Higgins: Pygmalion and My Fair Lady

         Leslie Howard and Rex Harrison both play an effectively snotty Henry Higgins in Pymalion, directed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and My Fair Lady, directed in 1964 by George Cukor, respectively. However, even allowing for or barring the discrepancies of adapting George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play into a musical, Howard portrays the more complete Higgins of the two because of the general enthusiasm that he beams for his field and his bet with Colonel Pickering.

         Howard’s portrayal of Higgins convinces the viewer more fully because of all the innate mannerisms provided. Howard is jittery without being tense, and full of witty alertness. Howard ceaselessly revels in his challenge to teach Eliza (Wendy Hiller) to speak properly. His dynamism is not only entertaining to watch but also adds ethos to his portrayal of a reasonably young professor who has mapped out all dialects of England to within a town, and within London to a street. Such mastery of his field, both academically and geographically, is buttressed by his virtual inexhaustibility.

         In contrast, Harrison’s attempt at Higgins runs a bit more slowly. Harrison is obviously older than Howard (at the times the films were made, at least), so his lethargy complements the persona of an older professor. However, the calm poise with which Harrison acts is somewhat mismatched for the energetic Higgins character. Rather than engaging his task of training Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) with the fervor Howard does, Harrison coolly and stiffly interacts with his student and his colonel friend (Wilfred Hyde-White). This is not suited for the character of Henry Higgins, however. Higgins is fairly young in age, perhaps in his late thirties; in both films, Higgins’ character is younger than Eliza’s father, putting his age somewhere between the two, but this is accomplished in My Fair Lady by having Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, portrayed by Stanley Holloway, a man in his eighties.

         This youthful attribute, coupled with his absolute mastery of linguistics, means that Higgins simply must be more energetic than Harrison acts in order to have achieved his scholarly success so relatively early in life.

Clay Wyatt

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