There is a moment in George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion when Henry Higgins, uncharacteristically flustered after a row with Eliza, stumbles on the stair in his hurry to get to his chambers. In George Cukor's 1964 My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison falters and accidentally turns on one of his gramophones, which makes a loud, obviously-meant-for-comedic effect blaring. Harrison does a kind of double-take then continues on in his angry march upstairs. This is very different from Leslie Howard's take in his and Anthony Asquith's 1938 Pygmalion. After the fight, Howard's Higgins heads up the staircase, stumbles, pauses, and then, barely acknowledging what has happened, takes up his stride again--no gramophone. This one, subtle piece of acting and direction is a microcosm of the two actors' interpretation of the character, and I feel that Howard's is far superior.
Harrison won the Oscar (and, earlier, a Tony) for his portrayal of Henry Higgins. It is not hard to see why. Taking nothing away from his performance (which is iconic in its own right-the speak-singing, his interaction with Wilfrid Hyde-White as Col. Pickering), the Academy tends to reward performances that are, for lack of a better word, hammy. And Harrison's Higgins is extremely hammy. Harrison acts as if he is still on Broadway with the audience there in the same room. When I was reading Pygmalion, I did not envision Henry Higgins acting that way.
Leslie Howard, in a dual-duty of co-director and male star, was way ahead of his time, I believe. I have not seen any of his other films (save Gone with the Wind) but in Pygmalion, there is a dry, quirky presence that seems as though it would be more at home in modern cinema-perhaps in a Woody Allen or Wes Anderson film. This is how I imagined Higgins: forceful, charming and hilarious-but not overly flamboyant or showy. This preference is typified in the fall on the stair.