The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks
Secret Cinema presents...

Pygmalia: Pygmalion

This year I’m selecting twelve Pygmalion stories—or stories that contain echoes of the Pygmalion myth—and essaying on them. I already have a few in mind, but please feel free to suggest others in the comments or on Twitter @molly_the_tanz 

PygmalionIt’s Low Hanging Fruit month here at Pygmalia, hot on the heels of me totally flaking out of a July column, but don’t judge me too hard… I’d never seen Pymalion, and quite frankly I didn’t know it existed until April, as I was idly browsing the “English” section of my local video store. After noting the Criterion case, I rented it immediately. Um, by which I mean, I noted it starred Second Hottest Actor Of All Time Award-Winner Leslie Howard* as Professor Henry Higgins, I rented it immediately. What? I’m only human.

Pygmalion (1938)

I grew up on musicals, and as I first saw My Fair Lady during the pre-Internet age, I think I can be forgiven for not going down the Google-hole to discover that the dialogue and the staging were taken from the 1938, Bernard Shaw-scripted black and white film, Pygmalion. To be fair, I did run out and buy myself a copy of the play at a used bookstore, the same one I still have, and read it several times—but as to finding out about the Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller version, that took me until this year.

Watching Pygmalion after seeing My Fair Lady countless times was a decidedly odd experience. They are the same, fundamentally—which isn’t surprising, given they’re both based on the same play, and adapted for the screen by the play’s author. But, going in to the older film, as I had no idea how faithfully My Fair Lady stuck to the Bernard Shaw adaptation, watching Pygmalion was actually just as engaging and tense an experience as the first time I saw My Fair Lady (with no knowledge of the play, Pygmalion) because I had no idea how the film would end. It seemed entirely plausible to me that My Fair Lady had added the scene at the end where Eliza comes back (a divisive moment which I have already discussed my personal interpretation of here on Pornokitsch) in order to appease 1950s-era audiences. People’s disgust for My Fair Lady’s (fantastic, sorry not sorry) ending, in favor of the one in Shaw’s original play, seemed to imply it was an artificial addition.

But, no, that’s not the case. True, Shaw wasn’t happy when the studio demanded he add a “happy ending,” to Pygmalion, but he wrote the famous “where the devil are my slippers” exchange; his interpretation of what a “happy ending” might look like is, to my mind, both hilarious, and a superior ending to the play. 

For readers who aren’t familiar—basically, Pygmalion/My Fair Lady chronicles the adventures of Professor Henry Higgins, phonetics expert, and his friend Colonel Pickering, after they make a wager that Higgins can’t pass off a common flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, as a society debutante, after training her to speak properly, and with perfect grammar. Eliza blossoms under their care into a fine young lady, and attracts the notice of a worthless young man, Freddy. After being treated indifferently by Higgins after her success at a royal ball, Eliza flees. In the film, she comes back. In the play, it’s left up to the imagination. 

Anyways, this has caused a decades-long debate among fans of the story as to which ending is better. As I mentioned above, I come down on the side of the film—I like the ambiguity of her return, which given that Higgins is presented as asexual (in Pygmalion) and probably homosexual (in My Fair Lady), it seems to me at least that Eliza chooses a life of platonic friendship and comfort—and the potential of taking her time to choose what’s best for herself—over an easy romance with a wastrel.

In the play, you see, Eliza leaves, telling Higgins she’ll marry Freddy; Higgins exclaims, “Freddy? Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!” and… curtain. Then there is a long dénouement, mostly Shaw just rambling about marriage and human nature, but there is some stuff in there about how Eliza does marry Freddy, who is too worthless to even get a job—but, in the end, they get by because of Colonel Pickering giving them a wedding gift of £500, and helping them set up a flower-shop.

It’s interesting to me, because in spite of people, including Shaw himself, insisting that My Fair Lady/Pygmalion (film) has a romantic or  (in his words) “happy” ending, the epilogue of the play is ever so much more of both. Eliza and Freddy are terribly happy together, mawkishly so, yet in spite of Eliza’s marriage, she never escapes her attraction to Higgins:

… she has a sense, too, that his indifference is deeper than the infatuation of commoner souls. She is immensely interested in him. She has even secret mischievous moments in which she wishes she could get him alone, on a desert island, away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man. We all have private imaginations of that sort. But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as a distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relationship to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.

This obvious and undeniable sexual attraction on Eliza’s part, paired with Higgins being so deeply affected by her bullying that Pickering has to “ask [Eliza] from time to time to be kinder to Higgins,” makes for some deeply tense and complicated weirdness between the two of them, for eternity… whereas Eliza’s relationship with Freddy seems simple, even motherly at times. Yes, Freddy “earned many kisses” from his wife when he consents to opening a flower shop, as it will be “jolly” to go to
Covent Garden every day, which is after all where they first met, but as much time as Shaw lavishes upon describing how successful as their shop is, their marriage produces no children. What this is intended to imply about their relationship is up to the individual, but Pygmalion is so finely-crafted I can’t believe it was an unintentional omission.

But, setting aside my opinions about the romantic tensions and dynamics within Shaw’s work, the movie Pygmalion is just fantastic. I’ve always loved Leslie Howard, and he’s omg-level good as Higgins. I was skeptical, I confess, since all my life Henry Higgins has been Rex Harrison, but… Howard is even better. It’s not just how beautiful he is, either, though he is of course tremendously beautiful. Howard’s vitality in the role is astonishing; he inhabits Higgins, lending the character a passionate intensity that Harrison never managed, even if Harrison nailed the affable devil-may-care attitude a bit better. Well, all people contain multitudes, and so therefore must great characters.

Wendy Hiller is also tremendous, and she manages to give a bit more depth to pre-transformation Eliza than Hepburn ever managed, even if I have infinite affection for Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle, especially post-transformation. I also love that Hiller’s pronouncement of “bloody” was so scandalous—she was apparently the first actor to ever utter the swear in a British film, which of course was sensational, and you feel the gravitas of the moment even as you laugh.

I highly recommend checking out the film—I mean, if you’re reading this column, you must have some investment in Pygmalion stories, right? So either let me know in the comments if you think I’m being weird about the movie, or go check it out if you haven’t seen it!

Next Month: Maybe I’ll finally get around to reviewing Heart of A Dog. Or, something else.


*The much-coveted Hottest Actor of All Time Award was won by Anthony Higgins in 1982.