Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Pygmalion (1938)

Audiences familiar only with this classic George Bernard Shaw play through the musical adaptation MY FAIR LADY will probably be surprised by just how sharply funny this earlier 1938 screen version is. Minus the excess weight of the later musical, this adaptation -- directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, who also stars as Higgins -- is a deftly paced, adroit comedy that perfectly captures the dry wit and emotional honesty of Shaw's play (even if it does use the revised, audience-pleasing ending that Shaw despised). With material this strong, it was only logical that the film should remain largely faithful to its celebrated source, though the script -- adapted by a team of writers including Shaw himself, W.P. Lipscomb and Cecil Lewis, with uncredited contributions from Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald and Kay Walsh -- does open the play up a bit for the screen, adding new scenes such as Eliza's debut at the embassy ball, and never feels stagy or static, thanks to the skillful editing of David Lean.

Wendy Hiller does a remarkable job at bringing out the humanity of the Eliza Doolittle character, delivering a surprisingly low-key interpretation of the role rather than slipping into broad caricature as Audrey Hepburn occasionally did in the later screen version. Leslie Howard as Higgins demonstrates again what a fine comic talent he was, a skill that he was not often able to exercise in his best-known Hollywood roles. He manages to make Higgins appropriately sympathetic without ever hitting a false note in his performance of the character. Scott Sunderland as Col. Pickering, Wilfrid Lawson as Doolittle, and Marie Lohr as Mrs. Higgins all provide fine support.

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