Pygmalion (1938)

Pygmalion (1938)

“I’m a good girl, I am!”

A linguistics professor (Leslie Howard) bets his friend (Scott Sunderland) he can transform a Cockney-speaking flower girl (Wendy Hiller) into a refined “lady” thoroughly enough to convince high society she’s “authentic” — but if he does, what then?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Arc
  • Class Relations
  • Leslie Howard Films
  • Mentors
  • Play Adaptation
  • Wendy Hiller Films

This Oscar-nominated adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s much produced play — itself based on an ancient Greek myth about a sculptor who falls in love with his own statue — is infinitely more palatable than the insufferable Broadway musical remake, My Fair Lady (1964). As co-directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard — and produced by Gabriel Pascal, who would direct Shaw’s Major Barbara (1941) three years later — it’s less a cross-class romance than a satire of upper-class society, exposing the vacuity of those who believe it’s critically important to know the “appropriate” way to address various members of the nobility, and who care far more about status than character. Howard is convincing as conceited prig Professor Higgins, and Hiller’s Eliza Doolittle holds her own very nicely; she’s played with great empathy and nuance in a memorable screen debut. The film never feels stage-bound, instead making creative use of cinematography and angles — and at just 96 minutes long (almost half that of My Fair Lady‘s 170 minutes), it only drags a teeny bit towards the end, as Eliza attempts to let Higgins know how much he’s disappointed her, and they eventually (improbably) end up with one another.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wendy Hiller as Eliza
  • Wilfrid Lawson as Mr. Doolittle
  • Harry Stradling’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine adaptation of a classic play. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Genuine Classic
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee


One thought on “Pygmalion (1938)

  1. Agreed; a once-must – for its place in cinema history.

    It’s certainly an easier watch than ‘Major Barbara’. It’s direct in its aim and clear and economic in its follow-through. It’s also acted uniformly well, down to the smallest roles. (Of the supporting roles, a standout is Esme Percy as the weasel-like Count Aristide Karpathy, a part written by Shaw with Percy in mind. Also of note is the strength of Marie Lohr as Higgins’ mother.)

    As a comedy, it’s not particularly laugh-out-loud stuff but it’s a comedy of gentility and, as such, is richly intelligent and very well-observed. Howard and Hiller battle nicely in the leads.

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