Director: Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard
Screenplay:George Bernard Shaw, scenario by W.P. Lipscomb & Cecil Lewis (based on theplay by G. B. Shaw)
Stars: Leslie Howard (Prof. Henry Higgins), Wendy Hiller (Eliza Doolittle), Wilfrid Lawson(Alfred Doolittle), Marie Lohr (Mrs. Higgins), Scott Sunderland (Col. Pickering), JeanCadell (Mrs. Pearce), David Tree (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Everley Gregg (Mrs.Eynsford-Hill), Leueen MacGrath (Clara Eynsford-Hill), Esme Percy (Count AristidKarpathy)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1938
Country: UK
Pygmalion Poster

When George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" first premiered on the London stage in 1914, itcaused 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 verypeople 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 beturned into a proper lady. In Shaw's view, Cinderella didn't need a magical fairy godmother tomake her fit for the ball; rather, all she needed were language lessons and instruction inproper manners.

The theme of the play and its 1938 film adaptation (as well its musicalization in "My FairLady") is borrowed from an ancient Greek myth about Pygmalion, a sculptor who hatedwomen until he carved a statue of a woman with which he fell in love. Pygmalion asked thegoddess Venus to make him a woman just like the statue, but Venus instead turned the statueinto flesh and blood.

Shaw updated the myth by moving the story to modern (early 20th century, that is) Londonand turning the sculptor into a smug, self-satisfied professor of phonetics named HenryHiggins (Leslie Howard). Prof. Higgins is a contented bachelor who is more than happy toremain preoccupied with his own academic interests. His principal area of study is speechpatterns and dialects, and he is able to place a person's origin anywhere in London simply bylistening to him speak. Although a member of the upper class, Higgins has nothing butcontempt for the world in which he lives, and he has little interest in maintaining social gracesor impressing others.

One night, he takes a bet that he can train a flower girl from Covent Garden to act like a ladyin a way that will fool the most elite members of the British upper class. His work inprogress--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 lovewith 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 andEliza the student, and the way in which they continually talk around the obvious. Eliza playsthe role of the good student, and Higgins the part of the dutifully insolent teacher, but you canalways sense much more boiling beneath the surface.

At times, Higgins' condescending tone and patriarchal bullying is almost painful to watchbecause it becomes all too obvious that he has maintained his insulated life by denying thehumanity of others. In the film's final scenes, Eliza confronts Higgins about this, and it issomething of a miracle that the story is resolved with an appropriately upbeat, romanticconclusion that still allows Higgins to maintain his character. To have forced him to suddenlychange would have been a cheat because men like Higgins don't change, at least not insweeping terms. Rather, others learn how to deal with him.

"Pygmalion" was co-directed by Anthony Asquith, one of the original founders (along withShaw) of the London Film Society, and star Leslie Howard. Asquith and Howard give thefilm a light touch and a smooth tempo. Despite the heavy reliance on dialogue, it is hard to tellthat 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 theaddition of Eliza's triumphant performance at the embassy ball, which in the play was anoff-stage event. Shaw turns this into one of the film's brightest moments, with Eliza stunningthe 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 AristidKarpathy (Esme Percy), one of Higgins' former phonetics students. Karpathy is even morearrogant than Higgins regarding his ability to place people by their speech patterns, andHiggins 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 flawlesslycast (both Howard and Hiller were nominated for Oscars). Howard, who was already anestablished star in both England and the United States, plays the role of Prof. Higgins with adelicate balance between his often-rude impertinence and his undeniably charming wit. Onecan easily imagine how Higgins could become an overbearing lout if played wrong, butHoward gets it just right in every scene.

Wendy Hiller, in her first screen role, is just as good. Writing in "The New York Times" in1938, critic Frank S. Nugent referred to Hiller as "a Discovery," and noted in a parentheticalaside, "She deserves the capital." It is hard to deny that Hiller does deserve that capital D, asher performance is first-rate in every manner, both comedic and dramatic. One of the funniestscenes in the film rests entirely on her shoulders, as she first attempts to pass herself off asupper class at tea party at Higgins' mother's house. Dutifully pronouncing her "h's" as shedeclares, "In Hampshire, Hereford, and Hartford, hurricanes rarely ever happen," she thenslides into a hilariously misplaced monologue about her tough upbringing with an alcoholicfather, all of which is spoken with the deliberately practiced pronunciations of a true Englishlady.

In scenes like this, you can almost hear Shaw laughing as he mocks the pretensions of theEnglish upper class. Of course, if that were all the film had to offer, it would be a one-notesatire. But, Shaw knows better, and he uses the satire as a vehicle through which he canexplore the characters of Higgins and Eliza. Although Shaw was quite vocal about hisintentions for "Pygmalion" to be an instructive exercise in pointing out the foibles of rigidclass distinctions, the film ultimately wins your heart not because of the social lessons itoffers, but because of the truthfulness of its human relationships.

Pygmalion: CriterionCollection DVD

AudioDolby Digital1.0 Monaural
Supplements None
DistributorTheCriterion Collection / Home Vision

The digital transfer of "Pygmalion" in its original aspectratio of 1.33:1 was made from the 35-mm composite fine-grain master struck from theoriginal 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 ofdetail and a nice contrast. There is still a small amount of speckling from time to time, butnothing that is out of the ordinary for a film of this age. There are a few instances in whichinsert shots are of noticeably lesser quality than the shots surrounding them. These aremarred by a noticeable amount of grain and a subsequent lack of detail. However, this onlyhappens a few times, and the overall image is quite beautiful.

There are a few instances of background hissing at the verybeginning of the disc's Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack, but the rest of it is virtuallyfree of any distortion or signs of age. The soundtrack, despite being mono, often displays anice range and sense of detail. A good instance is in Chapter 8 when Eliza has tea atHiggins' mother's house. During part of the scene, all dialogue ceases and everyone sitsaround a table, stirring his or her tea. The soundtrack does an excellent job of rendering allthe tiny nuances of the sounds of half a dozen stirring spoons daintily clinking against thetea cups.

No supplements are included.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

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