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.
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)