Even despite his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, I don’t know much about Leslie Howard. Apparently, he was rather well regarded in the 30s, even fielding two Oscar nominations for Best Actor before his conspiracy-laden death in the mid 40s during WWII. The second of those nominations came for this, Pygmalion, which he also co-directed, so he would certainly seem to be a man capable of wearing many hats. Now, theater and film aficionados will be quite familiar with the title of Pygmalion, a George Bernard Shaw theatrical play that went on to become the basis for the musical (and later 1964 film adaptation) My Fair Lady. Countless people have doubtlessly seen the later version starring Audrey Hepburn, but I’d imagine much fewer have taken the time to see the original. Really, though, that’s quite a shame; this version is actually pretty good, especially if one is able to take to the British style of writing and humor used to an almost dizzying effect here.
Leslie Howard is Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who finds a young flower-seller, dirt poor and dirt covered, and through a fortuitous series of verbal repartee with a friend, decides to take her in and teach her everything he knows in order to transform her into a proper English lady. There’s little more to the plot than that; the film is really about verbal wit and the characters that employ it to and against each other, namely in Higgins and the flowergirl Eliza Doolittle. The script, adapted by Shaw himself from his own play, knows its characters like the back of the author’s hands, and it’s thanks to Shaw’s writing skill that the film and the characters come across so well-rounded on the screen. The film, in addition to being smartly written, has a sense of humor to it that’s, for lack of a better word, cracking; this is a British comedy in every sense of the burgeoning genre, and considering I hadn’t thought much of the film before I started it, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself snickering rather often during the film’s short running time. The rest of the film’s production was also quite skilled, from the capable and often inventive direction and camerawork to the acting by Howard and especially Wendy Hiller as Eliza.
What I think makes Pygmalion ultimately work as a whole, as opposed to being too much of something or too smug for its own good, is that it knows exactly what kind of film it needs to be, and makes the effort to be exactly that, and not any more or any less. It’s smart, and smart enough to know how to not be too smart, and although the film does have an ambiguously pseudo-happy ending tacked on against the wishes of Shaw, the film is still skilled enough to get the story it wants told across, which is more than a lot of other films of the era can say that they’ve done. This impressed me, and again, that’s more than I can say about a lot of other Best Picture nominees in the same fold, so I was especially thankful for this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10