Saturday, April 29, 2017

1938: Pygmalion

Screenplay by Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis, W.P. Lipscomb, and George Bernard Shaw
Adapted from the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

A professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, claims that he can pass a common flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, off as a duchess in a few months by teaching her to speak properly, and then proceeds to prove it.

This is the first time that a screenplay that won this award was written by the author of the original material, although Shaw apparently had help re-writing it for the screen. Unsurprisingly, this is definitely the most faithful adaptation so far. The vast majority of the lines are word-for-word the same, although naturally a few lines are eliminated, and a couple of scenes are added. The film shows more of Higgins teaching Eliza to talk between her arrival at his house and their outing to his mother's than the play, which barely shows any. The play also jumps straight from the fiasco at Henry's mother's house, where Eliza drops a shocking b-bomb (that is, she uses the word "bloody"), to the Embassy ball; the film adds more teaching in between. While I'm sure Shaw had some profound dramatic reason for not showing this in the play, it's helpful to see more of Eliza's journey to appreciate how hard both she and Henry work to make her presentable. These scenes are completely consistent with the play, and one could easily imagine them happening off stage. Overall, despite these changes, the movie follows the play extremely closely throughout, up until the very end, which is suddenly, startlingly different.

Spoiler alert: here's how they end. Towards the end in both versions, everyone is once again at Henry's mother's house, including Eliza's father, who has just announced his forthcoming wedding. Everyone except Henry plans to attend. Henry is upset because Eliza has asserted that she's not going back to his house to keep track of his stuff and bring him his slippers like she had been doing. No, she intends to leave him and marry Freddy, a silly young man who has fallen in love with her. The play ends with Eliza and Mrs. Higgins leaving to attend Mr. Doolittle's wedding, and Henry laughing about the thought of her marrying Freddy. There is also a rather long epilogue to the play in which Shaw explains that Eliza does in fact marry Freddy and open up a flower shop with him. In the movie, however, Eliza is going to go to her father's wedding, but then Freddy shows up in a car and they drive away together. Henry storms home and starts throwing things, accidentally turning on the first record he made of Eliza's voice. He turns it off, but then she says the next line, and he looks over to see her standing there, and says, "Where the devil are my slippers?" Even though I was kind of expecting this, it still made me angry that she would go back to him after he'd treated her so abominably. Even though Freddy's kind of a doofus, I still found it refreshing for her to end up with him in the play.

Reading this play and watching this film was utterly fascinating for me, since I had done neither before this project. I knew that the musical My Fair Lady, the film version of which won Best Picture in 1964, was based on this story, but I had no idea how closely. Reading the play, I was astonished at how much of the dialogue was exactly the same as the musical. But even more fascinating was that almost everything the movie added that wasn't in the play ended up in My Fair Lady, like "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." And then of course the film ends exactly the way the musical does (hence I was kind of expecting it). Pygmalion is so similar to My Fair Lady that, though I knew it wasn't a musical, I still kept feeling like we were about to hear the songs in the score, and having to remind myself that they hadn't been written yet. If you've seen My Fair Lady, imagine removing the songs and replacing the Ascot part with a scene at Henry's mother's house, and that's Pygmalion. Nevertheless, it's fun to see how the story evolved slightly from play to film to musical, and I'm very glad this project gave me an appreciation of that progression.

Coming up next is the epic, 4-hour long, Best Picture-winning, Best Actress-winning Gone with the Wind! The novel by Margaret Mitchell is over 1,000 pages, so it will probably take me a while to get through it, but I'm sure it will be an easier read than Zola and His Time, so that's something.

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