[1938] Pygmalion

The classic stories are ephemeral, repeated and revamped and often plucking away or dousing with literary detergent to esteem to the fated “other” category from which so much art flies way short. The classic drama and comedy are millennia old and as old as the human condition so it makes sense that the search for experience stems from truth and thus creates and endless feedback loop as we humans learn and regress simultaneously. Curious, but not unexpected because we know that things come in dualities. For every My Fair Lady there is in turn a Pygmalion.

Perhaps 26 years, a loosening of Hays and a different and important ethos precluded a wholly different interpretation between Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, both by author and by audience By stripping away the lacquer from the bleak if not pleasant rags-to-riches of 1938’s Pygmalion, 1964’s My Fair Lady has delighted audiences for over 50 years with charm, wit and well-to-do King’s English. It claimed Best Picture in 1964 and scores of young drama students adapt it for the stage as My Fair Lady‘s overtones are light and the story represents “different,” neatly. Rex Harrison as charming if not snooty Henry Higgins and Audrey Hepburn as unrefined but lovable nonetheless Eliza Doolittle are almost nothing like their Pygmalion counterparts, and both films are ironically better off for it. What kind of of musical ends on a non-committal frown?

For intents and purposes, these films are each an interpretation of the same idea, but they are fundamentally different stories because with the addition of cheery music and the removal of Pagan and Roman motif, My Fair Lady is more a lite interpretation of the playful wordplay and on-screen chemistry between scruffy Eliza and shiny Henry where Pygmalion is a deep rumination on socio-paraiah-ism and the stigma of self-hate between damaged Eliza (Wendy Hiller) and drained Henry (Leslie Howard). Only with removal the imagery and symbolism of Ovid’s Metamorphosian Pygmalion leitmotif and the addition of saccharine songs. Passing lines in the former become full ta-da! numbers in the latter and it feels phony even in context and the fact My Fair Lady won eight – 8 – Oscars (including Best Picture!) for a filtered take on George Bernard Shaw’s understated screenplay is absurd, but continues to reaffirm this blog’s theory that Oscars, and especially Best Picture, are given and not earned.

To further understand the peculiar proclivities that outline Pygmalion is to dig into its screenwriter, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who (not) incidentally is responsible for the original play in five acts, a quarter-century before the film brought the story to film-permanence and two quarter centuries before My Fair Lady stripped Shaw’s rehashing of its dark uncertainties and bleak, oblique characterizations to something fun, playful and importantly easily digestible. Why include the pregnant pause (whether purposefully or technologically) when a song fills the void nicely? The silence is Shaw’s meditation and rumination on relationships; the song is My Fair Lady‘s dramatization of just the clean parts.  Known as a man of strict opinion, Shaw would have scoffed at the escapism and denounced the film as a triumphant farce if he were alive to see it have been made.

For the record, I am not denouncing My Fair Lady as an unworthy recipient of any of its accolades. Instead, I’m attempting to guess how George Bernard Shaw would have laughed at the state of the human condition in the mid-1960s. Classic stories are ephemeral, yes, but so is the reputation of one of the 20th century’s greatest minds and curmudgeons. Take it or leave it.

Out of 10 nominees from 1938 (before the imposed “limit” in the 1940s), Frank Capra rode high once again with You Can’t Take It With You. I haven’t seen any of the others, so I’ll assume that Capra’s win was one of a combination of posterity and of expectation. I’ll report back.

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