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teaser Pygmalion (1939)

"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."
- Film critic David Ehrenstein

Decades before the 1964 musical My Fair Lady swept the Academy Awards®, the author of Pygmalion, the play on which it was based, became a most unlikely Oscar® winner for the original's 1938 screen adaptation. Possibly the most intelligent person to win the award (he might have claimed to be the only intelligent man to do so), Shaw holds the distinction of being the only individual to win both an Academy Award® and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Given his disdain for the movies, particularly those adapted from his own plays, it's a minor miracle the film even got made and turned out to be a brilliant adaptation.

Pygmalion had been one of Shaw's most popular plays since its English-language premiere in 1914 (it actually premiered in Germany a year earlier; the English premiere had been pushed back so leading lady Mrs. Patrick Campbell could recover from an automobile accident). The story of a phonetics professor (modeled on real-life phonetician Henry Sweet) who turns a Cockney flower girl into a lady by teaching her to speak properly touched a chord with audiences, who viewed it as one of the writer's most romantic plays. It had already been filmed twice, in Germany in 1935 and in the Netherlands in 1937. Shaw had disliked those versions so much that when producer Gabriel Pascal first approached him about filming an English version, the writer turned him down. Only when Pascal promised not to change a word and agreed to cast Wendy Hiller, whom Shaw had admired in stage productions of Pygmalion and St. Joan, did the great writer accede. Although she had already made one film, the low-budget 1937 comedy Lancashire Luck, Pascal gave her introductory billing in Pygmalion at Shaw's request.

The author did not get his way in casting the male lead, however. His first choice for Henry Higgins was Charles Laughton, but Pascal convinced him that Leslie Howard would make the film more marketable in the U.S. That choice may not have been based solely on the stars' box-office appeal. In the mid-'30s, Laughton was riding high on a series of popular films, including Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty (both 1935). Rather, Pascal may have been appealing to the popular notion that the leading characters eventually married. Shaw had resisted the notion and even wrote a 1916 essay describing Eliza's life after parting ways with Higgins and decrying the more sentimental interpretations as "lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of 'happy endings' to misfit all stories." With the more romantic Howard cast as Higgins, however, Pascal may have hoped to weight the story towards a more romantic interpretation that would have sold more tickets.

One way Pascal got around Shaw's insistence on a word-for-word filming of the play was by hiring him to write the screenplay. That gave the author a chance to incorporate scenes cut from most stage productions because they would have added too many sets (Shaw even had said such scenes were best suited to a film version). The writer also got to expand the scene at the Embassy Ball, where Higgins wins his bet to pass Eliza off as a lady. As a result, Shaw agreed to cut some of the play's more philosophical speeches, including several of the longer speeches delivered by Eliza's father. He also grudgingly agreed to include a final scene in which Eliza returns to Higgins, who, unable to express his love for her, demands "Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?" Shaw would later disavow this ending, insisting that Eliza instead married her high society admirer, Freddie Eynsford-Hill.

Nonetheless, Shaw was delighted with the film version of Pygmalion and made arrangements for Pascal to film all of his plays (the only ones completed were Major Barbara in 1941, Caesar and Cleopatra in 1945 and Androcles and the Lion in 1952). The film proved a hit in both Great Britain and the U.S. (where Henry Higgins' "damns" had to be replaced with "hangs"). At year's end, it was nominated for four Academy Awards® -- including Best Picture, Best Actor (Howard) and Best Actress (Hiller) -- years before foreign films were regularly honored at the Oscars®. It won for Shaw's screenplay, but the author was hardly grateful. Instead, he announced, "It's an insult for them to offer me any honor, as if they had never heard of me -- and it's very likely they never have. They might as well send an honor to George for being King of England." His private views may have been more appreciative. Mary Pickford would later report that when she visited Shaw the award was prominently displayed on his mantelpiece.

When novelist Lloyd C. Douglas announced Pygmalion had won Best Screenplay, he quipped, "Mr. Shaw's story now is as original as it was three thousand years ago." But though Shaw had, indeed, been inspired by the Greek myth about a sculptor who falls in love with his female statue, his version of the story became as much a part of popular culture as the original legend. In addition to inspiring the hit stage and screen musical My Fair Lady (stage, 1956; film, 1964), Pygmalion has inspired dozens of imitations, including the romantic comedy Pretty Woman (1990), the porn film The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) and the Bollywood film Santu Rangili (1976). It also inspired episodes of such TV series as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Family Guy and The Simpsons.

Producer: Gabriel Pascal
Director: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
Screenplay: George Bernard Shaw, W.P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis, Ian Dalrymple, Anthony Asquith
Based on the play by Shaw
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Director: John Bryan
Score: Arthur Honegger
Cast: Leslie Howard (Prof. Henry Higgins), Wendy Hiller (Eliza Doolittle), Wilfrid Lawson (Alfred Doolittle), Marie Lohr (Mrs. Higgins), Scott Sunderland (Col. Pickering), Jean Cadell (Mrs. Pearce), David Tree (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Everley Gregg (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Leueen MacGrath (Clara Eynsford-Hill), Esme Percy (Count Aristid Karpathy), Viola Tree (Perfide), Irene Browne (Duchess), Cathleen Nesbitt, Leo Genn (Guests at Embassy Ball), Anthony Quayle (French Hairdresser).

by Frank Miller

SOURCES:Sequel: What Happened Afterwards by George Bernard Shaw
Inside Oscar® by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona

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