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.