Bernard Shaw’s popular comedy, about a phonetics professor who makes a bet that he can turn a street person into a lady, was given near perfect form in a 1938 movie starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.
Bernard Shaw wrote over sixty plays in his long career, most of which were intended as provocations to the conventional wisdom of the time. Arguably his most popular play was Pygmalion, written in 1913. I assume that many of you know about it, but I can safely say that the vast majority of people are more familiar with a musical based on it called My Fair Lady.
The story concerns Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics who can tell where anyone in England is from, just from their accent. Encountering a rude Cockney flower seller named Eliza Doolittle, he makes a bet with a friend that he can train Eliza to talk like a noble lady, and pass her off as one in society. Promising her a more affluent situation, he takes her into his home, and the resulting conflict between the two constitutes the main body of the story.
Now, as entertaining as My Fair Lady is, being a musical means that it romanticized its source and softened the content. The play was a biting satire on social class and snobbery. Its title comes from a Greek myth in which a sculptor named Pygmalion falls in love with one of his statues, and it comes to life. So a central theme here is the foolishness of a man like Higgins, who molds the outside of a woman to be what he wants, but never really understands or appreciates her as a person.
Pygmalion was made into a film in 1938, starring Leslie Howard as Higgins and a relative newcomer, Wendy Hiller, as Eliza. It was directed by Anthony Asquith, and Leslie Howard, who was passionate about this role, also acted as the film’s co-director. A team of fine screenwriters adapted the play under the supervision of Shaw himself. The result is an absolute delight, one of the universally acknowledged masterpieces of British cinema.
Wendy Hiller was chosen by Shaw because she had played the role on the stage. She’s a perfect Eliza, a coarse guttersnipe whose contrast with the sophisticated Higgins is a delicious comedy in itself.
Now, I know some who don’t think much of Leslie Howard because of his weak performance in Gone with the Wind, made a year later. But Pygmalion shows him at his best, superbly conveying his character’s self-assurance and charisma. Higgins’ mean side is not concealed—the arrogance of the upper class mentality is one of the main points of the play—but at the same time, Shaw’s dialogue for him makes him a compelling critic of the society of which he’s a part. Howard dominates the film almost like Higgins dominates Eliza, but the brilliance of the play lies in how Eliza confounds expectations with her native cleverness.
Howard and Hiller are a sensational couple on screen. We’ve gotten used to assuming that Professor Higgins will fall for his creation, just like in the Pygmalion myth. But whatever you can say about Bernard Shaw, he was never sentimental. The play goes against our expectations. The film, however, manages to play it both ways in its touching, satisfying, and believable ending. Pygmalion is a movie treasure that I can’t do without.