Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pygmalion (1938)

Leslie Howard as Professor Higgins, putting marbles in
the mouth of his pupil, Eliza (Dame Wendy Hiller) 
Followers of this blog will know that I have a very high regard for My Fair Lady, but many of you will not guess that I am equally fond of the 1938 version of Shaw's Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Dame Wendy Hiller.

In fact the very reason I like it so much is because it's so very unlike its 1964 musical remake. Although My Fair Lady is excellent from a musical standpoint and does a fairly good job of sticking to Shaw's original play, it has some distinct flaws. The first of these is that Rex Harrison's portrayal of Prof. Henry Higgins is a fairly one-note performance as the brilliant but misanthropic scholar. Because of this and because of the fact that he spends half the play bellowing, Audrey Hepburn's Eliza has to become screechy herself just to stand up to him.

After watching Rex Harrison's pained performance since early childhood, the discovery of Leslie Howard's wonderfully nuanced and understated Higgins was an absolute delight to me. Whereas Harrison comes off as half-spiteful, half willfully ignorant of the pain he causes others, Howard is a true absent-minded professor. When he flouts a social conventions, he does it not so much because he holds it in contempt as because his mind is so far-removed that he really does forget them. At the same time, though, he can be harsh and manipulative enough for Eliza to lose her temper in rather a spectacular fashion.

The minor characters in this version are also much different from their Lerner and Lowe counterparts. Instead of being a dewy-eyed romantic, Freddy feels more like a member of P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club, a simple-minded good-ol'-boy. Eliza's father also. feels like less of a schemer and an obstinate social heretic than a lazy reprobate.

I refrain from a plot synopsis because I assume that it's well known enough to be redundant. I will, however, add that Bernard Shaw actually wrote the screenplay for this film, which means that it remains true to his vision for it. It ends the same way as Lady, which is a departure from the original stage drama, but since it's instigated by the actual playwright, I don't really have a problem with it. In fact, as I said before, since Leslie Howard's Professor Higgins is so much more likable in this version, it's much easier to see Eliza coming back to him in the first place.

The only thing that purists might find trying about this film is that it's set in the '30s instead of the turn-of-the-century. Thankfully this doesn't cause any anachronisms from the dialog, so I end up excusing that choice, especially because I absolutely adore 1930s frocks.

I give this film a 8.2 out of 10, an overlooked gem of a picture.

Buy from Amazon
Pygmalion (Enriched Classics Series)

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