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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard | Pgymalion

the toy
by Douglas Messerli

George Bernard Shaw, W. P. Liscomb, Cecil Lewis (scenario and dialogue), Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald and Kay Walsh (uncredited dialogue), Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard (directors) Pygmalion / 1938

Nearly everyone who has seen the hit musical and film My Fair Lady, knows the story of Shaw's Pygmalion: it's a tale of a young, cockney flower-seller, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), who meets up with Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), a master linguist, who insists that he could teach even her how to speak proper English: "Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!"

      The next day, she takes up his challenge, offering to pay for English lessons! Her stay in Higgins' house, along with Colonel George Pickering (Scott Sunderland)—a fellow dialect specialist Higgins has run into outside the opera (whom you might even describe as a "pick up")—results in the musical version, in a growing love-hate relationship between Higgins and Doolittle. In the 1938 film version, however, things are kept at a lower temperature, as the two men, Higgins and Pickering, dally with Eliza as if she were a toy, Higgins almost torturing her as she suffers through his cruel teachings (a sequence shot by a young David Lean, on his first assignment as editor).

     While in this dramatic version, we delight in their gradual transformation of their toy into a beautiful and well-spoken woman, any sexuality this film permeates exists between the two elderly "confirmed bachelors" rather than between girl and Higgins. True, even in the musical version it takes a long time before Eliza's resentment of Higgins begins to turn into dependence and, finally, a restorative love. But in Asquith's and Howard's version of the Shaw play, the work centers not on romantic fireworks but on the author's insistence that language makes the person. Asquith, a closeted homosexual, focuses his camera in the film primarily upon his two male figures who in the scene when Eliza finally gets the right accent, fling themselves into dance, as opposed to the complete involvement of Eliza in the later incarnations. Eliza's would-be lover in this version, moreover, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (David Tree) is such a buck-toothed dimwit that we cannot for one moment believe Eliza would have him. This Freddy does not even haunt the street where she lives. But neither do we believe that there is any real possibility of romance between her and Higgins.
     Her escape from the Higgins household after the two, Higgins and Pickering, celebrate her success at the great ball as primarily their doing, seems the only choice she might have made. There is no room for her in the all-male world Higgins has created. His wish for her to return—"Get out and come home and don't be a fool!" to which Higgins' mother responds "Very nicely put indeed, Henry. No woman could resist such an invitation"—hints at no romantic intentions, but merely the fact that he and Pickering have become dependent on her as a kind of feminine form of entertainment. Aren't most dolls (with the exceptions of Ken and G.I. Joe) female?

     Eliza's return, accordingly—an ending which Shaw himself opposed—is utterly ambiguous, as is Higgins' response: "Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?" It suggests that if she is to stay, nothing will change. As Higgins' put it earlier to her: "If you can't appreciate what you've got, you'd better get what you can appreciate."

     Yet for all the film's misogyny, it is an absolutely first-rate presentation of Shaw's great play, with Shaw, having himself written the dialogue, winning the 1939 Academy Award for Writing of an adapted screenplay. If in her looks Hiller is no Audrey Hepburn or even Julie Andrews, her plainer features make her appear less vulnerable than the later incarnations of Eliza. Indeed, she has, in part, gotten what she sought: the ability to become a "lady," a woman who through her language and bearing can, by work's end, stand up to the worst of tyrants.

     It has always struck me, moreover, that Higgins is, at heart, the greatest of prigs, a man who transforms both Eliza and her father, Alfred (Wilfrid Lawson) from unwashed creatures of the street into figures fit for the middle class. It is no accident that the first thing that he insists after he agrees to take on Eliza as a pupil is that she wash up, to which she pleads, "I'm a good girl, I am!" But he, as we soon learn, is not necessarily a good man. For Higgins remains an outsider, not even welcome in his mother's house. Which may explain Shaw's desire to cast the less attractive Charles Laughton—whom one might say specialized in playing demented characters such as Nero, Dr. Moreau, murderers and other such types—in the role of Higgins.

Los Angeles, July 25, 2012

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