Alison Ostman
Photo courtesy Criterion Collection

The scene where Higgins harasses weary Eliza deeply resonates with the interrogation scenes of old detective films.

Pygmalion: Essential Art House

Director: Anthony Asquith
Cast: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1938
US DVD Release Date: 2009-02-10

Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s cinematic adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s renowned play, Pygmalion , owes its magnificence to its splendid cast and snappy dialogue. The ever-so-charming Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller are ingenious as Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, two people from different worlds who ultimately collide in a challenge of both wits and romance.

As the film opens to this well-known story (later captured by Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film, My Fair Lady), Eliza appears onscreen as a streetwise waif selling soggy flowers in the rain. Fascinated by her Cockney speech and brutish sarcasm, Professor Higgins meticulously observes her nearby from a shadowy corner, until his mysterious scrutiny is outed by the surrounding crowd.

As he both explains and demonstrates the skills of his linguistic profession to the demanding swarm around him, the debonair Colonel Pickering soon sees the opportunity for a gentlemanly wager. The bet – transform Eliza from a “squashed cabbage leaf, [a] disgrace to the noble architecture of columns, [and an] incarnate insult to the English language” into a poised, articulate duchess. However, soon Eliza and Higgins will both discover that there is more to a metamorphosis than just a polished performance.

Higgins and Eliza’s joint venture begins with a clashing of wits, Eliza’s stubborn street smarts versus Higgins’ stubborn and overinflated intellect. Higgins’ piercing insults are wholly uncensored, and Eliza must tenaciously defend herself from each throng of gutter-girl stereotypes launched at her. She continues to reiterate that she’s “a good girl…with feelings just like anybody else”, but the reiterations go largely unnoticed.

The first order of business in Eliza’s transformation is taking a bath, a large feat that serves as one of the film’s most hilarious and over-dramatized scenes. Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, is awarded the enormous task and the battle that ensues to simply de-robe and scrub Eliza satirically mimics a scene of torture to be expected in any other drama.

Mrs. Pearce ominously stirs the bubbles in the tub, as though preparing her cauldron to cook the “street” off of Higgins’ prodigy. As Mrs. Pearce drags her charge into the bathtub, Eliza shouts, “I’ve never been treated like this before!”, and continues to scream and thrash about as though she were being cooked alive. The explosive tantrum is a major turning point in the film, though, as it establishes Eliza’s resistance to wash off all that makes her, simply, her.

As Higgins and Eliza continue with their stubborn feuds, it becomes clear that Eliza is not the only person lacking manners. Higgins’ frequent outbursts juxtaposed with Eliza’s increasing poise symbolize a role reversal in the characters. Suddenly, Eliza is easily able to pass as a duchess while Higgins’ brutish ego remains un-groomed. Eliza becomes the teacher, instead of the pupil, illuminating to her former mentor his own callous and mulish flaws that are in need of change.

Ultimately, the tense relationship between the two draws out one of the themes of that permeates the film, performance. Though she fools many others into thinking her a duchess, Higgins still sees her as a flower girl from the gutter; emphasizing his subscription to that age-old adage that you can take the girl from the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the girl. Eliza resists this condemnation, though, and soon proves to Higgins that change comes from within.

In this new print, the Criterion Collection has restored the film beautifully. Though it contains only a single disc with no additional extras, the film functions just fine on its own. The contrast is extraordinarily sharp, smooth and clear, and each lighting technique used in the film stands out brilliantly.

For instance, the scene where Higgins is harassing a weary Eliza into learning her speech patterns deeply resonates with the interrogation scenes of old detective films. Higgins and his ominous shadow hover over Eliza’s seated figure, as the lamp shines hard light upon her pitiful face.

In contrast, the scene where Eliza finally makes her grand entrance at the ambassador’s ball uses soft light to complement Eliza’s shimmering gown and jewelry. This new print terrifically restores these lighting techniques, enhancing the already polished performances of Howard and Hiller.


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