Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Pygmalion (1938)
Directed by
Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
Screenplay by George Bernard Shaw, from his play
Starring Wendy Hiller, Leslie Howard, Wilfred Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, David Tree.
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a perfectly good movie is overshadowed by its remake. And when the remake is both a classic of musical theater and film -- a glossy color film that was really at the peak of Hollywood's adaptations of Broadway musicals -- well, your small black and white film with an actress who is no longer well known has little chance.

But Pygmalion deserves better. At the very least, it owns one bit of trivia: it won an Oscar for its screenwriter, George Bernard Shaw.  Yes, that Shaw.

When the film was being conceived, Shaw's reputation was secure as  England's greatest living playwright, with a Nobel Prize to prove it. Naturally, film producers wanted to make movies of his plays, but Shaw was reluctant. Eventually, producer Gabriel Pascal convinced him to give a try, promising Shaw creative control.

Shaw took over, writing the screenplay and insisting that his favorite actress, Wendy Hiller, play the part of Eliza.  Hiller was primarily a stage actress, but one of her roles had been Eliza, and she was a perfect choice.

I don't have to summarize the plot; I'm sure you all know it. Leslie Howard was cast as Henry Higgins, with Wilfred Lawson as Eliza's father.

Henry Higgins puts marbles in Eliiza's mouth.  The movie sticks with Shaw's play (of course)*.  And Hiller is just wonderful as Eliza. What really sticks out is a terrific scene when Eliza is first introduced -- not at the Ascot races, as in My Fair Lady -- but to a small gathering including Freddy Einsford-Hill (David Tree).  Eliza has the diction down perfectly, but has a bit of a problem making small talk.

LIZA [darkly] My aunt died of influenza: so they said.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [clicks her tongue sympathetically]!!!
LIZA [in the same tragic tone] But it's my belief they done the old woman in.
MRS. HIGGINS [puzzled] Done her in?
LIZA. Y-e-e-e-es, Lord love you! Why should she die of influenza? She come through diphtheria right enough the year before. I saw her with my own eyes. Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [startled] Dear me!
LIZA [piling up the indictment] What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL. What does doing her in mean?
HIGGINS [hastily] Oh, that's the new small talk. To do a person in means to kill them.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [to Eliza, horrified] You surely don't believe that your aunt was killed?
LIZA. Do I not! Them she lived with would have killed her for a hat-pin, let alone a hat.

This exchange** is made even funnier by Hiller's delivery as she talks about the dark deeds in the upper class accent that Henry Higgins has worked so hard to develop.  She is absolutely a joy to watch.  And, as a footnote, her line "Not bloody likely!" was the first time that particular epithet was spoken in a film.

The movie was a success, of course.  Hiller was nominated for an Oscar but lost*** and Shaw won.  He spoke disparagingly about the award, but evidently kept it in a place of honor in his home.

Of course, the success of My Fair Lady put Pygmalion in the shadows.****  A full-scale version, in color, with big names obliterated the memory of the original play.

One point was the ending.  Shaw -- an early feminist -- didn't like the idea of Liza ending up with Henry Higgins in the end.  He wrote an ending where walks out on Higgins (with an implication that she might marry Freddy), and what that disappointed audiences looking for a more conventional -- and romantic -- ending, wrote an essay explaining that she married Freddy and was miserable. Even though he had control, the director tacked on a short scene where Eliza came back at the end.  I actually think that today Shaw's ending makes a lot more sense.

In any case, the movie was overshadowed by the glossier Hollywood musical.  That's a shame, since


*As did the musical, for that matter; there is much dialog in Pygmalion that shows up again in My Fair Lady.

**In the play, but not in My Fair Lady.

***She did win a Best Supporting Actress award in 1958 for Separate Tables.

****The musical was originally considered seemed unlikely to be a hit. The idea of turning Shaw -- a playwright of ideas if ever there was one -- into a Broadway show was taking a big chance.  So much so that the producers, looking for money, turned to CBS and asked them to back the show in exchange for the rights to the original cast album for their Columbia Records division. It worked out pretty well, as the album sold for decades and the musical set records.

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