Classic Film Review: Shaw’s “Pygmalion” with Wendy and Leslie

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Here’s the way the brain wanders.

You’ve just finished reading “The Story of Spanish,” are just now starting on the equally breezy, informal and informative “The Story of French,” books that combine travel with history, geography, etymology and phonetics.

You review two Midlands moviesfrom the UK, whose characters have accents you couldn’t cut through with a chainsaw. You reference the “My Fair Lady” song “Why Can’t the English?” (speak bloody comprehensible English) in one of the reviews.

And then “Pygmalion” pops up, George Bernard Shaw’s delightfully dated and sexist play about “Posh Accents Make the Lady…or Gentlemen” which he helped adapt for the screen in 1938. And as I hadn’t seen it in this millennium, well why not? Aside from loathing most of “My Fair Lady” (which adapted “Pygmalion” into a musical) and having had to review it on the stage maybe half a dozen times over the years, I mean.

Leslie Howard, most famous for “Gone With the Wind,” was at the top of his profession and the top of his game for this classic-to-be, even taking a co-directing credit to make sure his close-ups were all they could be.

He’s Professor Henry Higgins, phonetics, speech and accent expert, “confirmed bachelor” and misogynist.

Wendy Hiller is a perfectly believable braying Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle.

And Scott Sunderland is the phonetics academic Col. Pickering, freshly back from The Raj (India) who returned to London just to meet “My dear Higgins.”

They meet at Piccadilly, as Higgins puts on a show of guessing every street urchin (Liza), pickpocket and society swell’s home and birthplace simply by their accent.

He teaches, too, and that’s how the callous bet is made — that the braggart can turn the grubby flower seller, whom he labels “you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language,” into a young lady who could pass for a member of polite society — nobility, even.

“My Fair Lady,” remember, was an Edwardian pre-WWI period piece. Howard and Shaw’s “Pygmalian” was contemporaneous, a pre-WWII comedy with state-of-the-art speech therapy technology (a phonograph recorder, etc.). That makes for cute (not that funny) teaching montages.

The class consciousness of the piece is much sharper when all those songs and regal non-singer Audrey Hepburn aren’t around.

The banter crackles, the insults fly and this Higgins is close enough to Eliza’s age to not be a creeper, even if Eliza’s extortion-minded pop (Wilfrid Lawson) suggests as much.

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Musicals work their magic by folding in songs when the emotion of the moment is too great for mere words or longing, lusty looks to do. And knowing both plays and films, you can’t help but miss a couple of the emotional/musical highs.

The finale drags in “Pygmalion” in a way “My Fair Lady” — a front-loaded musical (most of the best songs are before intermission) — rarely has.

But everything before that finale just sings, without music. It’s a deliciously smart and wordy comedy from the age when Hollywood — on this side of the pond — was thinking “screwball” in its approach to the great class divide.

Howard was a fey leading man, something underscored by “Gone with the Wind” and carried to the level of joke in “49th Parallel.” But he’s perfect here, prissy and able to treat females and everybody else with a dismissive harrumph that plays as asexual.

And Hiller, personally chosen by Shaw for the film, was just coarse and common enough to take to the makeover like a butterfly.

“I washed me face and hands before I come, I did!”

Whatever the virtues of “My Fair Lady,” it is “Pygmalion” that’s aging well, a black and white jewel properly enshrined as a classic.

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MPAA Rating: Unrated, dated allusions

Cast: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Scott Sunderland, David Tree and Marie Lohr.

Credits : Directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, script by George Bernard Shaw, based on his play.  A Criterion release, also on Tubi, Amazon, Youtube, etc.

Running time: 1:29

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