PYGMALION (Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard, 1938)

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion makes for a glorious film, even with some nips and tucks, including a neatly shaved rather than Shavian landing. This may be the most entertaining film comedy in the period of sound—and, sociopolitically, an important one. It perfectly expresses Shaw’s Fabian socialism—egalitarianism as the incremental result of education (as well as government legislation) rather than as the result of bloody revolution.
     Professor Henry Higgins, a languages and phonetics expert, wagers a friend that he can train Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney street flower-seller, in six months’ time passing her off as a lady in society. Higgins works relentlessly with the girl, bullying and humiliating her, and takes full credit for the triumphant result: “I’ve created this thing out of squashed cabbage leaves out of Covent Garden.” But he hasn’t taken into account Eliza’s feelings; while he aimed at winning a bet, Eliza was working towards a better life. “The difference between a lady and a flower-girl,” she opines, “is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” Meanwhile, “one of the undeserving poor,” Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, has no morals, he explains, because he can’t afford them. His association with Higgins “ruins” him, causing him to slip into the gutter of middle-class morality. He ends up marrying Eliza’s stepmother.
     Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard directed with visual flair and exquisite comic timing. Their cutter, David Lean, ably assisted. Especially memorable are montages of Higgins and Eliza at work together.
     The three lead performances are brilliant: Howard, hilariously pompous as Higgins, Wendy Hiller as Eliza, and Wilfred Lawson as Doolittle. Howard deserves especial credit for one of the most unforgettable film performances.

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