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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Pygmalion

Director: Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1938

“The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen. The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.”
George Bernard Shaw

Background

I’ve already written about Anthony Asquith – remember? The Importance of Being Earnest? So we’ll skip Asquith and focus on the writer and the stars of this week’s film.

George Bernard Shaw was born in 1856 and died in 1950, at the age of 94. He was a confirmed socialist, vegetarian, and free-thinker. In common with Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, he believed that modern medicine was quackery and that smallpox vaccinations were a “particularly filthy piece of witchcraft.”

He was what you might call a polymath: a respected theater critic who decried the artificiality of the Victorian stage; a knowledgeable music buff who wrote a book about the Socialist themes in Wagner’s Ring and who denounced Brahms as a “first-rate undertaker”; a prodigious political pamphleteer; a novelist and playwright. He is the only person to have won both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar (for this week’s film, natch). He was a tireless objector to World War I and a Stalin apologist.

He decried the exploitation of the poor and of the working class, but also believed that they were too stupid to be entrusted with the right to vote. He believed that this problem would eventually be solved, however, by the emergence of a race of supermen who would wisely and benignly guide human affairs. When the children of humans finally graduated to the next stage of evolution, they would be taken away in giant spaceships by our interstellar benefactors, just as described in his breakout novel, Childhood’s End. Oh, wait… sorry, that was Arthur C. Clarke.

Shaw was BFFs with Oscar Wilde’s lover “Bosie” Douglas, the novelist H.G. Wells, and IRA leader Michael Collins.

He was, of course, best known for his 60+ plays, which often addressed thorny social issues but usually with a healthy dose of humor, much like the films of Larry Cohen.

When he died, his ashes were mixed with those of his wife Charlotte and sprinkled in their garden, near a statue of Joan of Arc.

Leslie Howard, who plays professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, is best known (by my wife Robin, at least) for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.

He was born in 1893, died in 1943, and appeared in 34 films. He was born to Jewish parents by the name of Steiner, but adopted Howard as a stage name and later claimed that his birth name was Stainer. He served in the British Army during WWI, but was drummed out when he couldn’t shake a severe case of shell shock.

Soon after leaving the military, Howard began acting on the London stage. After moving to the States, he had great success on Broadway, particularly in something called Her Cardboard Lover, which doesn’t sound very good, but what do I know? Renowned as an actor, he often directed and produced, as well. In 1936, he launched a production of Hamlet just weeks after John Gielgud’s much-lauded production of the same play at a rival theater. After 39 performances, Howard’s version closed, and that was his last appearance on stage.

After several successful years in film, appearing in hits like Pygmalion, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Of Human Bondage, and the afore-mentioned Gone With the Wind, he returned to Britain to assist with the WWII effort. After starring in and directing several British-made war films, he died in 1943 when his plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by the dirty Huns. A recent biographer has concluded that Howard was on a secret mission to dissuade Franco from joining the Axis.

Also: a notorious ladies’ man.

Dame Wendy Margaret Hiller was born in 1912, died in 2003, and appeared in over fifty films. She considered herself primarily a stage actress, though, and first gained recognition for her performance in the 1934 stage production of Love on the Dole. The play’s success led to a touring production, during which she dazzled vegetarian playwright G.B. Shaw.

In 1936, Shaw asked her to appear in two of his plays: Saint Joan and Pygmalion. In 1937, she married the writer Ronald Gow, who had adapted Love on the Dole for the stage.

In 1938, at the age of 27, she appeared in the film version of Pygmalion, and garnered her first Oscar nomination. By virtue of the same performance, she became the first woman to use a certain British profanity on film: “Not bloody likely! I’m taking a taxi!” She followed that with the film version of Shaw’s Major Barbara and Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going.

In 1958, Hiller received both a Tony nomination (Best Actress, A Moon for the Misbegotten) and an Oscar award (Best Supporting Actress, Separate Tables). She famously responded to her Oscar win with indifference, declaring “never mind the honour, cold hard cash is what it means to me.”

Her final stage performance was in a 1988 production of Driving Miss Daisy. Her final film role was in 1993’s The Countess Alice.

Her husband, Ronald Gow, died in 1993, at the age of 96. Dame Wendy Margaret Hiller died a decade later, at the age of 90. They are buried together in the churchyard at St Mary’s, Radnage, Buckinghamshire.

Synopsis

On the screen, we read: “Pygmalion was a mythological character who dabbled in sculpture. He made a statue of his ideal woman – Galatea. It was so beautiful that he prayed the gods to give it life. His wish was granted. Bernard Shaw in his famous play gives a modern interpretation of this theme.”

In the bustling market, a trenchcoated man wanders as if looking for someone. There are a couple of neat camera moves behind a pillar to mask segues in this sequence. Cool set.

Suddenly, there’s a rainstorm! The rich folk coming from the theater are thrown into a tizzy, but the common folk go about their business as usual, guv’nor! A brash young blueblood named Freddy, searching for a cab, clumsily knocks down our heroine without so much as an ‘ow’s yer father? (I know she’s our heroine because we’ve already seen her several times, walking through the market.)

The man in the trenchcoat takes notes during the ensuing confrontation.

He seems fascinated by this rough-spoken woman of the streets; her bravado, her nearly impenetrable Cockney slang. She might even be a bit of a looker if she was given a proper cleaning-up.

pygmalion_eliza

The working-class blokes spy Note-Taking Trenchcoat Man and suspect him of being a copper. But they are uneducated ruffians and have guessed incorrectly; he is a linguist. Or so I assume, after he demonstrates his ability to guess everyone’s place of birth based on their patterns of speech.

“Woman, cease this detestable boo-hooing!” the linguist orders the distraught guttersnipe, who is still upset over her destroyed flowers and her fear of being thrown in debtor’s prison. Or something. It’s a bit unclear, actually.

“Remember that you are a human being, with a soul, with the divine gift of articulate speech, and that your language is the language of Milton, Shakespeare, the Bible!” proclaims the high-toned linguist, continuing his scolding of the destitute and terrified flower lady.

Before long, for no observable reason, Mr. Hooked-On-Phonics is making bets with passerby that he can, if given three months, “pass her off as a duchess at an ambassador’s reception!” And thus the plot is set into motion!

Also, he calls her a “squashed cabbage leaf.” Charming.

The linguist’s name is Henry Higgins, and it just so happens that an associate linguist, Colonel Pickering, is also in the crowd.

The fellow linguists toss the gutter-maiden some coins and walk off, arm in arm, safe in the company of clean, well-dressed, upper-class folk.

The next day, Higgins and Pickering are lazing about in Higgins’ lair, playing with recording equipment and such…

…when the flower-lady shows up, all fancy-like, in a dress and hat and everything. Her name is Eliza Doolittle, and she’s hoping to get voice lessons. “I wanna be a lady in a flower shop… they won’t take me unless I can talk more genteel.”

After threatening to throw her out the window and/or beat her with a broom handle, Higgins agrees to give Miss Doolittle some gratis voice lessons. Pickering agrees to finance the voice-lessons-slash-cruel-social-experiment, and bets Higgins that he won’t be able to make a lady out of this pathetic guttersnipe in three months, and The Plot is Set in Motion! I thought it was set in motion earlier, but that was a false alarm.

“She’s so deliciously low,” gloats Higgins, “so horribly dirty…”

Do I hear wedding bells?

Next is a humorous scene in which Higgins’ fearsome housemaid, Mrs. Pearce, forces the shrieking Eliza to take a bath. Apparently poor people prefer showers.

Eliza’s filthy, wheezing, toothless derelict of a father shows up, wearing a pirate’s coat and a doo-rag, and offering to sell his daughter to Higgins for fifty pounds.

“Have you no morals, man?” asks the (mildly) offended Higgins. “Can’t afford ‘em, guv’nor!” replies the blackguard solemnly.

My goodness – those poor people really are scoundrels!

And… We’re gonna need a mon-tage!

“Ah. Ah. Like ‘father.’ Ee. Ee. Like ‘machine’… In Hampshire, Hereford, and Hartford, hurricanes hardly ever happen…” and so on.

And now it is time to see if she passes the smell test with some genuine upper-crust snobs – specifically, Higgins’ mother and her coterie of swells.

Hilarity, as they say, ensues. Except for the part where Eliza weeps with bitter, bitter shame.

Not to worry: Higgins has another idea. Seems there’s some kind of soiree at the Transylvanian embassy (yes, really). “I said I’d pass the guttersnipe off as a duchess, and pass her off as a duchess I will!”

Another montage of late-night hectoring: “How do you address an ambassador? An archduke? The Queen?”

Now it’s time for the Transylvanian shindig.

Much to the chagrin of the linguists, Higgins’ greatest student is also at the party.

Will he see through Eliza’s class-crossing sham?

To the surprise of no one who has previously seen a movie or read a book, Eliza is the belle of the ball, bedazzling men and women alike. Not only does she pass as a blueblood, the assembled glitterati decide that Eliza is actually slumming Hungarian royalty.

…which all means that Eliza’s stay in the home of Henry Higgins is rapidly coming to an end. There is some slipper-throwing and the inevitable final confrontation: “You don’t care about me! What’s to become of me?” etc. Also, there is Higgins’ dawning realization that he might, you know – miss Eliza when she leaves. He therefore threatens to ram the jewelry down her ungrateful throat, and then slaps her.

Eliza flees to Higgins’ mother’s house, and Henry chases after. He demands that she return to his home at once, but she only smiles and continues with her needlepoint.

“You see, the difference between a flower girl and a lady isn’t how she behaves; it’s how she’s treated,” she tells Colonel Pickering, quite sensibly. Higgins is fuming in the corner.

After a bit of back-and-forth, Eliza proclaims that she doesn’t mind if Higgins swears at her or even gives her a black eye, as long as he doesn’t ignore her. For his part, Higgins admits that he’s gotten rather used to Eliza’s working-class mug and would probably miss her if she left.

“If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence!” says she.

“Independence? That’s middle-class blasphemy!” says he, adding another threat of physical abuse for good measure.

But in the end, she comes back to bring him his slippers. The stuffy linguist and the reformed guttersnipe live happily ever after.

What I Liked

Wendy Hiller was charming. The cinematography was clever, especially during the training montages. Henry Higgins’ mother and Colonel Pickering were both likable.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Ay yi yi… another film that I’m glad Robin didn’t watch with me. Although the last 10 minutes or so are a valiant attempt at course-correction, up to that point Pygmalion is one of the most egregiously classist and misogynist films I’ve seen. Are we really to assume that poor people have never heard of bathing, or that they casually sell their daughters? And what are we to make of Higgins’ constant browbeating of Eliza, or his frequent threats of physical violence? Worse, all of this is played as light comedy.

Having read more about Shaw, I gather that he was quite a lefty and genuinely concerned about the exploitation of the poor. But what came across in Pygmalion was a paternalistic, condescending attitude toward the poor, ergo: If we could only raise them up to our level…

Granted, the last section of the film does seem to be making the point that class distinctions are socially-constructed, that the only things separating a guttersnipe from a blueblood are some linguistic signifiers. But by then, we’ve endured a whole film of Eliza being treated like an animal or an idiot by Higgins. Yes, he (sort of) gets his comeuppance in the end, but it’s not nearly enough.

Should You See It?

The Pygmalion myth and G.B. Shaw’s modern gloss are prime source material for 20th century Western culture. As such, you might want to watch Pygmalion just so you get the references.

You know, for the same reason you might read Shakespeare. Zing!

And I can’t claim that it’s a bad film; undeniably, the banter is sometimes amusing, the cinematography is occasionally interesting, and Wendy Hiller is delightful and even genuinely moving in the final scenes.

Still, I found the blunt misogyny and classism difficult to excuse, and I therefore find it difficult to recommend. So: buyer beware, and all that.

Next: Rashomon

2 Comments

  1. Agree wholeheartedly. It became difficult to laugh it off after Higgins threatened to smack her around for the fourth or fifth time. I suppose I should applaud Shaw for not introducing a phony character arc, but… egads, when your main character is an arrogant a-hole, you’d better give me some other way to identify with him, or some other reason to care.

    Mike Leigh’s Naked, to take one example, features an even more repellent main character, but the movie does not excuse his behavior or play it as light comedy; his behavior is horrifying, and we are meant to be horrified. At the same time, we see the character’s woundedness, his fragility, and we can (hopefully) identify with his isolation and pain.

    Henry Higgins, on the other hand, was just a common jerk, and I could find no way “in” to his character. I was just… repelled.

  2. What the hell is a “guttersnipe?”

    This film has been re-done a number of times. Obviously, the most popular, or well known version is “My Fair Lady” which, if I recall right – won the Best Picture Oscar. I’m sure it’s been re-made, re-configured and if I was pressed, I would say my favorite version is “Educating Rita” which is similar in a lot of ways and certainly not a re-make but containing similar themes.

    “Pygmalion” is a pretty enjoyable film on a lot of levels. Based on a stage play I really had to take my hat off for the opening scene and the “pull back to reveal” a chaotic street scene. One of those cinematic moments that took my breath away – especially for a 1938 film and being shot on a soundstage, too. Almost as impressive as the soundstage scene at the end of “A Spy Who Loved Me” – very similar to “Pygmalion” if you change Henry Higgins to James Bond and turn Catherine Bach into the Eliza Doolittle role…but lets not do that.

    Do to the success of the remakes – I won’t necessarily bore you to tears with my recap. I’ll assume that Jason did his, once again, masterful job of telling you all you need to know about the story/plot development/murder/cannibalism and the large production number. So no sense going over those here…but here’s what I will say:

    There are moments in this movie that made me laugh out loud and there were moments that made me cringe like a five year-old school girl in front of a garter snake.

    The worthy moments (besides the impressive opening shot) were contained in the times that Eliza was trying out her new style of speaking. Her first encounter at a lunch and then the: “Will she be found out?!” grand engagement with royalty. For those moments the film was especially wonderful. I also found, during the end, to relish other moments of the film. The sly way that George Bernard Shaw took on the questions of Class, Royalty, Privilege. The dialogue is fantastic and there were a couple lines that hit me really strongly – including the line “He treats me like I’m a lady because he’s always seen me as a lady whereas you have always seen me as someone from the gutter.” (or something like that)

    Where this film fails to me is in the character of Henry Higgins. Though wonderfully played by Terrance Howard and all that – the distance the character has from Ms. Doolittle never seems to cross the bridge. I would have liked to have seen some HINT of compassion, some moment of longing or love from the character. Alas even something that could be referred to as character arc from the character. But, sadly…that never comes forward so I continued to find him both distant, a boor, and an uncaring lout. So when the transformation happens at the 89th minute of a 90 minute film – it, well, doesn’t really happen…so…why should I care?

    So, then, let me clarify in my normal standard:

    WHAT I LIKED!

    I liked the cinematography and there were some brilliant moments of comedy that I felt really raised this film. The actress who played Eliza played her very well. All the actors were very good in their parts – though I take issue with the Henry Higgins character in that I didn’t really give a shit about him…at all…ever.

    WHAT I DISLIKED!

    The Henry Higgins character. Again, I realize he’s supposed to be a book-wormy professor who’s a bit of a “stick-in-the-mud” but if you’re going to show love/change/arc whatever you want to call it – you’ve got to plant the seed or it rings false. Jason may have had a different opinion – but I found it to be false (sort of the way that Pepe Le Moko was willing to risk his life just for the love of someone he spent very little time with).

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Has it’s moments. Not many. Those moments are worth seeing the film.

    SIDE NOTE:

    Maybe it’s just me – but it seems like I’ve seen 3 or 4 films in a row now where there seems to be an underlying current that a “woman needs to be smacked to be put in her place.” Much like I was disgusted and saddened by the “heads of animals montage” in “Colonel Blimp” – I’m getting increasingly disgusted by the occasional: “A smack is what’s good for ya!” (said by man to woman) Or, worse yet: “I probably deserve to be smacked and I’m surprised you haven’t yet.” (said by woman to man). Why it disgusts me (or saddens me) is that at some point there was (or seemed) to be a prevailing attitude that if, God FORBID, a woman challenge a man on his authority she was going to get smacked for it. Just like the fact that there was some point where killing animals and slapping their heads on a wall was “jolly good fun ol’ boy!” Now, maybe I’m supposed to compartmentalize this all into the “time frame” and “differing attitudes” and “what not” – but it’s getting harder for me to ignore some these overtly spoken chastisements towards women (and some scenes of outright violence towards women).

    Stepping off soap box now. Thank you for listening.

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