Pygmalion (1938)

Directed by Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
Written by George Bernard Shaw

The story of Pygmalion may not be known to many when presented as simply as “what is Pygmalion?”. In my experience, at least, most people are not overly familiar with Greek legends, myself included. For those that are, I applaud you because I know there are some great myths and legends. Having taken four years of Latin, I am familiar with a few Roman gods and their myths/legends, and I know the Greek ones are similar, but like most I’m sure, I was introduced to the legend of Pygmalion, not by this film, but by another: My Fair Lady. It is interesting to note that these two films are both based on the George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the screenplay for this film, play of the same name: Pygmalion.

It is a modern day interpretation of the legend of Pygmalion, who took a sculpture of his ideal woman and brought it to life. In this case, the story is set in what is turn of the century England and Pygmalion is essentially Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), who is a phonetics/dialect whiz. When he encounters a cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), he makes a bet with Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can transform this common gutter girl into a Duchess, or at least pass her for one within the high society world of London. But when the two actually start working together, it appears they are working towards two different ends, and coming from two different worlds.

What works here is simply that it is a great story. The fact that it comes from a Greek legend tells you that the story is timeless in and of itself. It is always relevant as there have always been social classes and always been desires of mankind to prosper and be correct. They do not wish to fail, it is human nature. At the same time humans strive to be loved and to matter in the world in which they live. George Bernard Shaw does a fantastic job of bringing that story to the screen, and I can only assume he did the same to the stage play, which I have not seen. But it is further testament that this story would later be adapted again in the great, highly successful film My Fair Lady. But I shall try to end comparisons there and simply talk about the 1938 iteration of the tale.

What works best here has to be the acting. Wendy Hiller, the newcomer of the bunch, does a great job as Eliza Doolittle. The role of Eliza, I imagine, has a lot to do with being able to get the accents down and going from cockney into high, proper English. It would be an accomplishment just to do that as well as Hiller, but she also delivers an endearing performance by infusing such humanism into the downtrodden, yet bright and hopeful Eliza, found in the gutter by a man who thought he could win a bet by using her. Leslie Howard is also perfect as the somewhat shallow and, unbeknownst to him, evil and conniving Professor Higgins. These two central performances, and their chemistry on screen sell the ideas and emotions that make the story click.

The montage scenes of Higgins teaching Eliza are great little snippets, but apart from that there is no t much on a technical basis at which to marvel. In fact there are a few awkward looking shots that perhaps were composed in hopes of creating an interesting visual and it simply did not end up working out that way. But overall the story is just too good for the film not to be. Okay, I lied, I have to compare. I still prefer Audrey Hepburn as Eliza and My Fair Lady better overall, but I give the edge to Howard over Rex Harrison as the Professor, and like I said before, Hiller and the film overall are just really good, so by picking one over the other I am by no means degrading the wonder of the other.

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