Pygmalion (1938)

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Movie Info

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller star in Anthony Asquith's and Leslie Howard's classic version of George Bernard Shaw's satiric comedy. Henry Higgins (Howard) is an upper class phonetics professor who encounters low-class guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle (Hiller) and bets his friend Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can pass her off as a duchess within three months. Pickering accepts Higgins' bet, with Eliza readily agreeing to the proposal, since she will get to live in Higgins' fancy home. Once in Higgins' house, Eliza is subjected to intensely repetitive phonetics lessons in an effort to transform her Cockney accent into the speech of proper English. Things are a bit rocky at first, with Eliza blurting out "Not bloody likely" at a tea party. But when Eliza is presented at the Ambassador's Ball, she is not only accepted as a princess but is the talk of the ball, everyone in attendance commenting on her charm, beauty, and poise. Relishing his success, Higgins abruptly dismisses her. But Eliza has fallen in love with Higgins and is aghast at her cursory treatment by him. She tells him, "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else." When Eliza leaves, Higgins realizes that he loves her too, but Eliza has announced to Higgins that she plans to marry high society playboy Freddie Eynsford-Hill (David Tree).

Cast

Wendy Hiller
as Eliza Doolittle
Leslie Howard
as Professor Henry Higgins
David Tree
as Freddie Eynsford-Hill
Wilfrid Lawson
as Alfred Doolittle
Marie Lohr
as Mrs. Higgins
Scott Sunderland
as Col. George Pickering
Jean Cadell
as Mrs. Pearce
Everley Gregg
as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill
Leueen McGrath
as Clara Eynsford-Hill
Esme Percy
as Count Aristid Karpathy
Violet Vanbrugh
as Ambassadress
Iris Hoey
as Ysabel
Viola Tree
as Perfide
Irene Browne
as Duchess
Wally Patch
as Bystander
H.F. Maltby
as Bystander
Stephen Murray
as Police Constable
Leucen MacGrath
as Clara Eynsford-Hill
George Mozart
as Bystander
Ivor Barnard
as Bystander
Kate Cutler
as Grand old lady
Anthony Quayle
as French Hairdresser
Cecil Trouncer
as 1st Policeman
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Critic Reviews for Pygmalion

All Critics (17) | Top Critics (4)

Smartly produced, this makes an excellent job of transcribing George Bernard Shaw, retaining all the key lines and giving freshness to the theme.

Nov 6, 2007 | Full Review…
Variety
Top Critic

A marvelous 1938 adaptation of the Shaw classic.

Nov 6, 2007 | Full Review…

Above all, the film is remarkable in that it strengthens rather than dilutes Shaw's insistence on language as the vital instrument of power and oppression.

Jun 24, 2006 | Full Review…
Time Out
Top Critic

Pygmalion is good Shaw and a grand show.

May 20, 2003 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…

It is all brilliantly amusing and remarkably undated. And there is certainly no cause for complaint about the interpretation of the story and dialogue by the actors. It is flawless.

Feb 7, 2018 | Full Review…

There's something special about this first English film version of George Bernard Shaw's play, before it became a musical

Oct 25, 2008 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Pygmalion

The great original adaptation of Shaw's satiric play, which would be remade as the classic musical My Fair Lady many years later in 1964. Clever and convincing, this version relies on a sharp, well-written dialogue and superb performances by Hiller and Howard.

Carlos Magalhães
Carlos Magalhães

Super Reviewer

½

Fan of the English language? Fancy yourself as your local arbiter for the British vernacular? Well then this adaptation of Shaw's is just your ticket and man how she sparkles, with more wit per scene, per exchange, than a season's worth of 30 Rock. Howard blueprints Higgens for the generations but Hiller imbues Dolittle with such humanity as to shimmer like a jewel.

Kevin M. Williams
Kevin M. Williams

Super Reviewer

It's just very hard for me to take this story as a comedic one. The themes, social commentary, sexual politics, mental manipulation and disturbing physical abuse are so dark that the films lighter moments ring completely false and artificial. I had the same issue with Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita." While you get some great Shaw dialogue, excellent performances from Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard and a decent amount of thought provoking character interaction, the comedy nearly undermines the entire picture. "Pygmalion" is a story (not a film) that fans of films like "Antichrist," "3 Women," "The Servant" etc. will enjoy.

Steven Carrier
Steven Carrier

Super Reviewer

Theatre and film have always had a complicated relationship. Ever since the invention of film they have told each other's stories and borrowed each other's actors. Part of this intermingling spirit remains today, where writers like Peter Morgan and directors like Neil LaBute divide their time equally between stage and screen. But back before the death of music hall and the decline of melodrama, the stage play was a common source of inspiration to budding filmmakers like Anthony Asquith. Pygmalion is the second and finest adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play of the same name. It is superior to both My Fair Lady and She's All That as a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, chiefly because it captures the savage tone of Shaw's writing and gives it equal billing with the central story. This is not entirely surprising, since Shaw was closely involved in the production, but the film is also well-directed by Asquith (assisted by Leslie Howard) and retains both its wit and substance over 70 years on. Where subsequent versions centred round the comic interplay between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, Pygmalion is strongly rooted in the Greek myth and the resulting social commentary. The myth recalls Pygmalion, a man who carved a stone statue of the perfect woman; in moulding something so perfect, he felt in love with the statue and wished it to come alive. After praying to Cupid and Venus his wish was granted, as the statue became a woman, took the name of Galatea and married Pygmalion. Shaw's version substitutes the power of the gods for the power of language. Language is the modern-day equivalent of tools, with which the rich Pygmalions of this world may shape the poor (and by extension women) in something more attractive and flattering of their intelligence. Leslie Howard's character is a professor of phonetics so apt at his art that he can tell an individual's place of birth simply by listening to their intonation. He sees himself as the guardian of the English language, of "Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible", and his duty is to improve the lives of those not blessed with his level of knowledge or confidence. Shaw's Oscar-winning screenplay is saturated with dry wit from the outset, with Howard keeping all the juiciest metaphors for himself. It's difficult not to chuckle when he cruelly describes Eliza as a "squashed cabbage leaf" and asks two lady bystanders to "cease this detestable boo-hooing immediately". But even the most ornate of Higgins' remarks are more than mere rhetoric: they betray the crueller traits of his character, especially the arrogance and self-assurance which form the basis of his 'charitable' conviction. Pygmalion is centrally a satire on what could be called 'the stupidity of intellect'. This oxymoronic term is the blind conviction held by people with wealth and education that it is their duty as citizens to act charitably towards the poor in a way which ultimately reflects well upon them. Shaw, who was an active member of the Fabian Society, is satirising the whole concept of charity, arguing that it is unfair in its distribution of good will, irrational in its determining who deserves it, and self-serving since its outcome is improved reputation for those who give rather than any real benefit for those who receive. Shaw goes further still, suggesting that this attitude leads the rich to become delusional, believing they are constantly right: this is most markedly shown when Higgins' former pupil becomes utterly convinced that Eliza is Hungarian. When Shaw turns his focus to the working man, with his examination of Eliza's father, he is swift to demonstrate the different kind of intelligence such a figure possesses. Neither Shaw nor Asquith want the audience to pity him, showing instead how he can hold his own against Howard and Scott Sutherland while coming across as altogether more humble and rounded as a human being. The working class in this film are not greedy and short-termist: they are, or at least have the potential to be as capable as those of higher standing. Howard remarks on his skill with rhetoric and is just as surprised when he refuses the offer of more money. From this clearly socialist base, Shaw constructs a romantic relationship with a broadly feminist twist. The film addresses the part of the story which the myth does not explore: if the statue has a will of its own after it comes alive, how can it be controlled, and what happens if it has different ideas to its creator? Although Eliza is attentive to Higgins' lessons she retains a strong will and self-belief, even if that self-belief is not expressed in the way that Higgins intended. Her rebellion against his teachings in the final third is not an out-and-out rejection of civilised society, but of the ends which that society serves. She remarks how Higgins will always see her as a flower girl while to Colonel Pickering she is always a lady. Even if you aren't prepared to soak up all this social satire, Pygmalion is still wonderfully funny as a comedy of manners. The scene of Eliza having tea with Higgins' mother and friends is a classic farce, and Eliza's responses are almost painful to watch (in a good way). This and the scenes of Eliza's lessons are technically accomplished, thanks in no small part to the presence of a young David Lean in the editing suite. The montage of Higgins instructing Eliza late into the night is funnier and more efficient than the drawn-out lessons in My Fair Lady, and such sequences prevent the film from becoming theatrical in the manner of Murder!. In its final third, however, Pygmalion begins to ramble and lose sight of what made the opening hour so captivating. The driving force for the satire shifts from the language spoken by the characters to the character of Eliza herself: she becomes something of a mouthpiece for Shaw, losing some of her unique nature as a result. Howard co-directed sections of the film and in this period his lengthy tirades begin to seem tiresome. The biggest problem, however, is the ending. As early as 1914, Shaw had to fight to keep his great original ending in which Eliza runs off with her admirer Freddy, leaving Higgins a broken and frustrated man. As is so often the case, the producers opted for a happy ending which would see the characters romantically reconcile and sweeten the bitter pill for paying audiences. Having presented Asquith with a compromise, which showed Eliza saying a romantic farewell to Higgins, Shaw was incensed when producer Gabriel Pascal secretly reshot the final scene. It still feels unsatisfying, though it is less unsatisfying than any version that followed it. Once we disregard the ending, Pygmalion remains a thoroughly enoyable film. It is an admirable take on the original play lifted by the central performances of Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, who would later excel in Powell & Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going!. It is funnier and more enjoyable than My Fair Lady, and unlike Asquith's later work The Millionairess it keeps its eye on the ball and delivers the satirical goods. Above all it is an efficient and technically adept piece of storytelling, which hints at the future promise of both its director and director-in-waiting.

Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

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