Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Directors: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
Writers: George Bernard Shaw, W.P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis

  • Leslie Howard — Professor Henry Higgins
  • Wendy Hiller — Eliza Doolittle
  • Jean Cadell — Mrs. Pearce
  • Everley Gregg — Mrs. Eynsford-Hill
  • Wilfred Lawson — Alfred Doolittle
  • Marie Lohr — Mrs. Higgins
  • Leueen MacGrath — Clara Eynsford-Hill
  • Esme Percy — Count Aristid Karpathy
  • Scott Sunderland — Colonel George Pickering
  • David Tree — Freddy Eynsford-Hill

Gabriel Pascal Productions, 1938
black & white

96 minutes September 2011


Pygmalion is based on George Bernard Shaw's play of the same title, written in 1912 and produced on the stage in New York and London in 1914. Pygmalion in Greek legend was a sculptor who carved a statue of a woman out of ivory; falling in love with his creation, he asked Aphrodite to bring her to life, and it was done. Ovid tells the story in Metamorphoses and it has been reshaped and retold many times since. Shaw's play provides a lively romantic comedy as sugar-coating over his message of society and character, and how far the latter may become independent of social origin and surroundings.

Shaw's protagonist is a linguist, Professor Henry Higgins, a master particularly of contemporary spoken dialects of English, and having a wonderfully self-trained and precisely discerning ear. Listening to native Londoners, he often can label a person's origins within a few city blocks after hearing just a few sentences. He has the overweening self-confidence of being able, not exactly to see into peoples' souls, but to hear the secrets of their past, their family, and previous station in life.

The heroine Eliza Doolittle, the latter-day Galatea, is no mute statue but what almost is worse in class-conscious Britain: a poor and uneducated young woman with a guttersnipe accent which, no matter how virtuous or intelligent she may be, dooms any talents she may have to remain invisible and dormant.

Higgins sets out to remold Eliza into a lady — or just as good, train her to pass for a lady in society. The foundation for this is the toning-up of her speech, and building her poise and manner and dress atop that. It's a fun story, and better on stage or via film than to read, because we actually get to hear the delightful range of accents.

It all makes an enjoyable movie, with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller as the principals, and a fine supporting cast as well. As for the resolution of Pygmalion — whether Eliza can learn to speak like a lady, act like a lady, even become a lady, is only part of the challenge: for there also is the Romance of strong and different characters. We leave as a thought-exercise for the viewer whether the resolution so precisely arrived at by Bernard Shaw ought to be called Classical, or Romantic, or perhaps even Realist?


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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