Pygmalion (1938, Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
I really, really hate this play, its author, and this movie. It’s the most dismal and maddening thing. I know it’s “satire” — satire of stuffed-shirt classism and all of that — but it still makes me incredibly uncomfortable and I loathe every bloody second of it. At least it doesn’t have songs.
Pygmalion, as you undoubtedly learned in 12th grade English class when they made you watch this and the even more horrible and unforgivable My Fair Lady, is George Bernard Shaw’s “commentary” based on a figure of Greek myth who fell in love with a sculpture he’d made. Shaw’s variation hovers around an asshole linguistic professor who picks up a woman who happens to be a detested “commoner” so he can win a bet about how he can pass her off as a person as joyless and proper as he is in front of some important people.
The end of the film actually makes matters worse since it refuses Eliza even sufficient integrity to exit the life of her oppressor, not that Shaw’s humor ever seems fair to her as a person, sympathetic or not. Shaw’s play ends with some level of comeuppance for her, at least with her emancipation from the cold grip of so unholy and dismal a man, whose abuses and indignant expressions of hatred are played for laughs. The film ditches this in favor of a “happy” ending that has Eliza crawling back — this isn’t annoying because it’s a violation of the play, since the play is terrible, but because it even robs the character of that tiny bit of justice.
Intellectually I can sense the value of Pygmalion, but something about it goes all over me — I don’t want to spend time with this smug asshole whether the film is making fun of him or not. It seems that its targets in the English class system don’t translate very well across the years or the continents. Without such contextual enhancement, it’s a terrible slog: boorish, mean-spirited, dull, not nearly as sharp or intellectually charged as it seems to think, and certainly not, er, “funny.”
Higgins is portrayed by codirector Leslie Howard, trading in his usual blandness for labored gentility and menace; Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle is marvelously brought to life by Wendy Hiller, the only reason to watch even a moment of the movie. But sample any two minutes from the front or back ten minutes and you’ll get the entire idea of the film.
Directors Howard and Anthony Asquith place this firmly in the context of ’30s British cinema, so there is some invention to see — a few interesting montage tricks cut through the abysmal dross — but for the most part they just step aside, and this is an undistinguished stage adaptation through and through. You’re required to either love the play or love the conventions of this period in filmmaking, and in my experience the latter isn’t enough to make it worthwhile.
You should be told that I have not met a single person who loathes this film as much as I do, and thus perhaps further research on your part is advisable; the entire film is public domain and freely available on Youtube. Ugh. Just can’t take it, sorry. Guess I haven’t matured since senior year after all.
[Screencaps courtesy of Criterion Forum and TCM.]