Thursday, September 30, 2004

She's a Fraud!

Getting sick is a good excuse to watch DVDs, because germs make you light-headed and disoriented, and therefore allows you to watch drug-trip movies in the proper frame of mind, but without the subsequent eating binges. However, I don't have any drug-trip movies on hand, so I had to settle for the 1938 film of Shaw's Pygmalion, with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.

The movie is half as long as the bloated film version of My Fair Lady and much more entertaining. The only real problem I have with it is the decision to update the setting to the time when the movie was made (so everybody dresses in 1938-type clothes, and "motor-bus" becomes just plain "bus"). I suppose it kept the budget down to be able to use contemporary settings instead of having to create old-fashioned sets and costumes, and I suppose that the updating was supposed to emphasize the timelessness of the story -- but the problem is, the story isn't all that timeless, or at least certain aspects of it feel anachronistic in the London of 1938, as opposed to the London of 25 years earlier.

For example, in 1913 you could accept that Colonel Pickering's well-meaning politeness -- "won't you sit down, Miss Doolittle?" -- is perhaps less of a solution to society's problems than Higgins' ruthlessness and rudeness; Pickering's a nice guy, but treating a flower girl as if she were a duchess just reinforces the class system, whereas Higgins' treating a duchess as if she were a flower girl is the kind of thing that could help break down the class system. Well, the class system still existed in 1938, of course, but in a 1938 context, Pickering's manners seem positively old-fashioned and quaint, not a status quo kind of thing but a nice throwback to a better-mannered age. With England's culture starting to become more ill-mannered, it's no longer clear that Higgins is a rebel; he's just another rude guy in a rude age. And if you tried to update Pygmalion to the England of 2004, Pickering would be the rebel and Higgins, at least in terms of his manners, would be firmly on the side of the status quo.

Another thing about the movie is that it was the basis for My Fair Lady; all the scenes that are in My Fair Lady but not in the play -- the ball scene, the "Rain in Spain" lesson, the ending -- come from the movie. I bring that up because Alan Lerner, in talking about how he adapted Pygmalion into a musical, always used to say that he solved the problem of adaptation by deciding to "show what was merely mentioned in the play"; in most of his interviews, he never mentioned that all these "new" scenes were from the movie version. (In his autobiography, he finally admitted that he had been "following the movie more than the play.") Another unacknowledged movie adaptation is The King and I: Oscar Hammerstein based his script directly on the script of the movie Anna and the King of Siam, yet the writers of that movie didn't get credit anywhere on the program, and most likely didn't get any royalties for the use of their material in the stage show (the Anna movie was owned by Fox, and Hammerstein got to use the material in exchange for Fox getting the movie rights). It seems as though writers like Hammerstein and Lerner didn't want to admit drawing on movie scripts for the musical versions, but I'm not sure why -- maybe they just wanted to get credit for doing such a good job of "opening up" the source material, and that meant not saying too much about the fact that the "opening up" had already been done by someone else.

One more word about the infamous ending of the Pygmalion movie (people often attack My Fair Lady for "tacking on" this ending, not realizing that it's lifted directly from the 1938 movie version). As is generally known, Shaw didn't want a romantic ending for Higgins and Eliza; his most famous statement about this is "I cannot conceive a less happy ending to the story of Pygmalion than a love affair between the middle-aged, middle-class professor, a confirmed old bachelor with a mother-fixation, and a flower girl of 18." For the movie version, producer Gabriel Pascal decided to create the romantic ending anyway, or at least a suggestion of possible romance. What I always find clever about the way he did this was that he managed to do it without writing any new dialogue -- and therefore, without violating Shaw's contract that "all dialogue" had to be written by Shaw. The final scene of the movie, and of My Fair Lady, consists entirely of lines from earlier in the play: Eliza's voice on a recording, followed by Eliza repeating one of her earlier lines ("I washed my face and hands before I come, I did"), followed by Higgins repeating one of his earlier lines ("Where the devil are my slippers?"). Voila, a whole new ending, the audience is happy, and the author can't sue.

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