Thoughts on Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw and Producer Gabriel Pascal

George Bernard Shaw and Gabriel Pascal (Source)

George Bernard Shaw, award-winning playwright, author of Pygmalion (the basis for My Fair Lady) loved wordplay and likened it to a sword fight.

In an article in The Malvern Festival Book, August 1931, Shaw says, 
“My plays do not consist of occasional remarks to illustrate pictures, but of verbal fencing matches between protagonists and antagonists, whose thrusts and ripostes, parries and passados, follow one another much more closely than thunder follows lightning. The first rule of their producers is that there must never be a moment of silence from the rise of the curtain to the fall.” 

With these witty, dialogue-heavy stories came a problem – filmmakers did not believe that drawing room plays –even popular ones like Shaw’s- would translate well on a film- a medium that begs for action.

Says Valerie Pascal in The Disciple and His Devil

“ [My husband, film producer Gabriel Pascal,] was told that Shaw’s name had been box-office poison ever since the miserable flop of his two filmed plays; that he was too highbrow for the public; that his plays, with a minimum of action and a maximum of dialogue, were unsuitable for films without major changes; and that Pygmalion was the deadliest play of all since it did not have enough action for a two-reel short, and worse, it did not have a happy ending. As a matter of fact, it had no ending at all; it left the audience and Eliza Doolittle in the air. ”

However, Pascal was undaunted and given to visions of grandeur. He was confident that he could succeed where other filmmakers had failed. 

Pascal would create a Pygmalion that bended slightly to the realm of film - with exterior shots, montages, moving to various locations; he would cast a newcomer-to-film and make a star of her - Wendy Hiller; he would charm the film’s author and get what he needed for the film, including keeping film star Leslie Howard in the mix, despite Shaw's claim that a "matinee idol" would diminish the film. Pygmalion  would become a hit and a classic, which spurred on more Shavian play-to-film productions.

According to Mrs. Pascal,  Shaw - who was never known to blandish compliments on anyone, least of all a man in the film industry- said, 

“Until he [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.”

High praise indeed.


  1. I can't believe that filmmakers thought that witty drawing room plays would not film well. It's true that stage-bound films don't hold much excitement, but that has to do more with staging than with the dialogue. A witty script is always a plus...especially if it is penned by Shaw.

    1. It was simply a lack of imagination, I think, on the part of early filmmakers. More then than now, movies were considered populist fare and stage was considered the purview of elitists.

      Now, there is far more of a cross-over in audiences.


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