4 June 1894|
Arad, Austria-Hungary (now Romania)
|Died||6 July 1954
New York City
Caesar and Cleopatra
|Spouse(s)||Valerie Pascal [born: Hídvéghy Valéria, Hungarian]|
A follower of Meher Baba, Pascal was the first film producer to successfully bring the plays of George Bernard Shaw to the screen. His most successful production was Pygmalion, for which Pascal received an Academy Award nomination as its producer. Later adaptations of Shaw plays included Major Barbara (1941) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).
Pascal was born during June 1894 in Arad, Austria-Hungary (now Romania). Pascal coined his own name and his real name remains unknown. Pascal's early life is shrouded in mystery. He claimed to have been an orphan taken from a burning building as a child and raised first by Gypsies before being taken away to an orphanage. He also claimed that the Gypsies taught him to beg, steal, and do acrobatic tricks. 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 Holíč, Hungary, by a mysterious Jesuit priest. Pascal, who was decidedly unfit for military life, became interested in theater and studied at the Academy of the Hofburgtheater in Vienna. Later his interest expanded into the newly burgeoning cinema and he made films in Germany and Italy with sporadic success. Becoming teetotal at an early age, he smoked cigars prodigiously, later provoking admonishments from George Bernard Shaw that he would ruin his voice.
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 the Netherlands. After WWII ended, Pascal visited Germany to search for his son Peter, but he was listed among the missing Hitler-Jugend. Elsie had been killed by a bomb.
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. A much older 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 comedies in Germany. His best known was the dark comedy Unheimliche Geschichten (Uncanny Stories) in 1932, directed by Richard Oswald. The story is a merging of Edgar Allan Poe's The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Black Cat with Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club. It is considered by some to be a forgotten horror classic of the early talkies.
Meher Baba and India
In 1934, during a trip to Hollywood, Pascal was contacted by Princess Norina Matchabelli (wife of the perfume manufacturer) about a film project based on the teachings of Meher Baba. Pascal became very interested in this project, bringing 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 film, saying it could wait and inviting Pascal to travel 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. He took a liking to Meher Baba and maintained a correspondence with him for the rest of his life. Meher Baba nicknamed Pascal his "Phoenix" and alternately his "Black Panther." Pascal was one of the few people Meher Baba named as a genius, a short list which included Friedrich Nietzsche and the Dutch filmmaker Louis van Gasteren.
Pascal remained in close correspondence with his master Meher Baba right up to the end of his life and met with him for the last time in Scarsdale, New York in 1952. Even in this final meeting there was talk of films that Pascal had planned to produce for Meher Baba. Thirty years before Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi, Gabriel Pascal had a written agreement with the prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru to produce a movie of Gandhi's life.
Collaborations with Shaw
In time, however, Pascal's desire to make his mark on cinema returned and Pascal took a ship back from India 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, 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 New York City 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 tried to convince Shaw to let Pygmalion be turned into a musical, but the outraged Shaw explicitly forbade it, having had a bad experience with the operetta The Chocolate Soldier (based on Shaw's Arms and the Man). He was though the only man to 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 line for Pygmalion (later utilised by Lerner and Loewe in the musical version, 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. He was named in 1938 as one of the world's most famous men by Time magazine along with Adolf Hitler and the Pope.
Pascal followed Pygmalion with Major Barbara (1941) which he directed as well as produced. Major Barbara was filmed in London during aerial bombing by the Nazis. During air raids the crew and cast had to dodge into bomb shelters. Pascal never stopped the production and the film was completed on schedule. But Pascal became more and more extravagant, Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), the next Pascal film of a Shaw play, was the most expensive British movie ever at that time, and a big financial and critical flop. Pascal insisted on importing sand from Egypt to achieve the right cinematic colors for the film. Shaw had become more difficult to work with. After the success of Pygmalion, which was shortened in its transition from stage to screen, he increasingly refused to let his plays be cut.
Shaw's praise of him became ever more extravagant. He wrote in 1946:
Gabriel Pascal is one of those extraordinary men who turn up occasionally – say once in a century – and may be called godsends in the arts to which they are devoted. Pascal is doing for films what Diaghileff did for the Russian Ballet. . . He shocks me by his utter indifference to cost; but the result justifies him; and Hollywood, which always values a director in proportion to the money he throws away, is now at his feet: for he throws it away like water. The man is a genius: That is all I have to say about him.
Pascal managed to produce one more movie, Androcles and the Lion (1952), but by this time he was suffering from cancer. Pascal 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 USA.
Death and estate trial
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. Pascal had told his wife Valerie (Hídvéghy Valéria) that he would leave her millions.
He died within a short time of this letter in July, 1954. Momentarily reviving from a coma, Pascal's last words were, "I see". Within two years of his death the musical My Fair Lady, which Pascal had managed to retain an option on by borrowing $7000.00 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 $2,000,000 as the movie rights for My Fair Lady (which was filmed in 1964) were also quickly optioned. There was a large court battle in which his widow Valerie (from whom he was not fully divorced 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 widow, each receiving well over one million dollars in settlement.
His widow Valerie attempted to pay back the borrowed option money to Margaret Scott, who had also paid off Pascal's debt to his mistress and his hospital bills. However, by the time the settlement came through Scott had fallen from a New York apartment building window to her death, just two years after Pascal's. Valerie therefore paid the money to Margaret's daughter instead. After Pascal's death, Valerie married the publisher and philanthropist George T. Delacorte, Jr. and spent the rest of her life supporting charitable foundations (under the name Valerie Delacorte). The Disciple and His Devil, her biography of Pascal, was published by McGraw-Hill in 1970 and reissued by iUniverse in 2004.
- Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 60
- Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 64
- Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 67
- Pascal, Valerie, The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 70
- Pascal, Valerie. The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 69-70
- Pascal, Valerie. Ibid, p. 70
- Kalchuri, Bhau. Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher, The Biography of the Avatar of the Age, Meher Baba. Manifestation, 1986. pp. 1890
- Awaken Magazine, Volume 18 Number 1, 1978
- Kalchuri, Bhau. Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher, The Biography of the Avatar of the Age, Meher Baba. Manifestation, 1986. p. 3877
- See Pascal, Valerie (1970). The disciple and his devil: Gabriel Pascal, Bernard Shaw. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-595-33772-9. Page 219 states that "Nehru had given his consent, which he confirmed later in a letter to Gabriel: 'I feel... that you are the man who can produce something worthwhile. I was greatly interested in what you told me about this subject [the Gandhi film] and your whole approach to it."
- Pascal, Valerie. The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. p. 83
- George Bernard Shaw & Gabriel Pascal. Meeting at the Sphinx. MacDonald & Co., 1946, Prologue
- Pascal, Valerie. The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. pp. 339-356
- Donald P. Costello. The Serpent's Eye, Shaw and the Cinema. University of Notre Dame Press, 1965.
- Marjorie Deans. Meeting at the Sphinx—Gabriel Pascal's Production of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. London: MacDonald & Co, 1946.
- Bhau Kalchuri. Lord Meher: The Biography of the Avatar of the Age, Meher Baba. Manifestation, 1986.
- Valerie Pascal. The Disciple and His Devil. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. Reprinted by iUniverse in 2004. ISBN 0-595-33772-4
- Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal. Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal (Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw). Bernard F. Dukore (Editor). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8020-3002-5