I Prefer Pygmalion

August 29th, 2011

We recently watched the 1938 British film adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. Pygmalion is my second favorite by Shaw, coming just after Caesar and Cleopatra and just ahead of The Devil’s Disciple in my humble estimation. And I owned a copy of the film on VHS as a child. I think my mother bought it to distract me from Gone with the Wind


Anyway, seeing Pygmalion again kindled a desire to see My Fair Lady — or at least Hollywood’s 1964 version with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, reprising his Broadway role, originally delivered opposite Julie Andrews. I had the Broadway soundtrack on cassette, and later on LP, so have great affection for the score. Who doesn’t love Lerner & Loewe? But I must say, the film didn’t impress me in the least as I crocheted through all 170 minutes of it last weekend.

Compared to the soaring voice of Julie Andrews, Marni Nixon falls sadly flat. And the chemistry between Hepburn and Harrison is completely lacklustre. Even the edited dialogue is disappointing, after the refreshingly faithful 1938 film script. And where was that sparkling Shavian delivery that distinguishes Howard and Hiller’s exchanges? Every scene in the musical seems a beat or two behind.

By far though, the most horrifying aspect of My Fair Lady is the Edwardian decor, as imagined by 1964. That wallpaper! That upholstered sofa!

My Fair Lady Decor

If you’re wondering how much better Pygmalion did on the same count, there’s no comparison. The film was translated seamlessly to the 1930s.