Pygmalion (1938) Poster


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"Woman! Desist this detestable boo-hooing immediately!"
LouE152 June 2008
Warning: 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.
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Shaw's One Academy Award
theowinthrop14 May 2005
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.
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not My Fair Lady ...
didi-512 January 2001
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.
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By George, they got it the first time...
nk_gillen2 June 2004
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.
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Superb Shaw
kenjha8 April 2006
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."
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Is This Film Any Good? Bloody Likely!
Jem Odewahn23 May 2006
Warning: 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 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.
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They don't get much better than this one.
kelly_r_198315 July 2007
Nearly 70 years later the Gabriel Pascal "Pygmalion" still sets the bar for film adaptation of a stage play. So much so, in fact, that the GBS incorporated many of the film's upgrades into the authoritative published version of the play, despite the play being more than 20 years old when the film was made.

When was the last time you saw a performance leap off the screen like Leslie Howard's as Professor Higgins? Shaw never saw such treatment on screen again, even under Pascal's hand. The film of "Major Barbara" is interesting (and a bit bizarre toward the end) in its own right, with some magnificent bits in the Act II homeless shelter and a heart-wrenching Wendy Hiller, but pales next to the stage version in its intellectual, political and dramatic depth. And all the rest, even the charming "Caesar and Cleopatra" with Raines and Leigh, just don't cut it compared to the plays.

"Pygmalion" is where any screenwriter needs to start in adapting a play for the movies. No one has done it better since.

(BTW, GBS's afterward to "Pygmalion" is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, I think. It's intentionally ridiculous, so that the mob clamoring for a romantic ending would realize just how inappropriate and uninteresting that would have been.)
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One of the greatest of all British films.
ted puff8 October 1999
Perfect cinema. That was my reaction when I first saw Pygmalion, the first of 50 viewings and counting, and I still think so. Who could not fall in love with Leslie Howard, one of our greatest actors, so tragically assassinated in the Second World War? Wendy Hiller IS Eliza. The cast is flawless. The script... words fail me, for George Bernard Shaw was a genius, he did not simply adapt his play for the screen, it is so good that it is like it's happening before your eyes. My God, after seeing this is there anyone out there who thinks 'My Fair Lady', the slowest film musical on record, is the best screen version of Shaw? If they do, they are mad.

That film moves me not one jot, everything is so clean, so smug, so unreal. Here we see poverty, but also hope. These are not actors and actresses moving through the sets garbed in Cecil Beaton, but real people, real suffering, but humanity lights every scene like a beacon. The unbearably moving scenes of Eliza capturing society at the ball, the irresistible waltz, watch this with no tears in your eyes, I dare you. Halliwells Film Guide calls this 'one of the most heartening and adult British films of the thirties'. Too right. I cannot fault this film, it is priceless. By the way, I saw 'My Fair Lady' on stage recently, and it's miles better than the film version. Warner Bros really let Shaw down, and it's impossible to put it right. But this...well it is a big compensation. And I don't miss the songs one little bit.

There are so many classic scenes I can't pick any out. Of course viewers will spot that it was 'updated' to 1938, and the original play set in the Edwardians. That doesn't hurt it at all, 'polite' society didn't change much in the intervening years and gives the play an added 'contemporary' edge. Please, please, please see this film. You will be gripped.
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Flawless film by Shaw shows what Shakespeare did
sissoed21 December 2008
Warning: Spoilers
In the mid-1990s I followed the "Shakespeare authorship question." One of the "doubters" of the traditional "Man from Stratford" was one of the stars of this movie, Leslie Howard (Prof. Higgins).

One of the "authorship" arguments is how could a commoner from the country, in a society when the noble elite were so closed-off against such people, have known so much about the inner life of the noble class as to be able to present -- to an audience of nobles -- noble characters that convinced them that the characters were authentic.

In 1938's "Pygmalion" Prof. Henry Higgins takes a lower-class cockney girl, Eliza Doolittle, and transforms her into a young woman who can pass so convincingly as a member of the upper class that she can fool a ballroom full of real nobles at an embassy reception.

What Henry Higgins is doing is creating a fictional noblewoman whom real noblemen and women will accept as one of themselves.

Which is exactly what Shakespeare was doing: creating fictional noble characters whom, when presented to an audience of real nobles, would be accepted by those nobles as one of themselves.

And what was the most difficult problem Higgins faced? Stripping away from Eliza errors born of ignorance of how members of that class act in their private encounters: actions and words and behaviors erroneous for a person born and bred to a status of nobility.

There is a scene in which Higgins introduces Eliza to a social group of the upper class for the very first time. It is a tea afternoon hosted by his mother. It is soon apparent that while Eliza has learned vocabulary and diction, the subjects she introduces to speak about, and the facts of her life and relatives that she reports, expose her as not of the upper class. It is her errors that expose her.

Higgins thereupon embarks on a detailed program of teaching her the proper substance and content of what it is to be upper class. Watch Higgins as he teaches Eliza how to curtsy and dance without errors, as he orders the right hair-dressers and the right dress-makers and rents the right jewelry. He makes no errors that expose the fiction. He knows how to curtsy and dance and the hair and clothes and jewels because he was born to the class in which people curtsy and dance. This is the key point: he is able to do this only because he himself is a born member of that class. Only a born member of the class will have the innate, instinctive, detailed knowledge to identify every single moment when Eliza goes off-character and does or says something, or does or says it in a particular way, that will expose her as a false, fictional character, not noble, not even upper class.

This is what Shakespeare knew. Shakespeare presented dozens of noble major characters (and including minor characters, hundreds) to an audience of real nobles. He did, dozens and dozens of times, what Henry Higgins in Pygmalion did but once. And his noble characters had no betraying errors, were always accepted by nobles as authentic nobles. Not once did he present a noble character who rang false. Shakespeare never did this with lower-class characters; they are all caricatures. He had to have been born to the noble class in order to create fictional nobles whom real nobles would accept as real.

Writers who try to create fictional characters who are part of the same real-world social class or group as the intended readers of the novel, or audience members of the play, are acutely aware of the danger of ignorantly including in the character elements that make the character ring false, as not really being part of the intended class or group that comprises the readership or audience. They fear making errors such as did Eliza Doolittle in her tea with Henry Higgins' mother. Professors and others who have never attempted to create a fictional character who can pass as real in an elite milieu do not realize the difficulty and danger of humiliating failure in this effort.

The problem is particularly insurmountable when the real-world group of which the fictional character is supposed to be a part happens to be, in the real world, socially exclusive and closed-off to outsiders. In the world of Henry Higgins, the upper-class Higgins is able to conduct research among the lower-classes because the lower-classes are exposed, in public, in the streets. But a lower-class person could never do the reverse, and conduct research among the upper-classes, because the upper-classes are protected by buildings and servants. A lower-class person cannot get any proximity to them to observe them as they speak and behave, unless voluntarily admitted by an upper-class person, and even then that access will be limited by the boundaries set by the upper-class person who has given admittance.

A writer who presents -- to an audience of earls and dukes -- a private conversation between an earl and a duke, must be a writer who knows what things are NOT said and NOT done in such conversations, in order to present a conversation that convinces real earls and dukes. That is what it takes to pass-off an Eliza Doolittle to nobles as a noble herself -- as portrayed in the grand climatic ball.

Now when I watch the ball scene, and see Eliza enter the room, ascend the stairs, and convince real duchesses and nobles that she is, in fact, a Hungarian royal princess, under the escort and gaze of Henry Higgins, I feel I am seeing Shakespeare escorting and watching one of his own fictional nobles advance into the gaze and evaluation of real nobles, there to find acceptance by them as one of their own.
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Good, and definitely not My Fair Lady
rutabega3 October 1999
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 shame.

If George Bernard Shaw thought that Howard's interpretation of his play was good, then who are we to argue?
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