Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Pygmalion: Criterion Collection (1938)
Studio Line: Criterion

Cranky Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) takes a bet that he can turn Cockney guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) into a "proper lady" in a mere six months in this delightful comedy of bad manners based on the play by George Bernard Shaw. This Academy Award-winning inspiration for Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady was directed by Anthony Asquith and star Howard, edited by David Lean, and scripted by Shaw himself. Criterion presents Pygmalion in a beautifully restored digital transfer.

Director: Anthony Asquith
Cast: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell, David Tree
Academy Awards: Won for Best Screenplay. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actor-Leslie Howard; Best Wendy Hiller, 1939.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - single layered; 16 chapters; rated NR; 95 min.; $29.95; street date 9/19/00.
Supplements: Essay Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - George Bernard Shaw

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/C-/D-

In the interesting essay featured in this DVD's booklet, film critic David Ehrenstein writes, "There's a saying that goes: A definition of an intellectual is someone who can listen to Rossini's 'William Tell Overture' without thinking of The Lone Ranger. Were that notion expanded to include anyone who can experience (George Bernard) Shaw's Pygmalion without humming the melodies of 'I Could Have Danced All Night' or 'I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face', millions more would fail the test."

Add me to that roster of failures. As I screened 1938's Pygmalion, I couldn't help but reflexively flash back to the musical wonders of 1964's My Fair Lady, the hit film based on Shaw's original. This occurred less because my familiarity with MFL is so great - I've seen it only once - but more because my memory of it is so fresh. I just took in MFL for the first time about two months ago, so I retain a vivid impression of it.

As my review of that picture related, I found it surprisingly enjoyable, mainly because of the solid story behind the tale. Shaw created a fine piece with his semi-rags to riches fable, and it held up well even in the face of umpteen musical numbers; the songs in musicals are the reason I don' t like the format, but I enjoyed MFL despite the excessive number of ditties.

Interestingly, Pygmalion largely answers a question I had about MFL and other musicals: how long would these suckers be if one removed all of the songs? About 95 minutes, apparently, since the action in Pygmalion seems to encompass virtually all of the non-musical moments found in MFL. In theory, that means the songs of that film occupied about 78 minutes of screen time. Hmm. that actually seems like too low an estimate, but it might be right.

Overall, I rather enjoyed Pygmalion, though I don't feel it's as good as MFL. The two stories are virtually identical; some elements of MFL may not have appeared in Pygmalion, but if so, I couldn't recall them, as both tales seemed to cover exactly the same territory.

The basic tale: language professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) bets that he can transform lower-class wench Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) into a facsimile of a "proper lady" within half a year. The story follows the generally-comic triumphs and travails experienced in that period.

Both Eliza and Higgins provide solidly-entertaining characters, though neither seems especially realistic. However, I didn't mind that element, as the actions are played for such good comedic effect that I fully accepted their mildly-unbelievable eccentricities.

I also liked the fact that Pygmalion is a surprisingly-unsentimental production. As they interact in largely-cantankerous ways, it's nonetheless clear that Higgins and Eliza develop affection for each other, but the film doesn't go for broad, sweeping love or adoration. By the end of the movie, we see mild, grudging signs of attachment; we suspect a romance may bloom, but we don't get any kind of strong statement in this regard.

One way in which Pygmalion seems to improve upon MFL stems from the ages of the participants: Howard and Hiller appear to create a more age-appropriate couple than would Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. The two Pygmalion actors look fairly close in age, but there's clearly a large gap between Harrison and Hepburn.

In reality, however, it turns out that the gaps are pretty consistent for both films. Howard was 19 years older than Hiller, whereas Harrison was born 21 years prior to Hepburn; those are pretty consistent differences. However, 45-year-old Howard looked younger than his age, while 26-year-old Hiller appeared older, while 35-year-old Hepburn seemed younger than that but 56-year-old Harrison presented himself as about that age. As such, the inference of romance between Pygmalion's actors was more believable to me.

For the most part, however, I preferred MFL to the original, mainly because - age differences aside - I thought the musical's actors offered better turns. Ironically, the performances in MFL are more broad than those in Pygmalion, and I usually prefer the more subdued work. However, the mildly-emotive acting of MFL seems quite appropriate for the piece, and it makes the fable more enchanting for some reason. It's such an unreal situation that the gentle excessiveness of the performers feels right to me, and for that reason, I enjoyed MFL more than I liked Pygmalion.

Nonetheless, the latter is a very solid film that I found largely compelling. Yes, it was tough not to make direct comparisons to its remake, but Pygmalion functions well on its own. It's a fine comedy that offers an enjoyable telling of this tale.

The DVD:

Pygmalion appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture often looks fairly decent, it clearly shows its age much of the time and presents a rather problematic image.

Sharpness generally seems pretty good, with much of the film looking acceptably crisp and detailed. However, a fair amount of softness interferes with the picture at times, and portions seem fuzzy and hazy. Moiré effects are an occasional nuisance - mostly due to clothing patterns - and I also detected a few jagged edges on items.

Black levels are fairly deep and solid, though contrast seems mildly weak; the gray tones appear a little too murky and flat and lack the boldness they should display. Shadow detail seems acceptably clear but is unspectacular.

As is often the case with old movies, print flaws cause the majority of the concerns. Grain is almost-always present, and it can become very heavy at times. Speckles also appear very frequently, and I saw examples of scratches, nicks, spots, vertical and horizontal lines, and hairs. A few times during the film the image looked significantly worse than usual; some scenes seemed much worse for wear than the rest of the picture, and those instances displayed terrible flaws in all realms, including sharpness and contrast. For the most part, I found Pygmalion to remain watchable throughout the movie, though it certainly has some problems.

Also flawed but acceptable is the monaural audio of the movie. Dialogue seemed fairly intelligible but it often came across as rather harsh and edgy, with minor distortion evident most of the time. Effects were similarly rough during the majority of the film. Surprisingly, much of the music sounded pretty good. The score tended to appear somewhat shrill at times but it was actually fairly smooth and clear. The track constantly displayed background noise that varied in level from mild to fairly intrusive, and it featured little dynamic range, with most audio tending to the trebly side of the equation. For a movie from 1938, Pygmalion features adequate sound, but the audio seems problematic nonetheless.

This DVD offers almost no supplemental features. We get the aforementioned essay from film critic David Ehrenstein that appears in the booklet but nothing else. It's a disappointingly sparse package.

Even without extras, Pygmalion makes for a decent DVD. The movie itself is a lot of fun; although I prefer My Fair Lady, the musical remake of the story, I still thought that Pygmalion was an enjoyable piece. The DVD presents flawed but generally acceptable picture and sound but omits significant supplements. Pygmalion merits at least a rental, especially for fans of My Fair Lady who desire to see the inspiration for that film.

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