Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Film Review: Pygmalion

"Pygmalion"  *** (out of ****)

Americans often believe the British are superior then them. Americans, despite a revolution you may have heard of, hold the British in very high esteem. One of the areas in which Americans feel the British are superior to them has to do with language. In England, American believe, they speak the queen's english. It is only there one can hear the language spoken properly. My family comes from Hungary, so we never had a pre-occupation with the English. We never even looked to them for tea and crumpets.

Language however plays in important role in this screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play of the same title, co-directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard.

Besides language there is also an issue of social standing and the English view of class. Which is quite fitting when one considers this movie was released two years after  Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson, who had been twice divorced. Although, officially, the English objected to this marriage due to Ms. Simpson being divorced, there was clearly a social conflict. A king was going to marry an American, divorced woman?

What is often believed to set America apart from the United Kingdom is in America there is no class system. How anyone can believe this is beyond me, but, we will save that argument for another time. In America you can be born into a working class family but die a millionaire. In the United Kingdom, everyone has their place in the world. If you were born poor you will die poor. There is no social mobility.

How "cute" then the British have made a romantic-comedy on the very notion of a poor woman moving up the social ladder and falling in love with a "gentleman". The poor flower flower girl, with no education, becomes a lady and meets the queen. Only in the movies!

"Pygmalion" (1938) was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, and won one for its screenplay, which Mr. Shaw co-wrote along with Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis and W.P. Lipscomb.

Most viewers may not be familiar with this screen adaptation of "Pygmalion" but may have seen the musical version of it which premiered on Broadway in 1956 with an Alan Jay Lerner - Frederick Loewe musical score and renamed "My Fair Lady". It starred Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and was later turned in a film which also starred Mr. Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. It would win the Academy Award for best picture and seven other awards.

Audiences will know the basic story. Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), renowned professor of phonetics. He believes he is able to tell exactly where someone from from by their accent. He meets a poor flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) and wages he can turn her into a "lady" in six months by teaching her the proper way to speak.

Leslie Howard, whose father was Hungarian, was a well respected British actor who received two acting Academy Award nominations during his career. One of those nominations was for his performance in "Pygmalion". He was able to cross over to American films during the early days of "talkies". He was a stage actor and again, because he was English, many felt he would be able to speak properly on camera. Remember, after the silent film era many actors saw a decline in their careers because of their voice.

For as good an actor as Mr. Howard may have been, and he was a good actor, watching his performance in "Pygmalion" one can't help but feel this is an exaggerated caricature of a performance. Can someone sincerely except Professor Henry Higgins as a real-life person you might meet on the street or is the character more symbolic, representing the "middle-class morality" we hear mentioned often in the movie? My instincts tell me the Professor Higgins characters, as well as the other characters in the movie are symbolic.

If the characters are symbolic then the question becomes, what do they represent? What impression is the movie making on the audience? Some might feel the movie is cruel in its depiction of the working class. In one scene Eliza is shown screaming and yelling at the very thought of taking a bath. Professor Higgins constantly talks down to her, referring to her as a "guttersnipe". What does this tell us? Do the wealthy and educated feel they have the right to speak to the poor, the "undeserving poor", as they are referred to as in the movie, in such a manner? Is this what a society with a class system accept?

"Pygmalion" is credited as being the first movie Wendy Hiller ever appeared in, however this is not true. She made an appearance in a movie a year prior. If Mr. Howard seems to give an exaggerated performance, Ms. Hiller at times doesn't do enough. Sure, Ms. Hiller has her exaggerated moments as well, kicking and screaming while taking a bath for one, and her constant crying and complaining about events going on around her but there are moments when Ms. Hiller appears on-screen and is unable to generate any sympathy from the viewer, especially this viewer.

One of the more interesting characters is Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle (Wilfrid Lawson), who is willing to sell his daughter to Professor Higgins for a five pound note. Again, we must ask the question, what kind of message does this send to the audience? What kind of stereotypes is this reinforcing. The poor are so ruthless, so desperate they are willing to sell their own children for money? But it is Alfred who may in fact be the smartest character. Alfred has street smarts. He knows his place in the world and how society sees him. Alfred is the one to speak about "middle-class morality" and refers to himself as part of the "undeserving poor". Alfred knows more about life than Professor Higgins.

There is going to be a debate regarding the end of the movie and the fate of Prof. Higgins and Eliza. Even the Broadway play changed Mr. Shaw's ending for commercial appeal. What I find most interesting in the final "confrontation" between the two characters, neither is terribly clear about what they want. Does Eliza love Higgins? Why? At no point in the movie does Eliza utter the words "I love you" nor does Higgins. For a movie dealing with language is it not ironic that neither character can say what they mean? Only our poor, ignorant friend, Alfred Doolittle is able to express himself in a clear, concise manner where the audience never has to wonder what does he mean.

Visually there is little impressive in "Pygmalion" though I wouldn't call it a "play on film". I don't particularly find "Pygmalion" to be romantic, a great satire or much of a comedy. The satire doesn't go far enough to fully make its point. There is nothing romantic about the movie and the relationship between Prof. Higgins and Eliza. Audiences will find more to enjoy, in that aspect, while watching "My Fair Lady". The humor is dry at best though there is one wonderful sequence involving Eliza telling a story at the home of Prof. Higgins' mother, while she is entertaining guest.

What exactly does "Pygmalion" have to say about the class system? The poor? The women's lib movement? I'm not sure. If someone feels the they the answer it is through their own research and interpretations of the Mr. Shaw's text other than this movie.

At best "Pygmalion" is something of a light division. I can't speak harshly against it yet I can't gush praises at it either. I'm more mystified by the movie than anything else.

The other co-director of the movie, Anthony Asquith, would go on to direct one of my all-time favorite films, "The Browning Version" (1951), it may be the finest movie Mr. Asquith ever directed.