March 18th, 2017

Compare and contrast: the endings of “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady”—and life

First, the straight play “Pygmalion,” movie version with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller:

Now, the musical “My Fair Lady” with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn:

The scene continues in this next brief clip. The part where Howard as Higgins furiously paced in the street in “Pygmalion” now features Harrison as Higgins (what’s up with all those “h”s?) singing the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” which demonstrates (as the movie of “Pygmalion” shows in a far more subdued and subtle manner) how he softens and comes to realize how much he cares about Eliza. I’ve left the song out of this clip (although you can go back to an earlier spot in it and watch it if you care to), and I’ve cued it up to start when Higgins re-enters his house, in order to have it better match the “Pygmalion” action:

Audrey Hepburn is gorgeous and charming. Wendy Hiller is attractive, but more cute than beautiful (two more “h” names, by the way). And yet I’ve always felt Hepburn to be grievously miscast in the role of Eliza. She does the best she can, but always seem too mannered and measured—too much of a lady, even at the beginning. Hiller convinces you that she is this person, and the emotions that flit across her face are more changeable and realistic.

Rex Harrison is so much older than Hepburn that the musical version feels a bit unbalanced in terms of age in addition to the class and education issues that are part of the script. Harrison also plays it for laughs, deliciously. But Howard is not only closer in age to Hiller, he has the intensity and seriousness—and those eyes!—that make you believe something else, something much more serious, is going on with him. He’s more of a bastard, too.

And notice how often the camera allows Howard (and Hiller, at times) to turn their backs to the audience. We watch Rex Harrison’s face as he asks Eliza for his slippers at the end; we can see that he’s joking and affectionate. With Howard, we’re not sure, because all we see is the back of his hat. We know he cares, but he’s still holding back a big part of himself. He is who he is, and although he’s changed he’s not transformed. He remains in character, consistent.

Still, despite its cooler emotional tone than “My Fair Lady,” the ending of the movie “Pygmalion” that you saw in that first clip was different than the ending of Shaw’s original stage play. The film “Pygmalion” is more conventionally romantic than the stage play of the same name, and “My Fair Lady” (both on stage and on film) retained the ending of the film “Pygmalion.” In contrast, the original “Pygmalion” stage play had a sort of “Gone With the Wind”-ish ambiguous, will-they-or-won’t-they ending, and Shaw even wrote a post-play explanation saying that of course Eliza and Higgins really don’t get back together:

[Shaw] wrote a “Sequel” to Pygmalion and, like most sequels, it’s not nearly as good as the original. It’s just a really long explanation of what happens. It “need not be shewn in action,” he says. Shaw just wants us to know that everybody reading the play is silly and sentimental, and, no, Higgins and Eliza aren’t reunited. Instead, she marries Freddy and they open a flower shop and they pretty much live happily ever after.

But hey, what did he know? In the movie and the musical film they do get back together. But how long do they last together? Methinks not so very long.

By the way, Leslie Howard the actor was known as a ladies’ man, who “once said that he ‘didn’t chase women but … couldn’t always be bothered to run away.'” As for Rex Harrison—well, take a look. And Shaw? Shaw was unusual, to say the least:

For many people, the one detail of Shaw’s life which seems to transcend all others is the fact that his marriage, at the age of 42, to the Irish heiress and fellow Fabian activist Charlotte Payne-Townshend was apparently never consummated, an arrangement arrived at by mutual consent. “Do not forget,” he wrote in Sixteen Self Sketches, “that all marriages are different, and that marriages between young people, followed by parentage, must not be lumped in with childless partnerships between middle-aged people who have passed the age at which the bride can safely bear a child.” Still, while Shaw’s admiration for strong, emancipated, and independent women was genuine, his attitude towards sexual relations remained a curious mixture of disdain as well as an almost obsessive interest. His first physical relationship was an eight-year affair with a widow, Jenny Patterson,15 years his senior, who was his mother’s friend and vocal student. They eventually broke up over his involvement with Florence Farr, an actress, following several heated scenes among the three of them, which went directly into one of his earliest plays, The Philanderer

There were apparently additional pre-marital conquests, as well as some curious involvements in which Shaw inserted himself into other marriages, playing a subtle game of flattery and innuendo with the wife, while using his friendship with the husband as a safety net for when he danced too close to the edge…

Shaw’s devotion to and abiding love for his wife might have been driven by a deep and enriching sympathy. But, while he did remain loyal to her, and would do nothing to cause her pain or embarrassment, he was still amazingly flirtatious with other women and would remain so throughout his life. Shaw was actively pursued by women well into his seventies, but more seriously troubling for Mrs. Shaw was the period of her husband’s middle-aged infatuation with the actress Patrick (Stella) Campbell. Although he had no intention of leaving his wife, and Campbell was already engaged to the man who became her second husband, it seemed for a few dangerous months in 1912 that infatuation had slipped into genuine love. In his letters, the fiercely anti-romantic Shaw fell into the high-flown rhetoric of romance…

Happily ever after? Not quite.

10 Responses to “Compare and contrast: the endings of “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady”—and life”

  1. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “My Fair Lady” is a wonderful romantic fantasy.
    Pymaglion appears to want to have it both ways, i.e. a realistic fantasy. But by definition, can a ‘fantasy’ be realistic?
    Shaw’s original play tells an interesting story but clearly Shaw understood that proper diction and ‘good manners’ alone do not in and of themselves a lady make. And that even if Eliza possessed the inherent dignity of a lady, class distinction are based on subconscious acceptance of the social class’s underlying beliefs and attitudes. Thus, “of course” they didn’t get back together…

  2. chuck Says:

    I believe that May Morris was the love of Shaw’s life and, thwarted in love, he never recovered.

  3. Frog Says:

    what’s up with all those “h”s? asks Neo. Watch MFL- its all about aitches! Cockney aitches.

  4. Susanamantha Says:

    Didn’t Julie Andrews make “My Fair Lady” the hit that it was on Broadway only to be passed over for the movie role?

    Audrey Hepburn, she who couldn’t sing the role no matter how hard she tried, was a poor substitute in my mind also.

  5. chuck Says:

    Hmm… and it seems that May Morris’ mother, Jane Morris née Burden, was Eliza in real life.

    Burden’s education was limited and she was probably destined to go into domestic service like her mother. After her engagement, she was privately educated to become a rich gentleman’s wife. Her keen intelligence allowed her to recreate herself. She was a voracious reader who became proficient in French and Italian and became an accomplished pianist with a strong background in classical music. Her manners and speech became refined to an extent that contemporaries referred to her as “Queenly”. Later in life, she had no trouble moving in upper class circles.

  6. T Says:

    There is a story (true? apocryphal?) that one night, upon leaving the theater after a performance of My Fair Lady Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway encountered an older woman, a fan, who had been standing in the rain waiting to get Rex Harrison’s autograph. Harrison refused her whereupon the woman rolled up her playbill and swatted Harrison. Stanley Holloway broke out into laughter and said that he had just witnessed the first known instance of “the fan hitting the shit.”

  7. Frog Says:

    T: what a beautiful anecdote! Thanks. With a little bit of blooming luck!

  8. Ann Says:

    Just found a gushing appreciation of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady from 1964 that surprised me, largely because it was written by one of the Guardian’s critics, and also considering that Emma Thompson a few years ago said that Hepburn was twee and couldn’t act. From the review:

    It is not that she speaks the proper Cockney better than her predecessors, which she does. Or that she is frail and virginal beyond the imaginings of her original creator, which she is. Or that she has developed a comic style half way between a waif and an angel, which she has. It is that she is as sensitive as a nerve-end to the slighted female whom Higgins and Pickering are handling like litmus paper.

    This poignancy gives unforeseen depths and pathos to the conflict between her feelings and Higgins’s experiment. And in the homecoming after the Embassy ball, while the doltish bachelors go off into their orgy of self-congratulation (“you did it, you did it”) she stands in a half-shadow against the wall as heartbreaking and tristful as Henryson’s abandoned Cressida: “Then upon him she cast up both her eyen, And with ane blenk it come into his thought, That he sum tyme her face before had seene.”

    We went out of the theatre reeling again at the stupidity of what had always seemed to be Ibsen’s fair comment on Shaw: “Shaw? The man who left emotion out of drama.” Ibsen, I guess, never knew Audrey Hepburn.

  9. Matthew Says:

    I wonder if Shaw was asexual?

  10. chuck Says:

    > I wonder if Shaw was asexual?

    It was a strange period. Later in life May Morris complained that the young socialist men of her youth didn’t *do* anything. I assume that she wanted more than smart conversation…

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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