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George Bernard Shaw was very wary about allowing his movies to be
filmed. He had seen movies by other famous writers and dramatists
thoroughly rewritten for the screen, and thoroughly wrecked as a
result. So the greatest English speaking dramatist of the 20th Century
held off from any involvement with motion pictures into the 1930s. Then
he met Gabriel Pascal. Mr. Pascal was thoroughly honest. He admitted he
did not have a cent to his name, but he also admitted a desire to
produce all of Shaw's major plays as movies exactly as Shaw wanted them
shown. Shaw was impressed and made an agreement giving Pascal a
monopoly on all his plays for movie making. In return, Shaw was to be
involved in the productions.
It turned out to be a remarkably small but fruitful partnership. Of the over fifty plays of Shaw's output (not to mention several novels), only four were produced by Pascal. They are PYGMALION (1938), MAJOR BARBARA (1940), CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945), and ANDROCLES AND THE LION (1952). They are all good films, and the first three have reason to be considered great. Shaw died in 1950, so he was not there to see (after Pascal's death) the decline in standards of films based on his plays - such as Otto Preminger's brave attempt at ST. JOAN, and the wretched THE MILLIONAIRESS with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren.
PYGMALION was a good choice for the first of the series, probably as it was the most popular comedy by Shaw. It was also one of the most controversial plays because of the problem that bedeviled the original production of 1914 and has effected it ever since: how is it supposed to end? Will Higgins and Eliza put aside their differences and admit they love each other and come together at the end?
Shaw clearly felt that Pygmalion Higgins and Galatea Doolittle were doomed not to end in an embrace. He wanted the audience to be left thinking of Eliza as one of the 20th Century's "New Women", who is independent and strong, not just a piece of weak clay to be kneaded by an artistic and overpowering male ego. In the dialog (which he uses in the play and in the movie script) Shaw insisted that Eliza favors Freddy Eynesford-Hill over Higgins because Freddy is a weakling. All her life she has been dominated by strong men (first her father Alfred, then Higgins, and (although he is kinder) Col. Pickering). Freddy is the first one to show his need for guidance and help - he is shown at the beginning of the play as little better than a servant for his mother and sister, getting them a cab in the rain.
But Shaw did not have an easy time with this view. The play was produced by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, one of England's leading stars of the Edwardian and Georgian stage (he was brother of critic and writer Sir Max Beerbohm, and his son David Tree plays Freddy in this film version). Beerbohm Tree felt that there was a real romance between Higgins and Doolittle, and insisted on playing it like that, to the point of throwing a bouquet of flowers to Eliza as she is leaving. Shaw was furious at this, and wrote a seven page afterword which (mercifully) is never read at productions. I saw Peter O'Toole as Higgins in 1988, with Amanda Plummer as Eliza, Lionel Jeffries as Pickering, and the late Sir John Mills as Alfred Doolittle, and the play ended on the right note of uncertainty wanted. It did not have a thin, bearded actor as Shaw coming out to read the afterward.
In this afterward, Shaw said that Eliza learns from the brutal Higgins he is a confirmed bachelor devoted to his mother (an interesting psychological point there that another play could have been built from). She does marry Freddy, and (as Higgins had sneered) things are tough - though not due to Freddy being unfaithful but that he is not very sharp. But Col. Pickering helps them set up a florist business, and after awhile it prospers. Clara Eynesford-Hill (whose character is barely developed in the play or on the screen) does become a friend of the socialist and novelist H.G.Wells. Alfred Doolittle, after getting speech lessons from Higgins, becomes a popular speaker and writer on social issues. As you can see, Shaw's anger got the better of him.
Shaw was convinced by Pascal (for business reasons) to soften the conclusion, by showing Eliza fleeing Higgins in Freddy's car, Higgins walking alone through London to his home, slamming the door of his study, causing the phonograph to go on, playing a record of Eliza's old voice talking. As he sits with head in his hands, Eliza shows up at the door, turns off the machine, and starts talking as on the record. But Higgins realizes it is her, although he does not turn around. He sits back with a happy, if smug expression on his face, pulls his hat down over his eyes, and says (shot from his back to Eliza), "Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?" It is suggestive of a meeting of two souls, but it leaves it still in the air. It is superior to that idiotic afterward.
George Bernard Shaw won his only Oscar for a screenplay for PYGMALION. It is a brilliant play and script, given top notched direction by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, with Howard giving one of his three top performances in it as Higgins - ably matched by Wendy Hiller as Eliza and Wilfred Lawson as Doolittle. And it's conclusion was so good, it was kept by Learner and Lowe for MY FAIR LADY on stage and screen.
While My Fair Lady was a tremendous film which is a pleasure to watch and rewatch, Pygmalion is the true cinematic version of Shaw's work and this version is brilliant. While I still have mixed feelings about the Henry-Eliza relationship and the play ending, it has to be said that the two leads here are perfect for their roles. There were not many British actors better than Howard at the time for this type of thing, and Wendy Hiller never disappointed her audience once in her long career. A good film full of detail and feeling. The one sticking point is the weak and feeble Freddie who at least was given a personality in MFL. Here you can't wonder that Eliza is so quick to discard his attentions. A film which should be celebrated and treasured more in the UK than it is.
George Bernard Shaw wrote the play "Pygmalion" in 1912 and 1913 as
part-social protest, part-satire, part-comedy of manners. Its central
character, Henry Higgins, a London teacher of elocution and expert in
regional phonetics, makes a small wager with his friend and colleague,
Colonel George Pickering, that he can take a waif from the streets, one
Eliza Doolittle, and pass her off as the cream of the social crop.
Using a pedagogical technique consisting mostly of inhumane badgering
and humiliation, he manages to pull off the feat with unexpected
success but at an emotional cost he does not foresee.
Besides the inventive montages illustrating Higgins' transformation of Eliza from Cockney flower-girl to the statuesque, gowned beauty who's mistaken for a royal princess at a diplomatic reception, there are additional items that failed to materialize in Shaw's original the use of the phrases, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains" and "Hurricanes hardly happen in Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire," both of which later became lyrics for Lerner and Lowe's musical version. And in the play, Higgins's irritating Hungarian nemesis is not given a name; here, for the first time, he is dubbed "Kaparthy."
Leslie Howard, who co-directed this 1938 film, impersonates Higgins as hard-core realist - diabolical, profane, impatient, sometimes maddening. And as Eliza, Wendy Hiller has her coy moments, particularly when she is "tried out" at a tea party given by Higgins's mother. Her carefully high-toned enunciation of "the new slang" is timed to perfection.
The film, unfortunately, leaves one with the feeling that at the story's conclusion - with Higgins quietly demanding to know from Eliza the whereabouts of his slippers - both student and mentor "live happily ever after." This contrived ending must have been a compromise on the part of the producer, Gabriel Pascal, although one finds it mystifying that Shaw, who is credited with the story's adaptation, would have ever endorsed such a sentimental ending. For as Shaw had written at the end of his play over two decades earlier, "the rest of the story need not be shown...if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the...reach-me-downs of the rag shop in which Romance keeps its stock of happy endings..." The playwright then proceeded into seven pages of prose, describing an epilogue in which Eliza married the worshipful young suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and the generous Colonel Pickering set up the newlyweds in their own business near Victoria Station. As for any relationship between Higgins and Eliza, according to Shaw, "(to this day) he storms and bullies and derides; but she stands up to him so ruthlessly that the Colonel has to ask her from time to time to be kinder to Higgins." As is the aftermath of most good stories, the worm indeed did turn.
With Wilfrid Lawson as Eliza's father, Alfred; Scott Sunderland as Pickering; and David Tree impersonates the shallow but inoffensive Freddy in high style. (He would do the same with the role of Charles Lomax three years later in "Major Barbara.") If the American schleps and male-pushovers that Ralph Bellamy used to play in "The Awful Truth" and "His Girl Friday" ever had a British cousin, David Tree was it; he did the upper-class twit better than anyone.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What a joy: all the witty pleasure of "My Fair Lady" without the
tiresome bursting into song. Lovely as that production certainly was,
beautifully as it was restored, I find I much prefer the rapid-fire dry
wit of this 1938 production of George Bernard Shaw's 1916 play.
The story is a satire on class and language: two linguists bet cynically on the transformation of a Covent Garden flower seller into a fine lady through speech and appearance alone. Bent on immediate success, they fail to consider the consequences, and their once-unwashed protégée teaches them the casual selfishness of their act. (* * small spoilers from here * *) It's also a rather modern romance, though I've read that Shaw hated this aspect of it and tried hard to neuter the theatre-goers' burgeoning castle in the air, through an afterword. It clearly didn't stick, which is why "My Fair Lady" got made and remains the much-adored classic it is today. Poor old Shaw I don't feel very sorry for him, though: I'm romantic too.
Leslie Howard's wonderfully eccentric and flawed Professor Higgins soon had me hanging on his every word, snorting with laughter as line after memorable line came rattling out at classic 30's/40's breakneck speed. I'm British and have at least one eccentric uncle, and I can testify that his portrayal isn't at all over the top. His alternately adoring and despairing mother treats him with weary tolerance; but she's kinder than he is; less wilful and less blind like his friend Colonel Pickering. But with Higgins' many faults come great wit and intelligence, penetration, a constant challenge to anyone who cares to meet him half way.
But in an intensely class-conscious England where one minutely 'knew one's place', for all his boastful assertions, he's part of the same rigid social system that is more 1888 than 1938. He goes to the embassy balls, he knows just what to wear, he delights that his protégée is "talking to a Duchess"; and his magnificently arrogant and idle "you might marry, you know I daresay my mother could find you someone" is something he'd never have said to a woman he truly thought of as an equal. But their need is symbiotic: for her to leave him, and make him recognise her as an equal, she needed his education.
I love the point where she articulates to him how she sees their relationship. The camera, having previously been very British (i.e. it thinks it's still at a play, fixed-distance, unswerving), suddenly swoons vertiginously close to Eliza while she tells him how much she loved being with him "all friendly-like", and not because she wanted him to 'make love to her'. The camera switches back to Higgins, forced off his guard by this unexpected honesty and quiet dignity. "That's exactly how I feel", he says, and then, after a baffled pause, "and .Eliza you're a fool." Only that's exactly what at that moment she isn't: and we all know it. It's a crucial moment in the film: it's funny and sad, and so is this story, really, whichever ending you choose (Shaw's, or the film's, or any ending the viewer wishes to dream up).
And Wendy Hiller! I'd never before known of her as a sparkling young actress. Of course she doesn't have that pearly, matinée beauty she has something better: the way emotions wash across her face; bright eyes and high cheekbones and a fleeting, occasional beauty that disappears when you look too hard for it. Hiller herself, I believe, had elocution lessons, and her Eliza's transformation is never absolutely entire: you always know that she's playing a part beautifully which of course is just what 'well-bred' people are themselves carefully trained to do - look no further than the Queen for a modern-day example of this. Even innate poshness doesn't equip a girl sufficiently to 'carry yourself off' as a Duchess, or a 'consort battleship' as Higgins charmingly puts it. No wonder Shaw himself championed Hiller. I've been loving watching her lately in Powell & Pressburger's outstanding 1945 "I Know Where I'm Going!" I defy Shaw: I think they do love each other, but not with swirly-music romantic love. Theirs is more like the relationship of two artists, two dominant personalities who will fight a great deal, but may just produce great work, if they can stay together without cracking. For once, the cosy doors into the future are opening, not closing, and the future is unknown. Shaw's scenario was I think a signpost to the world we now live in, where Britain claims to be a meritocracy, nurturing its class awareness on the sly; and where the traditional sanctity of marriage is giving way to something more fluid and egalitarian.
Shaw's brilliant play is expertly filmed by Howard and Asquith. Howard is perfectly cast as the snobbish Professor Higgins and is matched by Hiller, in her second film, as Eliza Doolittle. The fine supporting cast includes Sunderland, Lawson, and Lohr, who's terrific as Mrs. Higgins. It is difficult to make a bad film of this work, given Shaw's witty dialog, but film performance is different from stage performance, with film calling for more subtlety. The love-hate relationship between the professor and Eliza works wonderfully because Howard and Hiller provide the right combination of humor and humanity. Howard's role here is in sharp contrast to the wimpy Ashley the following year in "Gone with the Wind."
Even if I had not yet seen this film I'd have had good reason to assume its
merit simply because George Bernard Shaw, as cantankerous and protective of
his work as he was, liked it. But I have seen it, many times, and that only
validates that conclusion.
Leslie Howard not only starred in it but co-directed as well, and accomplished both magnificently. His rapid-fire intensity, conveying the true overbearing Higgins using Eliza as if she were "a block of wood," to quote, to be sawed, hewn, nailed, drilled and pounded into an object to his liking, is wonderfully complemented by Wendy Hiller's Eliza, bringing us to understand the full range of her growth from the depths of her imprisonment in the class of the street vendor barely escaping mendacity by selling flowers to a real princess, not by royal birth, but by her strength and accomplishment. Higgins may like to claim credit for her transformation; but it's Eliza who really made it happen.
There's a lot said here comparing Pygmalion to My Fair Lady. That's really a classic apples-and-oranges fallacy. Musical theatre is an entirely different art form, with a different goal. It's clear that if this interpretation of Pygmalion had been duplicated with songs and dances tacked on, it would have been horrible; yet My Fair Lady is a triumph of its art. It's often called a musical adaptation. That's mistaken; it's "based on" Pygmalion. The nature of musical theatre requires a different approach. To evaluate either by the standards of the other is a waste of time and thought.
Shaw would undoubtedly have hated MFL; his revulsion for Romanticism and the failure of The Chocolate Soldier, the operetta based on Arms and the Man, would guarantee that. MFL is not a musical Pygmalion, and should never be mistaken for one.
It is a great tribute to the genius of George Bernard Shaw and his best-known play that it could spawn both this artful and powerful movie version and a greatly different and beautiful musical as well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Gabriel Pascal's production of G.B Shaw's acclaimed play is an
excellent film adaptation, staying true to it's source material and
Shaw's original intentions. It's a lot more faithful to Shaw's vision
and less romantic and 'Hollywood' than the later re-working, 'My Fair
Lady', which is probably the better known of the two films.
This succeeds because the casting is perfect. Leslie Howard was never better as Higgins, he seems to be really enjoying his role here. Wendy Hiller makes a great Eliza, much better than Audrey Hepburn, in my opinion. Hepburn was simply too glamorous for the role, and when she played the Cockney flower girl (with THAT accent) it is thoroughly unconvincing. Hiller's unconventional beauty and air of the natural, the normal, suits the role. She is very believable, as is Howard.
It also succeeds because it is kept so...how can I put it...English! I'm not English myself (a proud Aussie, thank you), but when these sorts of plays and novels are committed to the screen, they should be as faithful as possible, and that includes the casting and sets. 'Pygalmion' succeeds in looking, and feeling, very English indeed.
Shaw's interest in phonetics and the 'science of speech' is interestingly conveyed, as is Eliza's position. Do these two men (Higgins and Pickering) have any claim on this lowly guttersnipe flower-girl? No, you say. But who does, and does anyone care either way? It's an intriguing play and a very good film.
Highly recommended 9/10.
Professor Henry Higgins (Lesley Howard) is an arrogant bachelor professor of
phonetics who bets with his rich friend Colonel George Pickering (Scott
Sunderland) that he is able to transform the cockney accent of the simple
low class seller of flowers Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) in a British
accent that would make high class people believe that she is a duchess. This
story is one of the most delightful in the cinema history. Based on a book
of Bernard Shaw, this was the first time I watched this 1938 version, and I
found it marvelous. The cast has an outstanding performance. I am Brazilian,
but it seems to me that the cockney pronunciation of Wendy Hiller is
perfect. I intend to watch today again `My Fair Lady', a musical and fancy
version of this story for comparison. My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil): `Pigmalião' (`Pygmalion')
After seeing Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins, there is no way I could find
Rex Harrison half as appealing, with his chanting/singing, in My Fair Lady.
Leslie Howard simply is Henry Higgins, and if he seems unappealing and
unlikable, that's because he's supposed to be unappealing and unlikable --
Henry Higgins is not a nice man. Howard does an incredible job with the
role, and Wendy Hiller's Eliza puts Audrey Hepburn, as lovely as she is, to
If George Bernard Shaw thought that Howard's interpretation of his play was good, then who are we to argue?
The nice thing about watching the screen version of Pygmalion is that
having seen My Fair Lady and heard the original Broadway cast album a
few thousand times, you know where the songs are supposed to go.
And you know the plot. There's a little more of George Bernard Shaw's social commentary about class in this one, but still we enjoy the romance of the man falling in love with his creation.
Leslie Howard is cast very much against type here. The romantic idealist that was Alan Squire or Ashley Wilkes, there's no trace of here. Professor Henry Higgins is one misanthropic fellow, a man who's disdained the social class mores of the pre-World War I, United Kingdom. But he's no social crusader. He's taken up the esoteric study of language and phonetics and on a bet with Colonel Pickering, boasts he can obliterate class lines for any subject by teaching proper speech.
And who's the subject, cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. Someone who Higgins opens a new world for and after the wager is finished, just can't go back to what she was.
As in My Fair Lady, the funniest scenes are Eliza trying to master the English of the Oxford Dons. We don't get the Rain in Spain here, sung and danced as Eliza breaks through, but it's still the part I like the best.
Shaw's commentary about class distinctions come out of the mouth of Alfred P. Doolittle. Wilfrid Lawson's ideas about morality may very well make him the most original moralist in the English speaking world. The poor just can't afford them and he's driven kicking and screaming into the middle class with a sudden burst of luck. Think Mickey Rourke in Barfly, forced to clean up his act for the sake of convention.
Pygmalion introduced Wendy Hiller to the screen as Eliza Doolittle. It's a difficult part as Eliza evolves in front of us. Quite a revelation for Leslie Howard also.
Hiller of course would be another Shavian heroine in Major Barbara, another great role for her. Howard, sadly, never got a chance to tackle George Bernard Shaw again. I could see him as Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra or Cusins in Major Barbara.
Even without the songs, Pygmalion can be seen and enjoyed by all.
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