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Thursday, September 8, 2016

PYGMALION (1938)

Pretty much a triumph all ‘round. In this superb filming (co-directed by Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard; delightfully scored by Arthur Honegger), George Bernard Shaw’s play moves at nearly twice the speed as its famous musical adaptation into MY FAIR LADY/’64, even accounting for the missing songs. (Though, at times, they really are missed.) Shaw, perhaps inadvertently, let his guard down on this transformation story about a common flower peddler who learns to speak & act like a lady by an eccentric phonetics professor. Much as he hated to admit it, this couple were meant for each other. (It’s why he wrote that contrarian epilogue about their futures apart.*) With one exception, the cast scores over the later film, especially Wendy Hiller who proves an all but unmatchable Shavian in her film debut. (‘50s tv clips of Julie Andrews in the role show a remarkably similar Eliza.) As Higgins, Howard is completely charming which is a bit of a problem. Playing at the very limits of his range, he’s too much the pushover. Missing Rex Harrison’s ‘attack’ and sense of threat in the part, Howard can’t get much past befuddlement. Still, it’s a legitimate reading and a lot is gained from filming this as a contemporary story of 1938, and in holding the production to something well below the gargantuan. Cinematographer Harry Stradling came back to shoot the musical; costume designers Schiaparelli & Worth, alas, did not. Live on stage, the Shaw play can now seem to dawdle, while the musical (largely adapted from the film, not the cooler stage version) is all but foolproof. On film, the dawdling is reversed. Just watch the confrontation scene between Eliza & Higgins when they meet at his mother’s after she’s left. In MY FAIR LADY, it just sits there. But here, in Hiller’s extraordinary reading, the brief slips in grammar can break your heart.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: At the royal ball, Eliza is ‘found out’ by a famous linguistic specialist. Seems she’s really a Hungarian Princess! Ironic, since the only Hungarian blood on screen is Leslie Howard! Hungarian on his father’s side.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Shaw’s famously sour epilogue, the one where he tells how Eliza married dim-witted loverboy Freddy Eynsford-Hill, was probably a reaction against the performance of the first Henry Higgins, Herbert Beerbohm Tree who felt the man too cold & unfeeling. (And he was playing against Shaw favorite Mrs. Patrick Campbell.) To mitigate, he’d toss flowers at her when she wasn’t looking! Presumably, all must have been forgiven since David Tree, who plays lovestruck Freddy Eynsford-Hill, was Sir Herbert’s grandson.

DOUBLE-BILL: Never seen MY FAIR LADY? Watch it first, then see PYGMALION. Elsewise, the musical tends to drag, especially in the second half. OR: See the Shavian dream-team of Wendy Hiller & Rex Harrison together in the rather less filmic MAJOR BARBARA/’41.

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