Pygmalion (1937): Excellent Adaptation of George Bernard Shaw, Starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

MGM (UK)

The first successful effort to present George Bernard Shaw on the big screen, Anthony Asquith’s “Pgymalion” preserves the original text’s wit, humor, and irony. Previously, there had been foreign versions of that play, as well as British screen productions of “Arms and the Man” and “How He Lied to Her Husband.”

The screenplay by George B. Shaw was also adapted by Antole de Grunwald, WP Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis, and Wilfred Lawson. This authorized version is an acerbic fairy tale, a true Cinderella story, set in class-ridden British society.

Wendy Hiller, as Eliza Doolittle, the cockney guttersnipe turned into a society lady, plays well opposite Leslie Howard, who received his second Oscar nomination for rendering a straight version of Professor Henry Higgins.

The film is one of the most accomplished and charming Shaw adaptations due to the casting, especially Wendy Hiller as the Cockney flower girl, who received a Best Actress nomination for her interpretation. One critic notes that, to hear Wendy Hiller’s electrifyingly knotted voice is to have experienced one of the aural highlights of twentieth-century acting.

The cast also includes Marie Lohr as Mrs. Higgins, Jean Cadell as Mrs. Pearce, and David Tree as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

Cinematographer Harry Stradling does a super job of servicing the play without calling too much attention to the camera, and there is also good musical score from Arthur Honegger.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Gabriel Pascal
Screenplay: George Bernard Shaw, adaptation by Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis, W. P. Lipscomb, and Wilfred Lawson.
Actor: Leslie Howard
Actress: Wendy Hiller

Oscar Awards: 1

Screenplay

Oscar Context

In 1938, no less than ten films competed for the Best Picture Oscar: “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Boys Town,” “The Citadel,” “Four Daughters,” “Grand Illusion,” “Jezebel,” “Pgymalion,” “Test Pilot,” and “You Can’s Take It With you,” which won.

Frank Capra, who directed You Can’t, won his third Oscar in 5 years! This was the second nomination for Leslie Howard, and the first lead nomination for Wendy Hiller, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar in 1958 for “Separate Tables.”

The musical, “My Fair Lady,” based on Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and the musical stage hit, swept the 1964 Oscars. (See Review and Oscar Alert).