Pygmalion (1938)

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  • directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard
  • starring Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfred Lawson, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell
  • Shaw’s play in which a Victorian dialect expert bets that he can teach a lower-class girl to speak proper English and thus be taken for a lady.

“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”

This light-hearted indictment on the British class structure of the times was the first of many of George Bernard Shaw’s plays to hit the big screen and the introduction for many to his classic character Eliza Doolittle who I’ll later see in 1964’s My Fair Lady. Shaw handpicked the unknown Wendy Hiller for the film and she wore her many hats very well. She was so convincing as the cockneyed flower girl that I could only make out about 10 percent of what she was saying. Between that and Higgins’ lightning-fast quips, I regretted that I didn’t have a subtitle option at points.

The relationship between Eliza and Professor Henry Higgins throughout Pygmalion takes on many forms: scholar and street urchin, scientist and sample, teacher and student, friends, and finally, perhaps something more. I’ve learned since watching that there are more than a couple of different endings to Shaw’s play that have at one time or another floated around the stage and screen. I think I would’ve preferred the less-than happy ending option. There is so clearly a tacked-on scene at the end that exists only to put a shiny bow on top. It wasn’t needed and I’d say ruined much of Eliza’s journey into her own woman on her own terms.

Through these different iterations of Eliza and ‘Enry ‘Iggins, there is a constant balancing act at work between smart dialogue, comedy, and drama. Shaw obviously had an expert hand at providing humor just as the story was approaching its darkest points, often due to a mispronounced word or language confusion by Eliza. There was one point at the very culmination of an argument, though, where Higgins delivered a particularly searing insult to Eliza, took a swing at her, and just when it spelled certain doom for their relationship, he turns and trips up the stairs heels over head. Whether it was the sheer Britishisms of the stuffy, tea-time class, Mr. Doolittle’s travels through the social strata, or the two leads’ excellent and subtle physical comedy abilities, there was always some kind of a light touch nearby ready to employ.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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