Screenplay : George Bernard Shaw, scenario by W.P. Lipscomb & Cecil Lewis (based on the play by G. B. Shaw)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1938
Stars : Leslie Howard (Prof. Henry Higgins), Wendy Hiller (Eliza Doolittle), Wilfrid Lawson (Alfred Doolittle), Marie Lohr (Mrs. Higgins), Scott Sunderland (Col. Pickering), Jean Cadell (Mrs. Pearce), David Tree (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Everley Gregg (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Leueen MacGrath (Clara Eynsford-Hill), Esme Percy (Count Aristid Karpathy)
When George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" first premiered on the London stage in 1914, it caused something a scandal. And why not? While not an overtly activist piece of theater, "Pygmalion" did have a lesson that came at the expense of the British upper class, the very people who were most likely to go see it.
Namely, Shaw was out to prove that class distinctions are purely social constructs. Thus, there is nothing inherently superior about the members of the upper class, and in "Pygmalion" Shaw illustrated this by showing how a flower girl from the gutter could be turned into a proper lady. In Shaw's view, Cinderella didn't need a magical fairy godmother to make her fit for the ball; rather, all she needed were language lessons and instruction in proper manners.
The theme of the play and its 1938 film adaptation (as well its musicalization in "My Fair Lady") is borrowed from an ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion, a sculptor who hated women until he carved a statue of a woman with which he fell in love. Pygmalion asked the goddess Venus to make him a woman just like the statue, but Venus instead turned the statue into flesh and blood.
Shaw updated the myth by moving the story to modern (early 20th century, that is) London and turning the sculptor into a smug, self-satisfied professor of phonetics named Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard). Prof. Higgins is a contented bachelor who is more than happy to remain preoccupied with his own academic interests. His principal area of study is speech patterns and dialects, and he is able to place a person's origin anywhere in London simply by listening to him speak. Although a member of the upper class, Higgins has nothing but contempt for the world in which he lives, and he has little interest in maintaining social graces or impressing others.
One night, he takes a bet that he can train a flower girl from Covent Garden to act like a lady in a way that will fool the most elite members of the British upper class. His work in progress--his statue--is a determined young woman named Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller). Of course, just as Pygmalion fell in love with his statue, Prof. Higgins eventually falls in love with Eliza, although he is much too presumptuous of his own independence to ever admit it. One of the joys of "Pygmalion" is the flawless interplay between Higgins the teacher and Eliza the student, and the way in which they continually talk around the obvious. Eliza plays the role of the good student, and Higgins the part of the dutifully insolent teacher, but you can always sense much more boiling beneath the surface.
At times, Higgins' condescending tone and patriarchal bullying is almost painful to watch because it becomes all too obvious that he has maintained his insulated life by denying the humanity of others. In the film's final scenes, Eliza confronts Higgins about this, and it is something of a miracle that the story is resolved with an appropriately upbeat, romantic conclusion that still allows Higgins to maintain his character. To have forced him to suddenly change would have been a cheat because men like Higgins don't change, at least not in sweeping terms. Rather, others learn how to deal with him.
"Pygmalion" was co-directed by Anthony Asquith, one of the original founders (along with Shaw) of the London Film Society, and star Leslie Howard. Asquith and Howard give the film a light touch and a smooth tempo. Despite the heavy reliance on dialogue, it is hard to tell that this is an adaptation of a play. It lacks the stiffness that mars so many stage adaptations.
Shaw, who adapted his own play with additional help by W.P. Lipscomb and Cecil Lewis, expands his story to better fit the screen. The biggest change from stage to screen is the addition of Eliza's triumphant performance at the embassy ball, which in the play was an off-stage event. Shaw turns this into one of the film's brightest moments, with Eliza stunning the distinguished guests with her grace and nobility as Higgins eagerly watches his "masterpiece" in action. Shaw also adds comedy and suspense in the form of Count Aristid Karpathy (Esme Percy), one of Higgins' former phonetics students. Karpathy is even more arrogant than Higgins regarding his ability to place people by their speech patterns, and Higgins begins to worry that he will discover the truth about Eliza.
Shaw's dialogue is uttered with sheer perfection by the actors, all of whom were flawlessly cast (both Howard and Hiller were nominated for Oscars). Howard, who was already an established star in both England and the United States, plays the role of Prof. Higgins with a delicate balance between his often-rude impertinence and his undeniably charming wit. One can easily imagine how Higgins could become an overbearing lout if played wrong, but Howard gets it just right in every scene.
Wendy Hiller, in her first screen role, is just as good. Writing in "The New York Times" in 1938, critic Frank S. Nugent referred to Hiller as "a Discovery," and noted in a parenthetical aside, "She deserves the capital." It is hard to deny that Hiller does deserve that capital D, as her performance is first-rate in every manner, both comedic and dramatic. One of the funniest scenes in the film rests entirely on her shoulders, as she first attempts to pass herself off as upper class at tea party at Higgins' mother's house. Dutifully pronouncing her "h's" as she declares, "In Hampshire, Hereford, and Hartford, hurricanes rarely ever happen," she then slides into a hilariously misplaced monologue about her tough upbringing with an alcoholic father, all of which is spoken with the deliberately practiced pronunciations of a true English lady.
In scenes like this, you can almost hear Shaw laughing as he mocks the pretensions of the English upper class. Of course, if that were all the film had to offer, it would be a one-note satire. But, Shaw knows better, and he uses the satire as a vehicle through which he can explore the characters of Higgins and Eliza. Although Shaw was quite vocal about his intentions for "Pygmalion" to be an instructive exercise in pointing out the foibles of rigid class distinctions, the film ultimately wins your heart not because of the social lessons it offers, but because of the truthfulness of its human relationships.
|Pygmalion: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The digital transfer of "Pygmalion" in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 was made from the 35-mm composite fine-grain master struck from the original negative, and it was further restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The results are generally very good, with a clean, sharp image that offers a high level of detail and a nice contrast. There is still a small amount of speckling from time to time, but nothing that is out of the ordinary for a film of this age. There are a few instances in which insert shots are of noticeably lesser quality than the shots surrounding them. These are marred by a noticeable amount of grain and a subsequent lack of detail. However, this only happens a few times, and the overall image is quite beautiful.|
|There are a few instances of background hissing at the very beginning of the disc's Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack, but the rest of it is virtually free of any distortion or signs of age. The soundtrack, despite being mono, often displays a nice range and sense of detail. A good instance is in Chapter 8 when Eliza has tea at Higgins' mother's house. During part of the scene, all dialogue ceases and everyone sits around a table, stirring his or her tea. The soundtrack does an excellent job of rendering all the tiny nuances of the sounds of half a dozen stirring spoons daintily clinking against the tea cups.|
|No supplements are included.|
©2000 James Kendrick