Thursday, 2 May 2013

Pygmalion (1938) - ★★★★★

Director: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
Writers: George Bernard Shaw
Stars: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell

Pygmalion is an absolutely fantastic film. I saw My Fair Lady (1964) before this movie and wasn't very impressed with it. Seeing as it was a musical adaptation of Pygmalion, I didn't have very high hopes for this movie. The second Wendy Hiller popped onto the screen, I knew I'd discovered something special. Her acting was beyond brilliant and the chemistry she had with Leslie Howard was electric. I feel that Pygmalion is an underrated classic that should be praised just as much as Brief Encounter (1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Anyone who has seen My Fair Lady should know this story like the back of their hand. When Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) encounters a girl from the gutter named Eliza (Wendy Hiller), he makes a bet with his colleague that he can pass her off as a lady within 6 months. She agrees to the lessons, the question is, can she learn to be a lady in time for an aristocratic ball?

Henry would be called a gentleman by the way he walks, talks and dresses. However, he is extremely rude and unsympathetic towards Eliza. Throughout the lessons he bullies her, such as in one scene where he says, "Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!" It's his utter distaste and unforgiving nature that makes this story all the more interesting. We want Eliza to succeed and prove that she's more than just a "Gutter-snipe." We want her to become better than Higgin's and make him regret saying those awful things. It keeps you glued to the screen, anxiously waiting to see where she ends up.

Some of the scenes are accompanied by classical music, giving us the taste and feel of the time. The cinematography and set production looks absolutely fantastic, proving that sometimes less is more. All of the supporting performances were wonderful, in particular Scott Sunderland as Colonel George Pickering, who was always kind to Eliza.

By far, the greatest thing about Pygmalion is the masterful performances by Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. Now Howard always seems to play a soft-spoken and kind gentleman (Of Human Bondage, Gone With the Wind). Here, he played a more loud and brutish man and knocked it out of the park. At times I absolutely hated the character, at others I thought he was absolutely gorgeous. It's arguably his greatest performance.

However, Wendy Hiller stole the show. She makes Audrey Hepburn's performance in the musical look amateurish. Hiller embodies this role; she is Eliza Doolittle! At the start of the film she had a thoroughly convincing lower-class, almost cockney accent. We then see her voice evolve into that of a real aristocratic lady. Everything from her hand gestures to her facial expressions changed as she changed from lower to upper-class. When she got angry, the atmosphere was electric! It's one of my favourite performances of all time.

This movie is damn entertaining. I loved the story, which honestly doesn't need to have musical numbers scattered here and there. What I loved most was the powerhouse performances by Howard and especially Hiller. I do think this is a perfect film. It's one of the all time great classics of cinema.

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