You might expect Pygmalion, the adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s classic play, to not make great use of the formal potential of cinema. Its theatrical roots, as well as Shaw’s role in writing the screenplay, might lead you to think that the filmmakers would create a filmed version of the play that would be so faithful as to be uninteresting. But the filmmakers subvert average expectations with great style and wit. In this case, that style and wit are distinctively cinematic.
The filmmakers, led by directors Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, shatter those expectations with their opening tracking shot. The camera’s movement as it takes in the energy of London expertly introduces you to this story’s bustling world and lets you know that it will be a true cinematic experience, as opposed to a filmed play on a single set.
Asquith and Howard use that brisk pace to aid in their telling of what has become a familiar story. As in the play of the same name and the later musical adaptation of said play (My Fair Lady), the plot centers on upper-class professor Henry Higgins teaching Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle how to be a posh young lady. Certain adaptations of the play’s story can be quite long — almost three hours in the 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady — but the version that Asquith and Howard (who also delivers a sprightly performance as Higgins) create is as fast as any American screwball comedy of the same period.
A good part of that pacing’s effect relies on the film’s excellent editing. David Lean (who went on to direct The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia) displays a perfect sense of comic timing in crafting the film’s comic setpieces. In particular, his cuts to close-ups of upper-class characters reacting to Doolittle’s story of familial murder is wonderfully cinematic. The great views of these minor characters’ hilarious, frazzled expressions would be inaccessible if you got a bad seat at the theater. But in this cinematic adaptation, Lean and the directors give you the best seat in the house.
This film’s screenwriters — W.P. Liscomb, Cecil Lewis, and Shaw himself — went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. They all did a wonderful job at preserving the glories of the original play’s wit and story. But Asquith, Howard, Lean, and many others deserve just as much acclaim for transforming a beloved play into a film that uses all of the tools of its medium to create something that is as well-made as it is delightful.
Pygmalion is available in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room from now until May 19 as part of the Sunday Matinee Classics series, which are the Any Day Matinee Classics series this semester. You will be able to stream the film to the device of your choosing via a link and password which will only be provided through our Weekly Email. You must be subscribed to our Weekly Email to receive the film’s link and password.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.