Wednesday 1 July 2020

Movie Review: Pygmalion (1938)

A romantic drama and comedy, Pygmalion provides sharp commentary on classism and the battle between the sexes.

In London, linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) encounters poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) at Covent Garden. Her coarse language and unrefined pronunciation agitate his senses. Higgins boasts to his colleague Colonel George Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that with three to six months of training he can pass Eliza off as a duchess.

The next morning she shows up at his doorstep, reluctantly willing to undergo the transformation. Soon her father Alfred (Wilfrid Lawson) appears, looking for a few pounds in return for giving up his daughter. With intensive effort Eliza makes progress, and Higgins introduces her to his mother (Marie Lohr) while local gentleman Freddy (David Tree) falls in love with Eliza at first sight. The big test looms at a gala event hosted by the Ambassador of Transylvania.

An adaptation of the 1913 George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion boasts a witty, dynamic script, clashing characters, multiple attractive settings and brisk pacing. The British production is co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Leslie Howard with an eye on revealing the superficial differences separating England's classes. The film gently mocks both upper class haughtiness and working class contentment, with only Eliza possessing the courage to test the divide.

With class differences rumbling from the first scene, the film's longer arc concerns men and women, and particularly Higgins' brand of narcissistic masculinity blocking his path towards finding love. Howard (looking younger than his 45 years) brings an uncompromising edge to the role of a stubbornly confirmed batchelor refusing any accommodation in his approach to life. Shaw creates a genuinely difficult-to-like character at the middle of a would-be romance, both frustrating narrative conventions and challenging Eliza's commitment.

Her quest becomes doubly difficult: to self-improve and seep into Higgins' expertly defended heart. Wendy Hiller is up to the task in a touching and defiant performance, starting in the gutter and culminating with an understanding of what it really takes to thrive. Eliza's climactic dilemma is to decide on a future path, and the film's final act and tentative ending cannot disguise the hard work required to close the gap between two strong personalities.

Beneath the frequent sparring, Pygmalion carries an admirably gentle spirit, representing Shaw's optimism about British society's essence. Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins are immediately welcoming and respectful towards Eliza, and they both offer a refuge away from the caustic Higgins. Even Freddy looks well past Eliza's rough edges and allows love to consume him.

Shaw co-wrote the Academy Award winning script, which was subsequently the basis for the 1956 musical play My Fair Lady and the lavish 1964 Hollywood treatment. The 1938 version may lack the celebratory musical panache, but the astute words speak for themselves.

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