“I wish to boast,” Bernard Shaw wrote, “that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play, both on stage and screen, all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that great art can never be anything else.”
The playwright had a point. His story of a cockney “guttersnipe” rescued from a life of Covent Garden flower-mongering by a professor of phonetics who teaches her “proper” English—so perfectly as to have her mistaken for a member of the European nobility—has a clear lesson to teach all who care to listen. Class distinctions are completely artificial in nature, and the only thing separating a dustman from a duchess is an easily learned, appropriately accented use of the language.
But convincing as the great playwright’s argument may be, it hasn’t stopped audiences from overlooking it nonetheless. Pygmalion is subtitled “a romance” and it is this aspect of its story that has—for better or worse—most enchanted audiences. It was in fact Pygmalion’s romantic underpinnings that made its world-famous musicalization My Fair Lady possible.
There’s a saying that goes: A definition of an intellectual is someone who can listen to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” without thinking of “The Lone Ranger.” Were that notion expanded to include anyone who can experience Shaw’s Pygmalion without humming the melodies of “I Could Have Danced All Night” or “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” millions would fail the test. But it’s a tribute to this 1938 non-musical adaptation of Shaw’s play that we aren’t likely to think of its musical version too much. This film’s great cast, headed by Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins, and Wendy Hiller (in her film debut) as Eliza Doolittle, make Shaw’s great lines ring with crackling wit and sparkling intellectual clarity.
Howard, who co-directed this production with Anthony Asquith, found in Pygmalion one of the finest roles of his career. He captures every nuance of this witty, infuriating man whose indifference to social “niceties” and hatred of cultural hypocrisies mark him as a rebel to his own class. As he takes charge of Eliza’s education, he shows a clear sense of pride and a lack of sentimentality towards the “less fortunate.” But there’s an arrogance to this attitude that Eliza sees through, even as she benefits from his teaching skill. Higgins’s failure to take her humanity into account is his sole failing. It also provides the linchpin of romance between teacher and pupil that has sparked audience affection for Pygmalion against the grain of Shaw’s intent.
Shaw, who saw film as the ideal medium for the piece, claims he never intended a romantic hookup for Higgins and Eliza. He even wrote a prose addendum to the script in which Eliza married and set up a flower shop, her antagonism toward Higgins continuing unabated. But he never wrote this epilogue as dialogue, and productions of Pygmalion, this film included, have always seen fit to end things on an upbeat note with a tantalizing hint of a budding love affair between master and pupil. But perhaps in the last analysis it’s just as well that things turned out as they did. After all, romance has its didactic side as well.
David Ehrenstein has written film criticism for over 30 years for such publications as Cahiers du Cinéma, Film Comment, the Los Angeles Times, and Film Quarterly.