Henry Higgins: A Boy Trapped in a Man's Body

     In Pygmalion, written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, the film directed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and My Fair Lady, directed in 1964 by George Cukor, and based on the 1956 musical by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Henry Higgins appeared to be a jerk.

     He was crass and rude, lacked tact and kindness and generally spoke his mind regardless of how inappropriate his thoughts may have been. At first Henry (Leslie Howard/Rex Harrison)would simply seem to be a miserable man who was taking out his frustrations on the people around him.

     When I began to watch the movie, Henry's attitude really bothered me; but I soon began to realize that Henry Higgins was a boy trapped in a man's body. This first became clear in the first scene in which we see Henry and his mother interacting together. He has come to see her, but not out of the goodness of his heart. He wants help with his experiment, and Mrs. Higgins (Marie Lohr) lovingly (I think) scolds him for coming over on her at-home day, as does her counterpart (Gladys Cooper) when he turns up in her box as Ascot.. Both are afraid that Higgins will run all of their guests off. Henry's response is a series of moans and groans and silly faces that remind me of a teenage boy who is being scolded by his mother for playing ball in the house or showing up at her Tupperware party.

     After I saw Henry interact with his mother, his behavior that was once annoying suddenly became funny. This man was a brilliant phonetics professor, perhaps the best in his field who could recreate a person's way of speaking and, to a point, recreate the person. One would think that a man of Henry's status and talent would be quite a sophisticated gentleman, but one could be wrong.

     Henry's childish nature is especially present in Pygmalion. Instances of his boyish approach to life can be seen in the way he comes to the breakfast table dressed in his robe and drips food on the table and on himself. In that scene, the housekeeper (Jean Caudel) even takes on the role of mother and scolds him for his behavior. The housekeeper in all the versions assumes the role of Henry's mother again in the scene where the deal for lessons is being made between Henry, Pickering (Scott Sunderland/Wilfred Hyde-White and Eliza (Wendy Hiller/Audrey Hepburn). The housekeeper (Mona Washburn in My Fair Lady) demands that Henry decide what will become of Eliza after the lessons are finished and reminds him that he is not thinking ahead. Henry rarely thinks beyond the end of his nose. This behavior we would expect from a young boy, but not a bright and successful professor.

     Henry had a charming characteristic of childish self-centeredness. He did not understand women or how to interact with people outside of his profession. Henry managed to hold on to that quality that keeps him from realizing there is always the potential for our actions to make a difference in someone else's life. Henry reminded me of the young child that, to the dismay of his parents, will blurt out whatever he may be thinking no matter how inappropriate his words may be.

     Henry's childishness was also evident by his way of looking at Eliza as though she were his toy. He saw her as something to do, something to occupy his time. The focus of Henry's relationship with Eliza was about what he could achieve, and her learning to speak well as a result of his experiment was nothing more than an afterthought. Henry was bored and wanted to show off to Pickering. He was not unlike a small child with a new toy who wanted to impress his new, little friend.

     As mean and unfeeling as Henry seemed sometimes it would have been easy to dislike him very much, but instead I found myself laughing at him on a few rare occasions. Along with Henry's immaturity came ignorance. He never grew up inside, so he did not realize that his actions hurt other people. I felt he often times wondered why everyone was so upset with him. He especially showed that characteristic in the scene in the library after the threesome had arrived home from the ball. When Henry found Eliza in the floor crying he appeared to be honestly astonished that she would be upset and even more surprised when he learned it was the case because she felt she did not get thanks for her efforts.

     Henry was genuine if he was nothing else, and for that he must be respected. There were times when I would have liked to give him a good shake, but his babyish ways made the movie very enjoyable to me.

Slone Hutchison

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