“He picked up a girl from the gutter – and changed her into a glamorous society butterfly! . . . See Wendy Hiller, new star discovery, in this amazing role!”
Director: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
Cast: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson
Synopsis: Shaw’s play in which a Victorian dialect expert bets that he can teach a lower-class girl to speak proper English and thus be taken for a lady.
George Bernard Shaw’s updating of a Greek myth is familiar to most people thanks to the lavish 1962 musical adaptation My Fair Lady, which has overshadowed this original film version to some degree. The dialogue in Anthony Asquith’s 1938 version is fast and clever, although incredibly dated, but that doesn’t prevent Pygmalion from captivating its audience thanks to some perfect casting and pleasingly complementary acting styles. Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind, 49th Parallel) who received a co-director credit with Anthony Asquith, gives a lively performance as Henry Higgins, the irascible linguistics expert who bets his fellow linguist and new best friend Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can transform common flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller – The Elephant Man) into a lady within six months.
Of course, Higgins undergoes as much of a transformation as Eliza, although that only becomes apparent in the final scenes. Somehow, though, I can’t see them lasting long – six months and they’d be at each other’s throats. Hiller is perfect as the gor-blimey flower girl, creating laughs one minute as she struggles with the upper-class accent Higgins drills into her in a montage sequence likened to a nightmare for the poor girl, and tugging at the audience’s heartstrings as she realises that her mentor looks upon her as nothing more than a specimen upon which he is experimenting. Wilfrid Lawson also impresses, stealing all his scenes as Eliza’s opportunistic father. Pygmalion was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won the Best Screenplay gong.
(Reviewed 15th January 2015)