Fabulous 1930s Films Blogathon: Pygmalion (1938)

           By the turn of the 1930s, motion pictures had emerged from their silent days into the age of the “talkies.” However, films still emphasized the visual; speech often seemed an afterthought. Playwright George Bernard Shaw (who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1925), hesitated adapting his famous plays to the screen due to the lack of focus on dialogue in the newer medium. To further deter him, the movie audience’s desires often ran towards the romantic – something that Shaw kept to a minimum in his work. 
Previous failed experiences with filming his writing soured Shaw on adapting his prize-winning plays to film. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s when Hungarian film producer Gabriel Pascal dropped into Shaw’s life that the author would find someone who not only respected him but also understood his vision. Pascal would also fight not to allow Shaw’s limited film expertise to interfere with the production’s integrity.
On December 13, 1935, Shaw gave Pascal the film rights to Pygmalion, a hit play from 1914 that had been based on an ancient Greek myth. This would be the beginning of years of collaboration between the two men. “[Shaw] entrusted me with the magic flute of his art, which he knew I could play,” said Pascal.2  
When the award-winning playwright was asked why he consented to have his plays produced for film by an unknown man when so many famous and wealthy people had knocked on his door asking to do the same, Shaw said, “Until [Pascal] descended on me out of the clouds, I found nobody who wanted to do anything with my plays on the screen but mutilate them…. The man is a genius: that is all I have to say about him.”3  
The production began in early 1938 through Pascal Films, a production company formed by Pascal and Richard Norton, the head of the recently-created Pinewood Studios. Wendy Hiller was cast as the lead female character, Eliza Doolittle. As Hiller had completed only one movie prior to Pygmalion, the actress was not well-known in the film industry. However, Hiller’s theater training worked in her favor as the playwright enthusiastically gave his stamp of approval for this casting choice.
The filmmakers also cast Hollywood star Leslie Howard as the male lead, Professor Henry Higgins. Shaw held a great disdain for Hollywood in general and disagreed with this casting in particular. He explained that Higgins is meant to be a “heavy,” and that Howard is so likeable that the audience will want  Higgins  to end up in a romantic relationship with the leading lady, which is against Shaw’s wishes for his heroine.4 Nevertheless, the casting was not altered.
Pygmalion (1938) follows Eliza, a flower seller from the slums of London, who asks a professor of phonetics to teach her a different dialect so that she may gain employment in a flower shop for higher wages. Fellow author and speech enthusiast Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) is on hand to raise the stakes. They wager that Higgins’ new pupil cannot fool dignitaries at an embassy ball. Not only does Professor Higgins eliminate Eliza’s Cockney accent, but he also refines her poise and conversational abilities to the point that she’s unrecognizable to almost everyone who had known her before. 
This popular rags-to-riches tale would become the first of Shaw’s authorized film adaptations which would utilize the camera’s roving eye. The camera would not stay fixed and unmovable while the actors moved around, as it did in earlier, static Shavian films that had flopped at the box office. The mobile camera in Pygmalion would move with the players, even out-of-doors, as when Leslie Howard paces the streets of London on location.
In a key scene where Eliza announces that she does not appreciate Higgins’ “bullying or your back talk,” the camera is held at a low angle over Higgins’ shoulder as Eliza advances towards the camera. This camera position allows the character to tower over Higgins and fill the screen, symbolically showing her dominance.
The unique camera placements are also utilized for the scenes in which Higgins gives Eliza lessons. To produce a quick succession of progress, montages are used to show Eliza’s change from a “draggletailed guttersnipe,” as Higgins calls her, to a “duchess.” 
These scenes of Higgins teaching Eliza are not in the original play; these were produced especially for the film and would be a favorite in subsequent adaptations. In ACT II of the play, Eliza is last seen in Professor Higgins’ living room accepting the challenge ahead of her. The next ACT introduces the newly transformed Eliza in the drawing room of Higgins’ mother – Mrs. Higgins. Eliza’s behavior in front of Mrs. Higgins’ guests is humorously riddled with faux pas, nonetheless, it is obvious that the young lady has had lessons on speech and decorum which have occurred offstage.
The film, however, fleshes out the transformation onscreen. Not only do we see Eliza in her first outing after her transition (as we do in the play), we also see our heroine practicing her vowels and listening to Professor Higgins play the xylophone for speech intonations. We see the poor girl (who insists that she’s not dirty because she has washed her face and hands) protest against her first bath and Higgins chuckle at her dismay. These moments of Eliza’s growth are like watching a flower unfurl its petals. These moments also help the audience to understand the friendship that burgeons between the two leads.5  
Also shown for the first time is the last part of Higgins’ experiment. In the play, after we leave Mrs. Higgins’ house, the next scene is the beginning of Act IV, where Eliza, Higgins and Pickering return home from their great triumph, having tricked the dignitaries at an ambassador’s garden party into believing that Eliza is of the upper classes - the event towards which they have been working the whole time. The party has occurred offstage.
The film, however, decides to show the party, which has been upgraded to an Embassy Ball. The movie serves its audience a sumptuous feast for the eyes at the ball, with gentlemen in tuxedos, a grand staircase and Eliza in the most regal gown we have yet seen her wear. This scene is a visual exclamation mark to Higgins’ experiment. Ironically, this scene of the victory of speech over social boundaries runs almost wordlessly for our heroine. At the ball is a former pupil of Higgins, Count Aristid Karpathy (Esme Percy), who relays to Higgins an off-screen conversation with Eliza. 
 However, the audience never hears Eliza utter a word at the ball. Why does a film about speech not allow the audience to hear the leading lady speak during her conquest?
Is it really Eliza’s conquest? Though we do not hear her speak at the ball, we do hear her after the ball, in frustration and anger, hurl accusations at Higgins. In despair, she asks, “What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for?” Eliza reminds Higgins that this ball, this project that they all entered into together, is not really her idea, but Higgins’ (“I won your bet for you, haven’t I?”). Higgins mistakes her question to mean that she wants undue credit for the experiment. (“You won my bet? You presumptuous insect, I won it.”)
What, then, is Eliza’s achievement? Choice is her triumph. From the beginning, our heroine is proud of her ability to support herself after her “stepmother” turned her out to make her own way in the world. 6 The goal in engaging Higgins’ services is continued independence for herself. With dialectic change, Eliza can walk away from impoverishment and live among the middle classes, gain a new standard of living and a range of options. Whether she chooses to marry the ardent suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill (David Tree), work in a flower shop, become a phonetics assistant to Karpathy, return to Higgins and become one of the “old bachelors” in his house or none of the above, is immaterial. The point is Eliza has choices.
In the play, this point of independence is inherent in the final scene. Higgins dictates a shopping list to Eliza, as is their custom, apparently. However, this time Eliza says, “Buy them yourself,” and walks out. This leaves Higgins and the audience to guess whether Eliza will return. The ending is ambiguous.
The film, however, in direct contradiction to the original play, shows Eliza’s choice. We see Eliza drive away with Freddy, leaving Higgins to ponder and sulk. As he listens to her recorded voice on the phonograph, Eliza returns.  Higgins hides his excitement with a curt, “Eliza! Where the devil are my slippers?” Music swells and that is the end.
The movie ends, claims Pascal’s wife, “leaving the public assured that Eliza would be running for those slippers to the end of her days. That was not how George Bernard Shaw ever let his women behave -- but that was how Gabriel Pascal wanted his women to behave.”7  
Showing Eliza’s final choice onscreen (Shaw knew nothing of the new ending until the first public screening of the film8) not only flies in the face of the author, but also truncates audience imagination. Additionally, it limits the central concept of unabashed independence inherent throughout the story and in particular in the original, open ending of the play.
Audiences have often enjoyed the inference of romance between Higgins and Eliza in any adaptation of the tale.9 This is understandable as Shaw sets up the two in a Cinderella-like story. Audiences know the fairytale or folktale structure; usually the leading male and female end up together in a romance. 10 Some audience members might feel cheated if Eliza, our Covent Garden Cinderella,11 does not marry a prince.
What audiences and subsequent adapters of this story often fail to realize is that, if this is a fairy tale, then Shaw has turned a narrative trope on its ear. Higgins does not occupy the romantic prince role. The lead male in Pygmalion is a fairy godmother – a specially-skilled, platonic helper who aids the protagonist.12 Furthermore, with the exception of Freddy and Eliza Doolittle’s father (Wilfrid Lawson), everyone seems asexual, including the married housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Jean Cadell). Further still, as alluded to earlier, marriage or a romantic entanglement is not the prize that our heroine seeks. (“I’ve had chaps enough wanting me that way.”) The prize Eliza seeks from the beginning is continued independence, but in a different socio-economic terrain.
Pygmalion (1938) premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 1938, then was released in the UK on October 6, 1938. It was a smash hit all over the world, garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress in a Leading Role and winning for Best Writing, Screenplay.  Leslie Howard won the Volpi Cup  for Best Actor during the Venice Film Festival. The movie made Pascal and Hiller – the least known of the major contributors of Pygmalion- sensations all over the world.
For once, Shaw was proud of a film adaptation of his play, stating that Pygmalion is an, “all-British film, made by British methods without interference by American script writers, no spurious dialogue, but every word by the author, a revolution in the presentation of drama in the film. In short, English über alles.”13
The 1930s threw off the stiltedness of the silent era, continued to explore the unique properties of film in story-telling in the ‘talkie’ world, and developed increasingly sophisticated dialogue. For Shaw in particular, this decade saw the author’s renewed interest in bringing his brilliant and unusual plays to the screen for generations to come.

1.       Pascal held a “filial devotion” to Shaw; the childless playwright trusted the producer as he would a son; the orphaned Pascal found a growing loyalty to the octogenarian author. This is according to Valerie Pascal, The Disciple and His Devil: Gabriel Pascal and Bernard Shaw (New York: McGraw Hill, 1970), p. 95.
2.       Pascal, The Disciple and His Devil, p. 79.
3.       Pascal, The Disciple and His Devil, p.  87.
4.       Pascal, The Disciple and His Devil, p. 83.
5.       Showing Eliza’s lessons in the film also produces the unfortunate problem of making her big reveal at Mrs. Higgins’ house anticlimactic. We have seen Eliza mastering, among other things, that famous line which was made up especially for this film: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” Thus, by the time she arrives at Mrs. Higgin’s drawing room, the audience already knows that our “squashed cabbage leaf” from Covent Garden will do well pretending to be of the upper set. 
6.       Cruel or indifferent stepmothers are a frequent character in fairytales, according to Donald Hasse, Ed., The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales: G-P (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008), p. 640. Shaw continues these fairytale elements throughout the story.
7.       Pascal, The Disciple and His Devil, p.  85.
8.       Pascal, The Disciple and His Devil, p.  85.
9.       Shaw would forever battle for his original, ambiguous ending. The first Higgins for the 1914 play – Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree- famously inserted bits of sentimental shtick to infer a romance between the two leads and insisted that his interpretation pleased the audience more. This interference drove the playwright crazy, according to  Max Beerbohm, Ed., Herbert Beerbohm Tree: Some Memories of Him and of His Art (New York: Hutchinson, 1920 ), p.  246. The musical remake My Fair Lady (1964), both onstage and onscreen, has Eliza return to Higgins. In the film version of the musical, we end with Eliza advancing towards Higgins as her love song, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” plays. Audiences loved this. This treatment, mercifully, came after Shaw’s death.
10.    Out of the 31 elements of a folktale narrative, the last one is the Hero Weds, also known as Boy Gets Girl.  Vladimir Propp,  Morphology of the Folktale. Trans., Laurence Scott. 2nd ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), p.  63.
11.   Industrial London’s ash permeates Eliza’s skin and clothing at the beginning of the story, almost as a symbol of perpetual mourning for this pauper. Like Cinderella – another ash-covered lady whose parents are effectively absent- Eliza is psychologically orphaned. Thus, when our transformed heroine –glamorously dressed for the ball- returns to the hearth in Act IV, Scene 1 of the film to retrieve her ring which Higgins threw there during an argument, her hands become filthy with cinders again. Eliza has returned to a state of mourning. By the next day, Eliza has packed her bags and run away. However, Shaw does not allow her to remain bowed down by grief. The next time Higgins sees her, his pupil is confident in her decisions; she is a phoenix rising from the ashes.
12.   If there is a prince here, it is the ineffectual, lovelorn Freddy, but who is not developed as a character beyond his simple infatuation with Eliza. He would seem unfit for our complex heroine, should she wish to have Freddy in her life. It is well-known that in response to so many people wanting Higgins and Eliza to mate, Shaw attached a Sequel to his published play in 1916 to explain his intentions for these characters and to stave off any productions marrying Eliza to Higgins. In this explanation, Shaw marries his heroine off to Freddy (who is anemic and useless as a breadwinner) and gives her a failing flower shop. He does this, not because it’s the right ending, but as if to say that since you want Eliza to have a romantic ending, he will give you one, but it won’t be happy and it won’t be with Higgins. Bernard Shaw,  Pygmalion, ( New York: Brentano, 1916).
13.   Pascal, The Disciple and His Devil, p.  85.
This post is a part of the Fabulous Films of 1930s Blogathon.


  1. Excellent post. And you are so right - the talkies were a blessing for such wonderful words. This film is so delightful, but film fantasy must win and cinematic Eliza will probably get those darn slippers (although stage Eliza probably never looked back - I hope!). The "implied" romantic feelings between Henry and Eliza was still a sticking point years later with "My Fair Lady." well, blame it on Shaw - he made his 2 characters too compelling.

    1. Thanks for reading, Flick Chick. They are very compelling. I actually anticipate the new one coming out just to see what Emma Thompson does with it.

  2. Well done. Good point on the camera work with such as this: "In a key scene where Eliza announces that she does not appreciate Higgins’ “bullying or your back talk,” the camera is held at a low angle over Higgins’ shoulder as Eliza advances towards the camera. This camera position allows the character to tower over Higgins and fill the screen, symbolically showing her dominance."

    This is my favorite version of Shaw's play, though I agree it monkeys with the ending in a way that is not wholly satisfying, despite our fanciful wish that Eliza have some romantic ending to her tale.

    1. Pygmalion (1938) is the first of any version in which I recall hearing Higgins offer the idea of living as three old bachelors. That platonic arrangement seems to be in keeping with the narrative, so I can half-way accept Hiller's Eliza returning. That same offer is not made to Hepburn's Eliza, making her return seem odd.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. The film "Pygmalion" is sheer delight. Those words bounce around the brain joyfully with an ever-buoyant energy.

    1. You're right, Caftan Woman. The original dialogue is so great it is musical. I have had a few of the straight dramatic performances converted to MP3 just to listen to them during my walks.

      Thanks for dropping in.

  4. I've only seen bits of this film but even at that, I prefer it to "My Fair Lady". It may be that I have a real soft spot for Leslie Howard... however, I think this version has more charm and doesn't try so hard to assault you with colours and costumes.

    Also, I'm really impressed by the amount of research in your post. Well done!

    1. Yes, the Lerner and Lowe version presents itself as this beautiful present with a big bow - which is great. Pygmalion is more a story about a few humans who bump into each other and change each others' lives. I like each for different reasons.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Marvelous, well-documented review! Imagine having Shaw describe you as a genius? Talk about high praise! I'm often surprised with how brilliantly directors of the 1930s used the camera (Renoir and, as you mention here, Pascal) and sound (Lubitsch and, again, Pascal).

    1. Thanks, Rick.
      Shaw was sparing on compliments, that's for sure. I just think they had a father-son bond on which Shaw could lavish his attention. Plus, Pascal was brilliant.

  6. Great review. I happen to like Pygmalion more than My Fair Lady - although I like musicals in general the latter was uneven in that respect. Dame Wendy Hiller is a gem too. Thanks for choosing this film as a Fabulous Film of the 30s.

    1. Emma Thompson described the film version of MY FAIR LADY as stage-y, I believe. And that her film version would feel a little more real. In that sense, she's going back to the Pascal version, where everyone seems human and not like beautiful dolls in a fantasy world. It all depends on what you're in the mood to see.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Great post! I especially liked your discussion of the original play vs. the film. It's always interesting to learn what is lost/added in an adaptation!

    1. theblondeatthefilm,
      Source materials are so much fun to explore! Watching a movie is great, but reverse engineering a movie is the best. I cannot get enough of it.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  8. i love this movie, adore Hiller and Howard and the rest of the cast, and think Howard didn't overindulge in his natural likability, leaving his Higgins with some of the clueless arrogance and acerbic quality the role requires. Your piece is so enlightening as to the relationships between Shaw and Pascal and between the play and the film, and I really appreciated that angle. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    1. "...the clueless arrogance and acerbic quality the role requires." I absolutely agree. Well put! Thanks, Lesley


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email: java-rush@hotmail.com


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