Friday, August 16, 2013

Pygmalion (1938)


From rags to near royalty. Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, who was inspired by Greek mythological figure, Pygmalion shares the tale of a man that creates a figure, in this case a perfect lady, only to fall in love with his own creation. For years filmmakers have attempted  to gain the blessing to make this story and Shaw would finally give this honor to a filmmaker to adapt it to the screen. A classic tale of transforming a lowly street girl into a high class lady would be done many times over, but this particular angle towards the plot would produce a well receive picture that in itself inspired remakes that too became classics in their own rights.

Pygmalion is a British picture of a professor of linguistics who bets a friend he can turn a dirty street flower seller into a proper lady of society under his proper tutelage. Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), scholar of various minute dialects, proposes a gentleman’s wager with colleague Colonel Pickering (Scott Sutherland) that he can turn the much unpolished and overly cockney street girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) into a lady that can speak such perfect proper English that she could mingle with society’s elite. After much painful training and the even more painful task of cleaning her up, Higgins presents his new lady Doolittle at a sophisticated ball where she meets and mingles with noble ladies and gentleman of society. After taking pride in Eliza as more of a prized trophy project, Eliza feels she deserves to be treated as his equal to the professor as a person as she has grow found to him, but breaks away in defiance allowing Higgins to realize he has grown to love Eliza.

The picture tells the story perfectly. Hiller’s Eliza makes you believe she is this street girl that works very hard and struggles to present herself as a proper lady of the highest social order, while Howard’s Higgins wraps you into the idea he can achieve this goal of molding Eliza like clay into this creation. Their relationship as an emotionally abusive teacher and pupil creates just the right amount of drama and suspense into seeing just what the result might be in an outlandish situation. Pygmalion may be a title audiences would not understand until the opening credits explaining where the name comes from in Greek mythology, but it provides a story masterfully executed in this British produced picture.

For many years filmmakers had been hounding the Nobel Prize winning playwright for the use of his play Pygmalion. With the feeling that the movies based on his works previously produced were of such low quality George Bernard Shaw was very reluctant to give away the permission to his play that first took the stage in 1914. Producer Gabriel Pascal would convince the Irish author to give his permission when the producer allowed Shaw to have full control over the adaption of his story. Shaw would build on his original work, adding the key ballroom sequence and creating new characters that were only mentioned of in play, penning the new segments himself. However the ending of the picture would go against the author’s wishes by slapping on a happy ending where Eliza inexplicably returns to Higgins. Shaw’s original tale ended on a much sadder note with Eliza marrying a man that better took care of her, leaving Higgins’ heartbroken; a far more dramatic ending than what movies liked to end with.

Leslie Howard not only stars in the picture, but co-directs it with long time English filmmaker Anthony Asquith. With the work of co-directors the film still flows wonderfully with excellent camera moments, pirarily in the montages of Eliza’s lessons, beautifully carried out with creative moving and revealing shots. Howard plays well the overly confident and overly proud professor of linguistics, using both his charm and his power as a seasoned leading actor to make Higgins both a man you love and hate. He is a stern tutor that shows no happiness in his accomplishments even when they are perfect. His metamorphosis near the end of the picture as he realizes he needs Eliza more than she needs him manifest just how superior of an actor he can really be. It was originally Shaw’s insistence that Charles Laughton play the role of Prof. Higgins, but Howard would produce a performance that would gain him a nomination for best actor by the Academy Awards.

The marble scene with Hiller and Howard
The actress to portray the center of the film was chosen my Shaw himself. After seeing stage actress Wendy Hiller play the role in stage productions of his works, which included Pygmalion, Shaw wished her to be the one to bring Eliza to life on screen. The 26 year-old actress creates a breakthrough performance as young Ms. Doolittle after only acting on the London stage for less than two years. Like her male counterpart, Hiller produced a masterful presentation that garnered her an Academy Award nomination for best actress, the very first time a British actress would be nominated for work in a  British produced film.

For his work on creating the story and penning most of the script Shaw would be nominated and win the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Initially upon accepting the award Shaw put little merit on winning Oscar. Shaw did so expressing his indifference about the honor being he was a successful writer long before, and he receiving an Oscar would was not necessary to back his body of work. Despite this initial lack of interest in this ceremonious cinematic honor it is said in later years Shaw treasured the award, showing it off to guest of his home for many years.

The picture is entertaining, humorous, dramatic, and well sculpted. An international critically acclaimed film, Pygmalion would break the social barrier for British audiences as being the first British film to use the curse word “bloody” at the strong insistence of George Bernard Shaw as a carry-over from the play. The plot in Pygmalion would be a well liked storyline and the tale would be retold in many forms in many mediums. Pygmalion would inspire the remake in the theatrical musical and subsequent motion picture My Fair Lady, a classical film beloved by many in its own right. Many of the pieces created for Pygmalion, the film, was reused in these successive remakes as the film proved to work so well. Pygmalion may even be overlooked by the musical remakes, but this original British picture still remains a charming movie to view and enjoy among contemporary audiences.

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