Bright Lights Film Journal

Anthony Asquith’s Pygmalion (1938) on DVD

Wendy Hiller triumphs in the fine 1938 film of Shaw’s masterpiece

The plays of George Bernard Shaw have long been a cinema staple. Works like Caesar and Cleopatra, Saint Joan, Major Barbara, Pygmalion, et al. have appeared in all kinds of incarnations, from cheesy TV movies to classic Hollywood musicals. Pygmalion has proved one of the most enduring, revived in several countries and genres, most recently in the 1999 Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle She’s All That. While lack of availability of some versions must color our judgment – who knows what Kanske en gentleman (Sweden, 1951) or the TV series Pigmalião 70 (Brazil, 1970) are really like? – most fans would agree that two versions outshine all comers: Anthony Asquith’s Pygmalion and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady. Asquith’s film has often been overshadowed by Cukor’s, but the release of Pygmalion in a mostly fine DVD transfer (minimal speckles and grain) shows that it has its own interest and identity apart from the beloved musical version.

The film’s director, Anthony Asquith, was no stranger to Shaw or the theatre. His career, starting in 1928 with Underground and ending in 1964 with The Yellow Rolls-Royce, is studded with prestige adaptations of plays, from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) to two others by Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma (1959) and The Millionairess (1960). A careful craftsman and, happily for Shaw, a faithful interpreter of a proven quantity, Asquith was an ideal choice for Pygmalion. He and Leslie Howard (who plays Henry Riggins) are listed as codirectors, but it’s generally agreed that this is classic Asquith – superior performances, strong narrative, polished look. The list of collaborators is among the era’s best: David Lean (editor), Harry Stradling Sr. (cinematographer), and Schiaparelli (costumes).

The film opens on one of London’s crowded streets, gorgeously rendered in Stradling’s velvety blacks and whites. These streets are the marketplace for garrulous gamine Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), who ekes out a living selling flowers to wealthy slummers. Higgins is one of these slummers, loitering among the lower classes to sharpen his skills at identifying people’s home and history by their dialect. He brags about these skills and, in a fit of hubris, claims he could transform even a “guttersnipe” like Eliza into a “duchess” by revamping her language. To his surprise, she takes him seriously, showing up unannounced at his mansion and offering him a shilling to teach her “manners” and good speech. Financed by his friend Colonel Pickering, he agrees to do this. What follows is all manner of comic mayhem, and no small amount of class cruelty, as Higgins tortures Eliza into a pastiche of the upper classes and she transforms him equally, into a human being with feelings.

Shaw, a lifelong socialist, believed class was a social construct, easily fabricated and just as easily toppled, and he used his play in part as a bully pulpit to target the rich. Thus Higgins, who might have been treated as a mere eccentric in the hands of another author, becomes a paradigm of upper-crust creepiness, capricious and bullying in his attempt to wring a duchess out of the “sodden cabbage leaf” Eliza. He presages in a lighter vein James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, though admittedly the latter’s attempt to transform the trashy Judy (Kim Novak) into the regal, mysterious Madeleine is a far more grim and vicious process. Asquith’s faithfulness to Shaw pays off beautifully here, giving full play to the author’s counterpointing of Higgins’ complex mix of genius and juvenility with Eliza’s engaging blend of innocence and street-smarts. Asquith lets the actors make the most of Shaw’s superb dialogue. Howard, for example, clearly relishes his verbal assaults on Eliza. Even in their first meeting on the street, he practically glows when referring to her “curbstone English, the English that will keep her all her days in the gutter.” Later he gleefully ratchets up the insults: “She’s so deliciously low, so horribly dirty. I shall make a duchess of this draggle-tail guttersnipe.” And he offers a hilarious caution that if she fails in the experiment they’ve embarked on, “Your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls.”

Of course, as Eliza changes, so does Higgins. Her lingering presence in his house, the first in the self-professed woman-hater’s history, inspires Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Jean Cadell) to set down new rules for her employer: no swearing, no walking around in a dressing gown. Pygmalion becomes almost as much Higgins’ story as Eliza’s, as the professor’s amusement at the success of his experiment gives way to a quite unexpected melancholy at the idea of her departure from his house and his life.

In spite of his fidelity to the play, Asquith can’t be accused of merely transferring Shaw’s original to celluloid with no cinematic intervention. He handles Eliza’s transformation with aplomb in a montage that cleverly intercuts scenes of Higgins upbraiding her with otherworldly images of the bizarre accoutrements of his laboratory – a sinister laughing clown, giant plaster ears – which looks more than a little like the lair of a mad scientist. The film also brings to life scenes originally played offstage, most memorably Eliza’s second public test at a grand ball in which she meets the queen and mesmerizes everybody in sight.

One of the best scenes is the allegedly overhauled Eliza’s first encounter with a drawing room full of rich people. Still not entirely divorced from her “gutter” origins, she regales the group with absurdly stilted declarations about the weather (“In Hampshire, Hereford, and Hartford, hurricanes hardly ever happen!”), then lapses into penny-dreadful tales of murderous husbands and aunts “done in” by gin. At her second encounter, the grand ball, she’s polished to the point of muteness, and can now fool everyone with ease. Later, in a poignant moment, she renders the normally babblesome Higgins speechless when she quietly affirms her humanity at the expense of his: “I sold flowers … I didn’t sell myself.”

Performances, always a strength in an Anthony Asquith film, are uniformly fine, but the standout is unquestionably Wendy Hiller. With one of the great faces in classic British cinema and a charisma almost alarming in an actress only 25 when the film was shot, she evokes both the rough Eliza and the nouveau Miss Doolittle with scintillating power. Her riveting performance in Pygmalion made her an international star and is the standard by which all future Elizas must be judged.