Pygmalion

I have nothing against “My Fair Lady”—except Rex Harrison.  His Henry Higgins is not only smug, he’s a bore, especially when he “sings.” There’s something mean about him, too.  It goes beyond the garden-variety misogyny that Shaw wrote into the character.  This is a Higgins you don’t want to cross.

Not so with Lesley Howard in “Pygmalion.” Those adorable round glasses, his genuine fascination with his subject, the careless aristocratic air. You don’t hold it against him, his insensitivity toward Eliza. Poor dear has other things on his mind.  And he’s not entirely devoid of affection. He calls his mother “dear,” is truly fond of her, clearly wishes that all women could be as sensible and tolerant of his foibles.

He does care about Eliza. Well, who wouldn’t? Wendy Hiller’s transformation from cockney flower girl into a lady is nothing short of miraculous. With Audrey Hepburn, it was largely a matter of clothing (same goes with Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”). Here you see the process unfold before your very eyes.

Watch the afternoon tea party at Higgins’s mother’s place.

You can tell how hard Eliza’s trying to be good, to please Higgins, but her natural ebullience shines through.  So much richer than the horse race in “My Fair Lady.”  And in 1938, the word “bloody” was still shocking.

Still, I have to admit that the soundtrack of the Lerner and Lowe musical did emerge at times, despite my best efforts to repress it.  When Hiller’s Eliza succeeded in pronouncing the phrase, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain,” I found myself humming the tune, and was disappointed when Howard didn’t say, “By George, she’s got it!”  And I so wanted Eliza’s father, Alfred Dolittle, to break into a chorus of “Get me to the Church on Time” when he came to announce his wedding. “Middle-class morality claims its victim,” he laments to Higgins, who understands perfectly.

Here’s my favorite scene:  Howard and Hiller are alone together at the end of the film.  She’s just told him she can do perfectly well without him.

“You never asked, I suppose, if I can do without you,” he says.

“You’ll have to do without me.”

The two spar a bit, and Higgins gets into a bit of a sulk.  “I can do without anybody.  I have my own soul, my own spark of divine fire.  But I shall miss you Eliza.  I confess that humbly and gratefully.”

Rex Harrison never admitted as much, and he certainly couldn’t have brought himself to acknowledge Eliza’s victory, when she made it clear that she could beat Higgins at his own game and support herself by becoming a tutor.  “By George, Eliza!  I said I’d make a woman of you and I have.  I like you like this.”

I like him so much for saying it.

(6 November 2011)

4 thoughts on “Pygmalion

  1. As an admirer of Shaw’s work, I believe that his original text, of anything, is likely to be better than any adaptation. The Chocolate Soldier, now hardly remembered as far as I know, sounds like it must be a trivialization of Arms and the Man. And without having read Pygmalion (or seen the film, though it’s on my long intend-to-see list), I don’t doubt that it has more to admire than Lerner and Lowe’s musical. But I have to admit, as Lisa does, that some of the show’s songs are indelible, and it’s certainly a smarter piece of work than many musicals.


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  2. I’ve finally gotten around to seeing Pygmaiion and must thank you for prompting me. I had seen a snippet of it somewhere, some years ago; a fondness for Wendy Hiller stayed with me from that. And now I fairly love her! The tea-party scene is great good fun. I laughed out loud when I heard “But it’s my belief they done the old woman in.”

    Having the complete plays and prefaces on my shelf, I looked into the ending of Shaw’s play after seeing how the film ended. Shaw wrote the “screenplay and dialogue,” according to the credits, and I suppose consented to how the story ended in the scenario (prepared by two other men). But it’s pretty decisive compared to his play, which concludes at Mrs. Higgins’s house. As Eliza is about to leave with the others to attend her father’s wedding, Henry, assuming they’ve argued each other to a draw and that she has no real choice but to return to him, instructs her to pick up some things for him. She says, “Buy them yourself” and leaves. Henry tell his mother, “Oh,…she’ll buy them all right.” But it’s far from certain.

    Shaw wrote a rather elaborate postscript in which he tells us what he thinks happens. One need not read that to conceive that Henry and Eliza remain apart, although connected.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the film, John. With so many old treasures out there, I find it too easy to live in the past, which is why I’m not up on current TV dramas.

      I believe that Shaw got a fair amount of criticism for how the play ended, and gather that he was pressured into changing the ending for the film.

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