Pygmalion: Comedy and Human Nature

     George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is one of the best films we have watched this semester. This 1938 film, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, is the direct stage-to-screen translation of the 1913 play Pygmalion and came many years before the 1956 musical My Fair Lady, written by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe and filmed in 1964 by George Cukor. In my opinion Pygmalion is a much better film. Of course I have no great love for musicals, but I think anyone who has a sense of humor would like Pygmalion.

     This film made me laugh. It is one of the few films that caused me to do so this semester. In fact, it is one of the few "black-and-white" movies that has made me laugh an honest-to-goodness laugh. One of the things I liked about it was that it was so outrageously British. It had that quick, "quipping" humor the Brits are famous for; not as off the wall as Monty Python, but one can see the similarities. The film also had a lot of heart, and I honestly believe the actors put a lot into their performances.

     My favorite character was Henry Higgins, played by Leslie Howard. He was such a condescending, overbearing jerk that I just had to love him. Howard's performance really brought Shaw's character to life perfectly I think. Even though he was the upper-class ass, he had an inner sense of warmth and morality that made me think he knew that Eliza was going to turn around in the end. One of my favorite scenes was depicted when Higgins' housekeeper (Jean Caudell) berates him for being so rude in front of Eliza, and Higgins comments to Pickering (Scott Sunderland) about where the housekeeper could have gotten such an idea about him.

     Eliza was equally great. Played by Wendy Hiller, making her screen debut, she was hilarious. Her Cockney accent was great; I had a very hard time understanding her at the beginning of the movie. Her metamorphosis from street-smart flower girl to upper-class princess is both convincing and humorously done. At first I did not think she was very attractive; but, the more I looked at her, the more I realized she was a beautiful woman, which is not dissimilar from what happens with Higgins. The language training scenes were particularly funny. I was a little disappointed at the end when Eliza goes back to Higgins. I think it contradicted the point of the play, but then again in Hollywood and in the Hollywood-influenced British films, the happy ending is king. And it could have been a lot worse.

     Eliza's father (Wilfred Lawson) was also hilarious. He was so earnest and straightforward. I love his rasping laugh. One of my favorite scenes occurred when he came to thank Higgins for getting him into high society before his wedding. Here we see the former dustman bedecked in top hat, coattails and monocle, sporting a cane and practically clicking his heels. The funniest part was that he looked right in that outfit.

     One of the best parts of this play is the realism of human behavior. We do not have a sugary sweet "perfect world" romance in Pygmalion. In fact, Pygmalion really is not a romance at all. Especially in the play version, we see the tension between Eliza and Henry come to a head as Eliza is declaring her independence from Henry's misogynist ways. Even though she goes back to him in the movie, we are left with the impression that she is not going to take his crap this time, and that she can leave at any time. Higgins himself is a great caricature of many men, as well as one of the upper class. Eliza's dad is a money-grubbing, opportunistic working class man who really means well but is just a tad crass. Again, this is an accurate caricature of many people. Shaw successfully captures many aspects of human nature in this play.

     In the end, I think Pygmalion is a modern-day Cinderella story, complete with modern-day consequences. Eliza is a strong woman character who breaks out of her mold and becomes self-reliant. Henry is a self-important jerk who learns he has to treat people better. It is rife with laughter, heart, and drama--one of the best movies I have ever seen, new or old.

Dan Bush

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