Changing Classes

         Humans have a natural desire to be popular or to be in a higher class in society. Clothing stores, realtors, and car dealerships market their products toward this principle--human beings want the best and the most fashionable objects around. People want to look nice and own nice things; therefore, they spend many hours working so they will have money to buy these things.

         Pygmalion, written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw and filmed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, is all about living in high society. Out of pity, a linguist (Leslie Howard) gives a poor flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), some money; she decides that she wants to improve herself so she can open her own flower shop. She offers to pay the linguist, Professor Henry Higgins, a minute amount of money if he will teach her the proper way to speak. She bears a rough Cockney dialect and has hardly any grammar skills. He agrees because of an ulterior motive--he bet with his colleague, Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland), that he could pass Eliza off as a duchess after three to six months, depending upon her willingness to learn.

         Pygmalion reminded me of the movie Trading Places (1983), directed by John Landis. In this movie, two old commodity brokers bet over whether they can get an employee, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), to commit crimes and get a criminal, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), to become a successful businessman; in essence, get the two to trade places. They cause Louis to lose his job, putting him out on the street where he is forced to stoop to levels of living that he is not accustomed to. Both men eventually fulfill the requirements of the betting terms--Billy Ray becomes a well respected businessman, and Louis starts committing crimes in order to get by.

         In Pygmalion, Eliza does exactly as Professor Higgins teaches; soon she speaks perfectly with a distinct voice. Not long after her lessons, she is put to the test when she has to have tea with Higgins' mother (Marie Lohr); however, although she has the correct speech, she does not know the correct words to say yet. She talks about drinking and other off-color topics, which horrifies the attendees. After more tutoring, she is again put to the test. While attending the Embassy Ball, she is asked to dance by a prince. One of Higgins' former students (Esme Percy); misidentifies Eliza as a duchess from Hungary. After the party, Higgins and Pickering are discussing how great it was that Eliza has been passed off as a duchess. They do not thank Eliza for her great accomplishments or encourage her at all--they just go off to bed. Eliza sits alone crying because she is not appreciated for her hard work. Therefore, she decides to pay them back for their treatment of her--she runs away from the house during the night. In the morning the men frantically search for her, finally finding her waiting at Mrs. Higgins'. Eliza explains to them how she felt about their treatment of her.

         In Trading Places, the two pawns of the game--Billy Ray and Louis--decide to pay back the old millionaires for the hardships they have been put through by causing the millionaires to lose money. They sabotage the millionaires by feeding them false information about investments. Then the millionaires make bad investments in the market, thus becoming bankrupt. However, Billy Ray and Louis use the correct information to make good investments, thus becoming rich.

         Both stories involve bettering poor individuals. The problem is that they were never meant to stay that way. In both cases, the instigators are not thinking far enough ahead about what will happen once the bet is over. Is it because they do not care what happens?--we do not know. Also, both stories involve the poor individuals taking revenge of the instigating party. Are they ungrateful? Or is revenge taken because the individuals felt wronged? Is it better to leave people in the class they live in, or should someone help and encourage people to better themselves, thus changing their way of living and their class?

Ben Hocker

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