Friday, June 1, 2018

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR JUNE ON TCM


The irascible, intractable and perceptive George Bernard Shaw liked to poke at pomposity and preconceptions in such plays as Arms and the Man, Major Barbara, Mrs. Warren's Profession, and The Doctor's Dilemma. He found a great popular and critical success with his take on the Greek myth Pygmalion, written in 1914 for the charming Mrs. Patrick Campbell.


Mrs. Pat and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree played the class clashing roles in London, and that company's Pickering, Philip Merrivale took over the role of Higgins when they opened on Broadway.

Shaw had a long-held prejudice against any of his works being adapted for the screen but came around in 1938 when approached by producer Gabriel Pascal, a friend of long-standing in whose integrity he had trust. Later they would adapt Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Androcles and the Lion. This screen version of Pygmalion was nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor and won for Best Screenplay.


Pygmalion was co-directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard. Asquith began his film directing career in the silent era and had ten years experience at this point. This was Leslie Howard's first turn at a film helm, and he would direct three other features, Pimpernel Smith, Spitfire, and The Gentle Sex.

Wendy Hiller had played the leading roles in Shaw's Saint Joan and Major Barbara on stage, as well as Pygmalion, before being "introduced" as Eliza Doolittle in this screen version. Wendy had appeared in a comedy called Lancashire Luck the previous year.


Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), a Cockney flower girl, minding her own business trying to make a living selling flower to the after-theatre crowd, is accosted by a strange man taking notes. The strange man is one Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), an expert on phonetics. He amazes the crowd with his ability to place a person's place of birth merely by hearing them speak. Higgins meets up with a fellow enthusiast, a Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland), and off-handedly Higgins mentions that he could turn the wretched flower girl into a Duchess by teaching her how to speak properly.


Admirably, Eliza picks up on the statement made by Higgins regarding her status. The next day, she gathers her resources, washes her face and hands, and makes her way to Wimpole Street where she makes her claim on Professor Higgins utterance. After some consideration and a whole lot of shouting, Higgins decides to take on the guttersnipe as a sort of lark. Col. Pickering, after determining Higgins to be of good character where women are concerned, agrees to foot the bill for the "experiment". The gentlemen also have a bet going as to Higgins being able to pass Eliza off as an aristocrat at an Embassy Ball in six months time.


Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle (Wilfrid Lawson) makes his appearance in our play. After all, he's raised Eliza until she is old enough to be of interest to the gentlemen. What does he get out of it? He gets more than he bargained does Alfred Doolittle. A five-pound note in his pocket, plus a recommendation from Higgins to an American philanthropist for Alfred Doolittle, modern moralist. Speaking engagements and steady money ruin the life of this proud member of the undeserving poor.


Eliza works very hard, certainly as hard as her teacher. She becomes as indispensable a member of the household as the redoubtable Mrs. Pearce (Jean Cadell). Eliza makes her presence felt at Mrs. Higgins (Marie Lohr) at home day, winning the heart of the harmless twit Freddy Eynsford-Hill (David Tree).


The night of the Embassy Ball Miss Elizabeth Doolittle is presented to dignitaries and royalty. Her aloof manner and polished looks make a wonderful impression on all. Count Aristid Karpathy (Esme Percy) is a former Higgins disciple who uses his talent for linguistics to ferret out the phonies at such affairs. He determines that Miss Elizabeth Doolittle is a fraud. She is truly Hungarian royalty. No one but a European would speak English so perfectly. Surely, not someone native to England.


Glorying in his triumph, Higgins doesn't give a thought to Eliza, but she now faces a future without a proper prospect. She also faces a future where the camaraderie she felt with Higgins and Pickering no longer seems viable. Higgins, continuing to treat her in the same old way, is shocked to find his slippers heaved at his head by an angry and hurt Eliza. Perhaps he thinks the argument they had has cleared the air and nothing has changed. Nonetheless, he awakens the next morning to find that Eliza has, in his word, "bolted".


Higgins and Pickering eventually discover Eliza ensconced with Henry's mother. While Pickering and Mrs. Higgins go off to the sad occasion of Alfred Doolittle's wedding, Eliza and Higgins continue their "clearing the air". It takes soul searching and understanding to mend a relationship. Perhaps they are on their way.

It is Shaw's brilliant dialogue that is so delicious in the telling of the story of Professor Higgins and Eliza. It is also the correct actors playing the roles. In this first screen version, we have the master's hand in the screenplay and casting perfection. Loving and appropriate close-ups highlight the feelings of the characters be they exasperation, amusement or appreciation.

The delights of Pygmalion are many and one viewing of this movie is not enough to fully enjoy them all. Compare the 96 minutes runtime to the almost 3 hours for My Fair Lady. This is not a knock at the glory of musical theatre that is My Fair Lady. The songs by Lerner and Loewe are heavenly, and they fit seamlessly into the story and Shaw's witty style. It is only to say that if you have not seen this movie because you are wary of the lack of songs, you will not miss them. And they haven't gone anywhere when you need to hear them again.


Triva:

Rex Harrison, Cathleen Nesbitt, Julie Andrews

Cathleen Nesbitt (1888-1982) is credited as "a lady" in this movie, and billed as Kathleen. I believe she is the brunette at the Embassy who likens Eliza to "the old Duke". In 1956 she played Mrs. Higgins in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady.

Cathleen Nesbitt, Gladys Cooper

You can see Cathleen and My Fair Lady's movie Mrs. Higgins, Gladys Cooper (1888-1971) together in Separate Tables, which also stars our 1938 Eliza, Wendy Hiller.

Leslie Howard is June's Star of the Month, so I assume you will be glued to the TV anyway, but be sure not to miss Pygmalion on Monday, June 11 at 8:00 PM. Higgins doesn't care if we show up or not, but do it for Colonel Pickering.












16 comments:

  1. I absolutely love this version. The dialogue is just brilliant. It does't need to hide beside the more famous version. Leslie Howard is great and I always found it sad that he's so often just remembered as Ashley Wilkes, certainly his most boring role.

    We have the same thing with The King and I which is wonderful. But Anna and the King of Siam (1946) is another non-musical version which is just as good if not better than the musical.

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    1. Ah yes, the conflicted and cerebral Mr. Wilkes. If it weren't for the overwhelming fame of Gone With the Wind, he would be but a footnote in Howard's career.

      It's true what you say about Anna and the King. Rodgers and Hammerstein made a glorious musical, yet the story is still a marvelous straight drama.

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  2. Caftan Woman, Paddy Lee if I may. I'm happy to see you back on your wonderful blog. I hope that you are feeling better. Also, I'm hopeful that your future will be bright.

    You wrote a very good review of a classic movie made from a classic story. Leslie Howard was a very good actor who should be remembered more for his roles of Professor Henry Higgins and Sir Percy Blackney better known as THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL(1934). I agree with Margot Shelby that Ashley Wilkes was his most boring role.

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    1. Thank you for the good wishes, and for the compliment to this article.

      You brought up another favourite of mine in The Scarlet Pimpernel and we are lucky that it is also on the TCM lineup for June. After watching these films, folks will forget all about Ashley Wilkes.

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  3. Paddy Lee, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL(1934) is a favorite of mine. I have always liked a good entertaining Historical. Before Zorro, The Lone Ranger, and Batman there was The Scarlet Pimpernel. He was an early hero with a secret identity. Credit should always be given to the source material and the Scarlet Pimpernel books came from the pen of Baroness Emmuska Orczy.

    Every time I think of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, I always think of one of the funniest of the funny LOONEY TUNES. Daffy Duck as THE SCARLET PUMPERNICKEL(1950). This is one of the best cartoon shorts ever. Also, I really enjoyed reading your take on Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf. Children and adults alike still enjoy these cartoon masterpieces.

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    1. I believe Daffy as The Scarlet Pumpernickel was my first encounter with the fellow and then it was the Classics Illustrated comic. Once I started watching the movie, Howard became my favourite fellow in the role: http://www.caftanwoman.com/2015/02/favourite-movies-scarlet-pimpernel-1934.html

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    2. Paddy Lee, thank you for the link to your review of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. I enjoyed reading it. I think it might be time for me to watch the movie again.

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    3. Thanks for reading. You know how it is when you really like something, you could go on and on. Then I remembered I said all this in a post a while back.

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  4. So agree - Leslie Howard is the quintessential Pimpernel! And I'm a huge fan - thus my handle.

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    1. Ha! I thought "of course you are!" Also, I could hear Ian Hunter as Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood, addressing himself incognito "I love no man better".

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  5. A favorite for sure! Pygmalion is delightful. I enjoy both the original and the musical equally. My sister and I just watched My Fair Lady last week and for the first time I noticed how much Rex Harrison mimics Leslie Howard in his stance, the way he plops into a chair, and such. I doubt he watched Pygmalion before doing the role on Broadway, but still I found the similarities uncanny.

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    1. I'll be on the lookout for those similarities the next time I watch My Fair Lady. Familiarity with that script only leads to a deeper affection.

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  6. I need to see this version. There's much to appreciate in the musical extravaganza, but I find Rex Harrison a bit too abrasive for my liking. I think I'll enjoy Leslie Howard much better as Prof. Higgins.

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    1. Thing thing I've always enjoyed about Higgins is his relationship with his mother. I can't help but wonder about Henry's upbringing!

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  7. I prefer PYGMALION over MY FAIR LADY. While I enjoy musicals, I would rather sit back and hear some of the best performers of the 1930s speak Shaw's brilliant dialogue. This is a superb pick for the month. I assume that TCM has PIMPERNAL SMITH on the schedule; I quite like it, too.

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    1. Pygmalion never fails to delight me.

      Unless there are changes or I have misread the lineup, neither favourite Pimpernel Smith nor Stand-In are presented in this salute to Leslie Howard. I don't like to complain, but (pardon my language) geesh!

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