The opportunity to watch Pygmalion next to My Fair Lady is not to be missed. If Shaw at first was reluctant to approve a movie version of Pygmalion, he ended up enthusiastically promoting Wendy Hiller for the part of Eliza Doolittle and, at 82, co-adapting his play into a screenplay and writing several new scenes, including the whole ballroom episode involving that oleaginous fraud, Karpathy. Thanks to Shaw, director Anthony Asquith, co-director Leslie Howard who plays Professor Henry Higgins, Wendy Hiller as Eliza and Wilfred Lawson as Alfred Doolittle, we have one of the wittiest, cleverest takes on social inequality that ever had a romance wrapped around it.
"I can't change my nature and I won't change my manners," says Higgins, a crabby, bossy, arrogant, insensitive fellow who believes the intellectual life is the only life, and who benefits from private wealth and his talent as a teacher of phonetics. His reaction to Eliza declaring her independence is to squawk, "I tell you I've created this thing out of squashed cabbage leaves in Convent Garden!"
Eliza (and Shaw) sees things differently. "You see," she tells Colonel Pickering, "the difference between a lady and a flower girl isn't how she behaves, it's how she's treated." Eliza Doolittle, after she's been cleaned up spectacularly and taught not to drop her H's by Higgins, has become, not just a "proper lady," but a woman of confidence and spirit.
Shaw, of course, turns all this into a contest of ideas -- his -- stated in dialogue so provocative and clever one really needs to appreciate the skill of Howard and Hiller. The contest between the two becomes interesting because we know (this is corny) the two were made for each other. Higgins may have taught Eliza how to speak and behave like a lady, but he doesn't have the faintest idea how to appreciate her. Eliza turns out to be a great teacher, too, and she has a good deal to teach Higgins, squirm as he may.
"Eliza, where the dickens are my slippers?" may not be the most romantic last line in movies or plays, but with Shaw, it does just fine. More than fine, because the question of whether Eliza will stay with Higgins is left up in the air. That last line also works so well because of the two extraordinary performances by Howard and Hiller. Despite Pygmalion being a showcase for Shaw's opinions, Howard and Hiller make it also a showcase for this strange and appealing combination of intellect, sexual attraction and love.
Watching My Fair Lady right after is something like looking at carefully preserved mastodon bones hauled out of the LaBrea Tar Pits. There are some great bones, but the life is gone from them. This isn't to say that the theatrical version of My Fair Lady isn't one of the best musicals Broadway ever came up with. The movie version, however, was made, it seems to me, with such ponderous dignity, such careful attention to giving the audience what they think they remember, and with such an overpowering sheen of Hollywood's deadly professionalism, that the sparkle and much of the wit is either gone or coarsened. Harrison is superb, but at 56 too old (and irreplaceable in the part, although Jack Warner at first wanted Cary Grant). Hepburn is beautiful but not believable as a grubby cockney. Her beautifully posed and lit close-ups are all about Audrey Hepburn and not for a moment about Pygmalion's Eliza. Stanley Holloway is energetic but no patch on Wilfred Lawson's way with a Shavian line. When Lawson wheezes, Howard looks askance because of Doolittle's nature. Higgins' reaction is amusing. When Holloway wheezes, Harrison reaches for his handkerchief because it's a setup for a visual joke involving Doolittle's spittle and bad breath. It's just a cheap laugh.
Enjoy both movies. There's certainly much to like, sort of, in the movie of My Fair Lady. But to see a witty classic of manners, ideas and even romance, watch Pygmalion.
Criterion's Pygmalion could probably stand a re-release. It's one of Criterion's earliest and the technical quality of the transfer could most likely be improved upon now. There are no extras on the disc. A foldout brochure is included with brief notes about the movie. And let's hope one of these days Criterion will be able to do something with another Shavian movie, Major Barbara from 1941. It stars Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison and Robert Morley.