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UK 1938
Directed by
Leslie Howard / Anthony Asquith
96 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Before there was the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical 'My Fair Lady' and the 1964 film version by George Cukor  there was the 1913 stage play by George Bernard Shaw and this 1938 film adaptation directed by its leading man Leslie Howard with Anthony Asquith.

Whilst today the Cukor film will probably be most people’s first choice, Shaw’s marvellous text is the foundation for the success of all versions and particularly as Shaw himself worked on the script for this version (and won an Oscar along with fellow writers Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis. W.P. Lipscomb) even if it differs from the original stage play (e.g.there Eliza marries Freddie, here she comes back to Higgins, the ballroom scene was added for the film, and so on) it is with Shaw’s assent.

Most people will know the story about how self-satisfied linguistics Professor Henry Higgins (Howard) makes a bet with an amateur colleague Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can take Covent Garden flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) and within six months pass her off as an upper class socialite at a Buckingham Palace reception so it’s the performances that are the thing here.  Of course in 1938 no-one had heard of Rex Harrison (Shaw died in 1950 and so never saw the musical version) and whilst he may have his partisans today, Howard provides a winning version of the self-centred upper-class Professor (apparently Shaw’s first choice for the part was Charles Laughton!). Hiller also is captivating as Eliza although despite being only 26 at the time she looks a little too self-possessed for the part of Eliza. It is however a quality that works well in the third act and the most poignant part of the play when the now-evolved Eliza confronts Higgins with his complete lack of awareness of her as person.

Shot entirely at Pinewoods Studios Pygmalion is a rather staid and, especially compared to Cukor's film, an unspectacular production but given the quality of the writing and performances, no-one is going to be bothered by that.

FYI: There is a fairly rudimentary 1983 film version of the stage play with Peter O’Toole playing Higgins available on Youtube.




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