buoy. A conversation ensued and Shaw dared the young Pascal on the shore to take off his clothes and join him in the water. He was impressed when Pascal immediately did so and this began their friendship. Shaw was impressed with Pascal's youthful enthusiasm for art and his bravado and invited him to come visit him one day when he was entirely broke. This chance meeting was to play a major role in Pascal's later career.

Pascal began his producing career making silent movies in Italy for German distribution through UFA Studios in Berlin. His directorial debut was Populi Morituri in which he also starred. He later produced horror movies in Germany. His most famous was Unholy Tales in 1932. It was an anthology of short spooky stories, including some by Edgar Allan Poe, tied together by the adventures of a black cat and is considered by some to be a forgotten horror classic.

Meher Baba[change | edit source]

In 1933, during a trip to Hollywood, Pascal was contacted by Princess Norina Matchabelli about a movie project based on the teachings of her guru Meher Baba. Pascal got very caught up in this project, bringing movie writers Hy Kraft and Karl Vollmöller into helping him work up treatments and even making a trip to India to discuss the project further with Meher Baba. By the time Pascal arrived in India, however, Meher Baba did not seem in any hurry to complete the movie, saying it could wait and inviting Pascal to live with him in India. Most ordinary men would have been discouraged, but Pascal took energetically to the austere life of an eastern ascetic, even shedding his western garb for eastern clothing.[3] He took a liking to Meher Baba and maintained a correspondence with him all of his life. Meher Baba nicknamed Pascal "Phoenix" and alternately "Panther." [4][5]

Pascal remained in contact with his guru Meher Baba right up to the end of his life and met with him in person one last time in New York in 1952. Even in this final meeting there was mention of the movie that Pascal had agreed to try to make for Baba.

Late career[change | edit source]

In time, however, Pascal's desire to make his mark on cinema returned and Pascal took a ship back to America penniless but undaunted. He landed in San Francisco where he spent some time deciding what to do next. Then it struck him to approach George Bernard Shaw (the most famous living playwright in the English speaking world at the time), whom Pascal had met auspiciously many years earlier. During that earlier meeting Shaw, who had been impressed with the young Pascal's passion for art and cinema, had told him to pay him a visit when he was entirely penniless. Pascal was now exactly that. He then sought out Shaw, first by going to N.Y. hidden in the toilet of the train, then convincing a sea captain to give him a lift to England.

Somehow he did convince Shaw to give him the rights to his plays, beginning with Pygmalion (1938), which was an enormous international hit, both critically and financially. Pascal followed up Pygmalion with Major Barbara (1941) which he directed as well as produced. Major Barbara was filmed in London during the bombing by the Nazis. During air raids the crew and cast had to dodge into bomb shelters. Pascal never stopped the production and the movie was completed on schedule. But Pascal became more and more extravagant, finally losing his credibility with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) which was the most expensive British movie ever made at that time and a terrible financial and critical flop, although it is more highly regarded today. Pascal famously insisted on importing sand from Egypt to achieve the right cinematic colors for this extravaganza. Shaw had become more difficult to work with also. After the success of Pygmalion, which was shortened in its transition from stage to screen, as plays generally are, he increasingly refused to let his plays be cut. The result was that Major Barbara and Caesar and Cleopatra were not only filmed virtually complete, but with additional scenes by Shaw himself. Each of the two movies ran over two hours.

Pascal did manage to produce one more movie, Androcles and the Lion, in 1952. By this time he was increasingly sick with cancer of the liver.

The famous estate trial[change | edit source]

In spring of 1954, in New York City, just before his passing Pascal had planned a trip to India to see Meher Baba one last time. He was having an affair and divorcing his wife at the time. One day he impulsively wrote on a piece of hotel stationery to his mistress, "If I die on my trip to India I leave my entire estate to you." He signed and dated it before two witnesses, a cook and a maid in the hotel who did not speak English but only Chinese. This was an absurd gesture since Pascal was totally in debt. He died within a short time of this letter in July 1954, and within two years of his death the musical My Fair Lady, which Pascal had managed to retain an option on by borrowing money from a Baba follower named Margaret Scott, opened on Broadway. Thus, soon after his death, his estate, which had been worth nothing on his deathbed, grew to an estimated value of two million dollars. There was a large court battle in which his wife Valerie (who he was not fully divorced from at the time of his death) and the mistress fought over his estate. His odd last will and testament on the hotel stationery was entered as evidence in support of his mistress and the case was well-publicized. Several Meher Baba followers were involved in his life at the end including Harold Rudd who testified at his trial. The result of the trial was an even split of Pascal's royalties from My Fair Lady between the mistress and Pascal's estranged wife, each receiving well over one million dollars in settlement. His wife Valerie attempted to pay back the borrowed option money to Margaret Scott, but by the time the settlement came through Mrs. Scott had fallen from a New York apartment window to her death. Valerie therefore paid the money to Margaret's daughter instead.[6]

Legacy[change | edit source]

Pascal is best remembered as one of the big Hungarian movie producers, like the famous Alexander Korda. He was the only producer ever to have major movie deals with seven separate countries on three continents: Hungary, Italy, Germany, China, India, England, and the US. He was also the only man to ever convince George Bernard Shaw to adjust his scripts to the new medium of cinema, gaining concessions from Shaw that no other man could. Pascal even invented the famous line for Pygmalion, later appearing in the theatrical and movie versions of My Fair Lady, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" and Shaw, by now publicly referring to Pascal as a "genius," wrote the line into the script.[7] He was one of the most extravagant men of his time, named in 1938 as one of the world's most famous men by Time magazine along with Adolf Hitler. He is less known for his deep interest in the spiritual and his boundless enthusiasm for art as a direct and honest route to God. He is even less known for his lifelong devotion to spiritual master Meher Baba. His life is well documented in the beautifully written biography by his wife Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil, published by McGraw-Hill in 1970 and republished by iUniverse in 1984. After Pascal's death, Valerie married the famous publisher and philanthropist George T. Delacorte Jr. and spent the rest of her life supporting charitable foundations under the name Valerie Delacorte.

References[change | edit source]

  1. Gabriel Pascal at the Internet Movie Database
  2. Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil, McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 60
  3. Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil, McGraw-Hill, 1970. pp. 69–70
  4. Pascal, Valerie, Ibid, p. 70
  5. Kalchuri, Bhau: Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher, The Biography of the Avatar of the Age, Meher Baba, Manifestation, Inc. 1986. p. 1890
  6. Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil, McGraw-Hill, 1970. pp. 339–356
  7. Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil, McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 83

Other websites[change | edit source]