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The Criterion Collection presents
Pygmalion (1938)

"Yes, you squashed cabbage lead, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language. I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!"
- Prof. Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: September 24, 2000

Stars: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller
Other Stars: Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderhand
Director: Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard

Manufacturer: Crush Digital Video
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language)
Run Time: 01h:35m:42s
Release Date: September 19, 2000
UPC: 037429151822
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+A-D D-

DVD Review

Playwright George Bernard Shaw was a longtime socialist and member of the Fabian Society in early 20th-century Britain. As such, he was a critic of Britain's rigid class structure and the believed superiority of the aristocracy. While being socially conscious, Shaw could also be very funny. He exquisitely combines these two threads in Pygmalion, which was later transformed into the musical My Fair Lady.

Leslie Howard both co-directs and stars as Prof. Henry Higgins, an expert on phonetics, by profession and hobby. He runs across a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), with her appalling dialect and appearance. He bets with fellow phoneticist Col. Pickering (Scott Sunderhand) that he can pass her off as a duchess with six months of work on her speech and manners. As Eliza has difficulty adapting to upper-class society, she also manages to charm members of the aristocracy. Along the way, we get a great deal of Shavian wit and not-so-subtle jabs at British classism.

Part of what makes this film work so much better than My Fair Lady (aside from the improbabilities of breaking into song every few minutes) is the casting. The later musical rather subverted Shaw's intent, by putting Audrey Hepburn in the role of Eliza. We know she's a movie star right off the bat, making the Cockney aspect a mere mummery. Unknown Wendy Hiller, on the other hand, is not particularly attractive, making her transformation all the more astounding, and making much clearer Shaw's point that class is a mere matter of training, and has nothing to do at all with the person.

The other point of superior casting is priggish Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins. His prideful and demeaning attitude fits the character wonderfully so, far better than Rex Harrison could ever do; his pasty and frail appearance much more befits the phonetic pedant that the role calls for. Wilfrid Lawson as Eliza's boozing father is also a masterstroke, as he brings a nice contrast of beefy honesty to his degenerate role.

The photography is a beautiful black and white, with masterful editing by future director David Lean. Eliza's training is taken care of with a brisk montage that carries the impression of enormous effort and repetition in the space of a few seconds. Even though the time is brief, we get the message quite nicely, in a splendid economy of filmmaking.

Classical music buffs will want to acquire this disc, for the score is written by noted composer Arthur Honegger. While less experimental than some of his earlier compositions, the slightly mechanical score fits the film's theme of the artificiality of manners quite well. The original BBFC "A" Certificate is included at the beginning of the film. The running time is over five minutes longer than indicated on the keepcase. Pygmalion is #85 in the Criterion Collection numbering, for those keeping score.

A very funny film which was nominated for four Academy Awards®, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay for Shaw, Pygmalion is one of the gems of British filmmaking. The scene where Eliza is given her first bath is by itself worth the price of admission. Garn!

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion has done a very good job of digital restoration of the picture. The blacks are excellent, with a wide range of greys. There are still a few random speckles, both white and black, as well as reel-change cigarette burns, but overall the picture looks very good. There is a brief section about three-fourths of the way through which appears to have deteriorated badly. This film appears to have had a very close call with being lost completely.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original mono soundtrack, with digital restoration, is included. Early British talkies are notorious for having terribly noisy soundtracks, and unfortunately Pygmalion is no exception. Given that noise reduction and restoration was done on the original soundtrack, the original must have been horrific indeed, for there is a great deal of noise and hiss present. The audio levels are also uneven, changing widely from reel to reel. While the audio grade is poor, it should be emphasized that this is likely the best this film has ever sounded, even back in 1938.

Audio Transfer Grade: D


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
Packaging: Alpha
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Color bars
Extras Review: The extras here are disappointing; there are English subtitles, which is useful in following some of the more extreme accents. The subtitle people need to be sacked, however, or at least given lessons in English, for making such ridiculous gaffes as "Noah's Arc" and mistaking "heir" for "air." I found this misuse of the English language quite amusing on a film that centers so much on the importance of proper usage. I expect Shaw, wherever he is, is having a chuckle over these errors. The chaptering is just barely adequate, and the only extra besides the ubiquitous set of color bars is a brief essay by critic David Ehrenstein in the booklet.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

One of the very best British films, given a nice facelift by Criterion. Wryly funny, this film is very highly recommended. The audio is problematic, and the extras are nonexistent, but this classic bears repeated viewing and is therefore suggested for purchase. Plus, you can hear about the rains in Spain without anyone breaking into song! Garn!


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