Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Pygmalion Watch-a-Thon: Pygmalion (1938)

Hello readers and welcome to the second post in the new Pygmalion Watch-a-Thon series. For all those out there new to my blog, I regularly do a Watch-a-Thon series where I pick one piece of literature and review movie, tv, and even sometimes YouTube adaptations of that work. I'd like to think it's an active discussion about the ways different forms of media shape or build off of each other. Often the limitations of the form determine what aspects of the literary work get represented.

This time around I decided to choose George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, which happens to be one of my favorite plays. What I love about this Watch-a-Thon series is how the chosen work communicates with the original Pygmalion myth. That is a subject I touch upon in the last Watch-a-thon post, which I will link at the bottom of this post. It also includes a nice summary of the play, if you aren't completely familiar with it.

Now it's time to tackle the first adaptation of the series and logically that has to be the first prominent adaptation of the play. Today's post will focus on...



Pygmalion (1938)
Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins
Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle
This black and white version has a total runtime of 96 minutes.
Here is a link to the IMDb page for more information about the cast as well as the production: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030637/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt

Before I start discussing the film, I think it's best to start by looking at how a "Hollywood" adaptation of the play shapes the narrative. If you can recall from my last post, I included a section about the ambiguity at the end of Pygmalion. Shaw wanted to leave the conclusion open ended, without any clear indication whether Eliza would return to Higgins or make a life for herself with Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Later, he was forced to make it known that in his mind it never made sense for Eliza to return to Higgins. The edition of the play that I own even includes an afterward that touches on this very film adaptation. This is the adaptation that includes the "happy ending" that Shaw detested immensely, which was said to be included in order to please audiences who expected the movie to have a neat, happy ending for Eliza. More on this later.

Shall we talk about the promotion of the film? So much of the intention of the film is usually revealed in the way that studios market it. Let's keep in mind that this was the 30's and a very different time. This was one of the first images that I came across in my search.


It has to be one of the tamer examples, but still interesting to look at. "From City Streets To Society Glamour Girl!" really seems to suggest that this is a more lighthearted transformation movie. Watch as this poor, downtrodden girl is lifted up into the high life!! Sadly, that's not what Pygmalion is about. What Not To Wear: 1900s London Edition, is all I can imagine. The center of the poster features the coded glamour shot of Eliza and Henry, our romantic pairing. This next promotion has to be my favorite.


Ladies Everywhere! You too can transform just like Eliza. "Any girl can do it. You need a guy and a trunkful of clothes!" I think I vomited a little in my mouth, but if Shaw carried on after this, so can I. I also just adore that godlike image of Higgins looking over his transformation. It kind of reminds me of our original Pygmalion who shares the statue's gaze with the heavens. With promotions like this, you'd have to assume some people walked into the theaters with an incorrect perception of what the movie was going to be about. 

Now you must be wondering how the actual movie turned out. In my opinion, the 1938 version of Pygmalion is not as bad as the promotions make it out to be. In fact, if the ending had been faithful, I would have said this is a near perfect adaptation of the play. I'm getting ahead of myself though, so let's breakdown the movie.  

Quite unexpectedly the movie gives a nod to the origins of George Bernard Shaw's play in the Pygmalion myth.



In theory, I like the inclusion of the myth in the film to give it context. In reality, I think it serves no purpose. This is really a watered down and simplified summation of the myth and I have to wonder if the writer of this preamble knows what the word "theme" means. If you read into that summary, I guess you could glean that the theme indicated is the theme of transformation. It should be "modern interpretation of this myth." Moving on.

At this point, I'm going to give the requisite warning that there will be spoilers for the movie as well as the play. You have been dully informed.

As mentioned earlier, I have a real fondness for this adaption because so much of it, including the dialogue and staging has been lifted right from the play. Additionally, so much of the authorial intent is reflected in the technical elements (camera angles, staging, and soundtrack). Case in point: the beginning of the movie itself. Our first glimpse of Eliza is amidst the hubbub of what I assume is Piccadilly Circus. She has a place in this small swath of society. Higgins, on the other hand, is an aloof observer, winding his way through the crowds and eavesdropping when something catches his attention. Quite like our mythical Pygmalion figure who chooses to live alone in distaste of the "vices" present in female dispositions.


What follows is a perfect introduction of our players: The Note Taker, The Gentleman, and The Flower Girl. Just in case you're impressed by Higgins' show of phonetics in the previous scene, the movie finds a stylistic way to undercut him. Instead of presenting a following scene where Colonel Pickering returns to Higgins' residence, there is a transitional moment that involves Higgins setting up all the machines used in his study of phonetics. The overlaid music feels right out of a horror flick and gives the impression that Higgins is like a mad scientist setting up his instruments of torture. As the last piano note fades out, Higgins and Pickering enter their banal discussion about vowel sounds.

While the Higgins presented is a little younger than I imagined, I think Leslie Howard's portrayal is spot on. I'd only ever seen him as Ashley in Gone With The Wind and my distaste for that movie colored how I viewed him as an actor until I saw this. Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller also have great chemistry and their verbal back and forward is perfect when Eliza asks for speech lessons.

I also can't forget to give Wendy Hiller credit for her role as Eliza. She emotes so perfectly that it's easy to tell what Eliza is feeling. For example, when Eliza is attempting to convince Higgins to give her lessons, he treats her like dirt. In comparison, Pickering addresses her with the respect afforded to any gentile lady. You can see the change in Eliza's demeanor the minute Pickering calls her "Miss Doolittle."

Next, the movie undercuts Higgins again when Mrs. Pearce is serving breakfast. In my first post, I mention that Mrs. Pearce is really one of the many Pygmalion figures in this play. The poor woman has just finished wrestling Eliza into the bathtub, a scene that I have the turn the volume down on lest someone think a woman is being attacked in my house, and now she is serving Higgins breakfast. All the while lecturing him about the proper way to treat Eliza and making sure that he doesn't use uncivil curse words around her.

If you thought Higgins was a paragon on a pedestal before, Mrs. Pearce has soundly kicked him off that pedestal. As far as Eliza's training is concerned, the movie shows them as flashes of scenes or vignettes. The soundtrack is this screechy violin number that builds in volume with every scene change. Again it gives the sense that Eliza is in some sort of nightmare and Higgins is an exacting taskmaster. I also don't think I've laughed more at the scene where Eliza has her first "test" at Mrs. Higgins "At Home Day." Can you imagine saying slang in such a posh accent?!

I also want to give this adaption some credit by including a number of scenes showing Freddy's attempted courtship of Eliza. Again and again he appears at Higgins' door and every time he's turned away. His periodic inclusion in the movie makes Eliza's suggestion of marriage to him a little less out of left field in this film's context.

Now we come to the party, where the bet between Higgins and Pickering is won or lost. When Eliza arrives, you can immediately tell she will perform beautifully, but the film makes it clear this party is really about Higgins' and Pickering's egos, not Eliza's triumph. When Eliza is asked to dance, the camera hardly stays on her for long. Instead, it pans back and forth between Higgins and Pickering, who are all too astonished at the suggestion that Eliza is a Hungarian Princess. Even when they return to Higgins' place, the camera focuses on them, while Eliza seems to skulk in the background, shrouded in shadow. The film really plays up that she is just a pawn in this friendly wager.


As expected, Eliza throws Higgins' slippers at him and they get into a heated discussion about her future. Higgins makes it seem like he has the last important word by declaring Eliza a "heartless guttersnipe", but I just love how he subsequently trips up the stairs. Again the movie finds a way to undercut his pompousness. 

Now I suppose we have to talk about the ending. What confuses me so much is that this movie sets everything up in such a way that it stays true to the play. Eliza and Higgins confront each other and Eliza realizes her own self worth and the potential for independence. In fact, the movie even visually presents her as such.

She's not cowering in corners or looked down upon by Higgins. She has her own strength and her own will. Eliza makes her dramatic exit and Higgins is left to ponder her loss...but not for long. In enters Eliza and the film ends with Higgins playfully asking if she knows where his slippers are at. As I mentioned earlier, this is the "happy ending" audiences were said to expect. What's sad is in some way, if I separate my knowledge of the play from the viewing experience, that would be the ending I would expect. Higgins treats her in such a deplorable manner and sees her whole being as a result of his machinations. Instead of our Pygmalion and Galatea, Eliza and Higgins are our romantic leads who are expected to couple in the end. Can you imagine though what the ending of the film would have felt like if it had ended with Eliza walking out the door with some of the original ambiguity remaining from the play? I guess that's all Shaw fans can do when faced with this adaption.

So there you have it. Those are my thoughts on the 1938 adaption of Pygmalion. Not quite the polarizing reaction that I usually have when reviewing film adaptions of literary works. For those looking for a hint about what the next watch-a-thon post will feature, all I can say is that it'll center around a much more modern and, dare I say, derivative adaption of Shaw's Pygmalion. Until next time...

Previous Post: The Pygmalion of Ovid and Shaw