Described by Halliwell as ‘a perfectly splendid Shavian comedy of bad manners’, the adaptation of Shaw’s play, supervised by the Great Man Himself (who got an oscar for the screenplay), is a witty but serious study of patriarchy and the power of language. Regarded as Anthony Asquith’s first great film, Pygmalion also provided a young Wendy Hiller with her first starring role.
UK 1938, 96 minutes
George Bernard Shaw was always reluctant to have his plays made into films. The two that had been filmed in the early 1930s had not been hugely successful: Halliwell called Arms and the Man ‘faithful but uninspired’ (perhaps because Shaw wouldn’t tolerate any alterations to his dialogue); he dismissed How He Lied to Her Husband as ‘of historical interest only’. But producer Gabriel Pascal persuaded Shaw that Pygmalion would make an excellent film, and promised solemnly that not a word would be changed.
In the end quite a lot was changed, although Shaw always had the last word. Anthony Asquith, who was entrusted with the direction, even persuaded Shaw to write additional scenes – after Mrs Shaw had insisted that the Grand Old Man listen to his suggestions. The collaboration was such a success that Shaw received an Oscar for the screenplay, even though it was far from being all his own work.
The story is well-known: Professor Higgins, professor of phonetics, accepts a bet that he can take Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower-seller, and within six months turn her into a lady. He has no magic wand: Eliza’s transformation from a ‘heap of stuffed cabbage leaves’ is frustrating for him and painful for her. Shaw thought Leslie Howard ‘too tender’ for the part of Professor Higgins; he thought Charles Laughton more suitable to bend Eliza to his will. He conceded that ‘the public will like him and probably want him to marry Eliza, which is just what I don’t want’. Pygmalion, he insisted, was not a love story, but a study of patriarchy, class and the power of language in upholding the status quo, in assigning everyone to their place and making sure they stay there.
The film launched Wendy Hiller’s screen career and made Asquith one of the highest-paid film directors in Britain. It was edited by David Lean, who also did passably well later on. Even Halliwell liked it, describing it as ‘one of the most heartening and adult British films of the thirties’. While funny, entertaining, and very popular, Pygmalion is streets more radical and a lot harder than My Fair Lady, the musical based on it. Fifty years after Shaw’s death we’ve come a long way; we’re told that we now have equality of the sexes and that we live in a classless society. Some aspects of Pygmalion are from another world, but much is still horribly familiar.
Professor Higgins: Leslie Howard
Eliza Doolittle: Wendy Hiller
Directors: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
Producer: Gabriel Pascal
“Fascinating and far more enjoyable than ‘My Fair Lady’!”
“If only we could make films like this in the 21st C. And many thanks for B+W photography”
“Pity about the ending! But a lovely film”
“Much better than My Fair Lady!”
“Very faithful to an excellent play – until the final ?”
“Delightful. Leslie Howard in glasses like a young Michael Caine” (Editor’s note: Michael Caine in the remake – could be the casting idea of the millennium)
“Wears well – and still relevant”
“Not at all stagey, so fluid”
“footage of Bernard Shaw: great cast, shame about the plot”