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With: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell, David Tree
Written by: George Bernard Shaw, W.P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis, based on a play by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 95
Date: 08/01/1938

Pygmalion (1938)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Making Ms. Right

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the great atrocities of the American cinema is 1964's My Fair Lady, which I prefer not to blame on star Audrey Hepburn or director George Cukor. Their own personal styles did not fit that monstrosity of overspending and bad taste. Rather, I like to believe that Cukor and Hepburn, given better circumstances, would have come up with something more like Pygmalion (1938), which has recently received a first-class DVD release by the Criterion Collection.

Like My Fair Lady, Pygmalion has been falsely perceived as a romantic comedy. It's difficult while watching My Fair Lady to see what playwright George Bernard Shaw's intentions were, what with the gaudy production numbers and the endless running time. But Pygmalion does let one get closer to the truth; that it's really a biting social satire, somewhere along the lines of Neil LaBute's recent In the Company of Men (1997).

Shaw himself adapted the screenplay of Pygmalion (and won an Oscar for it), and so he was able to leave the ending, where Eliza Doolittle runs back into the home of Henry Higgins, a little more ambiguous. The last line, from Higgins, "Where the devil are my slippers?" lets us know everything we need to know about their relationship. In this form Pygmalion can still be viewed as the satire it was meant to be.

The story is pretty familiar: Higgins makes a bet that he can pass off a lower-class flower girl as royalty simply by teaching her how to speak and act. Shaw's point is that class distinctions are very easily blurred. All one needs to do is speak differently... and not even in another language. Of course there's more to it than that. There are clothes and manners to be arranged as well. But those are just as easy to come by. The other point that Shaw makes is that the respectable and presumably wealthy Higgins is nothing less than a monster. He is rude, selfish, and snide. Why would anyone want to join a class that manufactures this, Shaw seems to be asking us. In the end, the story basically destroys the fabric that makes up the class system in England.

Leslie Howard stars as Higgins, and also co-directed with Anthony Asquith. The wonderful Wendy Hiller (later in Powell & Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going!) makes her film debut as Eliza. It's not clear as to who--between Asquith and Howard--directed what. Neither director made any other film as accomplished as this, so there's nothing to really go by. We can assume, though, that Howard monitored the performances while Asquith dealt with the setups. Both the performances and the filmmaking are tops. The play moves along forcefully and unassumingly, and we forget that we're watching a play, even though much of the action takes place in one room.

I suppose it's the absolute skill with which both Howard and Hiller play their parts that this story can be mistaken for a romance (after all--there has to be something to get butts in the seats). Howard is an absolute marvel, using his eyes to convey his slightest victories or annoyances. His delicate body is wrapped up in either tuxedos or bathrobes with equal carelessness. Hiller is just about the equal of Audrey Hepburn in her charm, and she moves from "guttersnipe" to high-class easily.

Kudos to the Criterion Collection for deeming Pygmalion a worthy release when My Fair Lady certainly would have been more profitable for them. Though the movie is an undisputed classic (I was unable to find a single negative word about it from any reviewer) it is virtually unknown in the shadow of its horrible offspring. The DVD is stripped-down, with nothing but the movie itself (both image and sound digitally restored) and optional English subtitles. Yet even though the movie is not a visual marvel like Variety Lights or Hamlet, the disc still looks great.

Pygmalion is worth checking out, if only to set the record straight again. To truly appreciate it, though, it should be viewed as one would view the acid satire In the Company of Men.

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