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Pygmalion

1938 film LaserDisc cover (partial)
Directed by Anthony Asquith
Leslie Howard
Produced by Gabriel Pascal
Written by George Bernard Shaw
W.P. Lipscomb
Cecil Lewis
Starring Leslie Howard
Wendy Hiller
Wilfrid Lawson
Leueen MacGrath
Music by Arthur Honegger
Editing by David Lean
Release date(s) 6 October 1938
Running time 96 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Pygmalion is a 1938 British film based on the George Bernard Shaw play of the same title, and adapted by him for the screen. The film was a financial and critical success, and won an Oscar for best screenplay and three more nominations. The screenplay was later adapted into the 1956 theatrical musical My Fair Lady, which in turn led to the 1964 film of the same name.

Contents

Plot

The phoneticist and speech coach Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) meets the flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) on the steps of St Paul's Covent Garden and offers a bet to the Sanskrit scholar Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can teach her to behave and speak like a duchess in six months, which would then allow her to join a florists' shop rather than sell flowers on the street. The following morning, she arrives at Higgins' flat asking for elocution lessons and he takes her on, formalising the bet with Pickering. Eliza's father, Mr Doolittle (Wilfrid Lawson), also calls at Higgins' house, and "sells" him his daughter for £5. After some work, Higgins takes Eliza to a social event at his mother Mrs Higgins's (Marie Lohr) house in Chelsea, where she causes comic consternation by delivering an account of a relative's death in Received Pronunciation that is still entirely Cockney in phraseology. There she also meets Freddy Eynsford-Hill (David Tree), a young upper-middle-class man who becomes enamored with her.

After more work, and a dress and appearance makeover, Higgins and Pickering take her to a reception at the Transylvanian embassy. There they meet an over-confident Hungarian pupil of Higgins', Count Aristid Karpathy (Esme Percy), who is now operating as a speech coach in his own right and becomes suspicious of Eliza. Just when it appears Karpathy is about to reveal Eliza as a Cockney and thus lose Higgins his bet, he very publicly concludes that Eliza speaks English too well to be an English duchess and is in fact a Hungarian princess.

The four return home after the ball, having succeeded in fooling everybody there. Higgins and Pickering, however, ignore Eliza's achievement in the affair, and Higgins even has an outright argument with her about it. The following morning the men wake to find Eliza has fled, and go to Mrs Higgins to seek her help finding her. It is revealed that Eliza has fled to Mrs Higgins' protection, and also that Eliza's father has now come into money due to a joke by Higgins to an American philanthropist and is marrying his long-term partner against his will. Pickering leaves with Doolittle for the wedding, and Higgins and Eliza are left alone to argue. Asserting her independence and threatening to leave Higgins's house, marry Freddy and go to work for Karpathy, Eliza storms out and drives away with Freddy. Infuriated, Higgins walks from Chelsea back to his home in Wimpole Street, where he smashes some of the records he had made of Eliza's voice and then sits to think. Hearing Eliza's voice coming from behind him, he turns to find her at the door.

Adaptation

The Hungarian producer Gabriel Pascal wished to create a set of films based on Shaw's works, beginning with Pygmalion, and went to see Shaw in person to gain permission to do so. Shaw was reluctant to allow a film adaptation of Pygmalion owing to the low quality of previous film adaptations of his works, but Pascal managed to convince him (on the condition Shaw retained full control over the adaptation) and later went on to also adapt Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra and Androcles and the Lion.

The resulting Pygmalion scenario by Cecil Lewis and WP Lipscomb removed exposition unnecessary outside a theatrical context and added new scenes and dialogue by Shaw himself. Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald and Kay Walsh also made uncredited contributions to the screenplay. A long ballroom sequence was added, introducing an entirely new character, Count Aristid Karpathy (seen both here and in the musical My Fair Lady, named as Professor Zoltan Karpathy) - mentioned in the final scene of the original play, but with no name or onstage appearance), written wholly by Shaw himself. Against Shaw's wishes, a happy ending was added, with Eliza fleeing Higgins with Freddy but then returning to Higgins' home (though whether permanently or on her own terms is left deliberately ambiguous). Shaw and his fellow writers did, however, retain the controversial line "Not bloody likely!" from the playtext, making Wendy Hiller the first person to utter that swear word in a British film and giving rise to adverts for the film reading "Miss Pygmalion? Not ****** likely!".

Cast and crew

Wendy Hiller was chosen by Shaw to play Eliza Doolittle after she had appeared in stage productions of Pygmalion and Saint Joan - though the film's initial credits stated that this movie was introducing her, she had in fact already appeared on film in 1937's Lancashire Luck. Shaw's choice for Higgins had been Charles Laughton, though Asquith's co-director on the film, Leslie Howard, was in the end chosen for the role. The film also includes the very first (short and uncredited) film appearance by Anthony Quayle, as an Italian wigmaker.

The film's crew included David Lean (on his first major editing job - he also directed the montage sequence of Higgins teaching Eliza), set designer Laurence Irving and the camera operator Jack Hildyard (who later carried out the photography for Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sound Barrier and Hobson's Choice).

Awards

The writers, including the uncredited Ian Dalrymple, won the 1939 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay. The film also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Howard) and Best Actress (Hiller). Shaw's reaction to his award was "It's an insult for them to offer me any honour, as if they had never heard of me before - and it's very likely they never have. They might as well send some honour to George for being King of England." However, his friend Mary Pickford later reported seeing the award on display in his home.

At the 1938 Venice Film Festival, Leslie Howard won the Volpi Cup and the film was nominated for the Mussolini Cup.

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Bibliography

  • The Great British Films, pp. 45–48, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 080650661X

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