ⓘ Pygmalion (1938 film)


ⓘ Pygmalion (1938 film)

Pygmalion is a 1938 British film based on the George Bernard Shaw play of the same name, and adapted by him for the screen. It stars Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.

The film was a financial and critical success, and won an Oscar for Best Screenplay and three more nominations. The screenplay later was adapted into the 1956 theatrical musical My Fair Lady, which in turn led to the 1964 film of the same name.


1. Adaptation

The Hungarian producer Gabriel Pascal wished to create a set of films based on Shaws works, beginning with Pygmalion, and went to see Shaw in person to gain permission to do so. Shaw was reluctant to allow a film adaptation of Pygmalion owing to the low quality of previous film adaptations of his works, but Pascal managed to convince him on the condition Shaw retained constant personal supervision of the adaptation and later went on to adapt Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra and Androcles and the Lion.

The resulting Pygmalion scenario by Cecil Lewis and W.P. Lipscomb removed exposition unnecessary outside a theatrical context and added new scenes and dialogue by Shaw. Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald and Kay Walsh also made uncredited contributions to the screenplay. A long ballroom sequence was added, introducing an entirely new character, Count Aristid Karpathy, written wholly by Shaw. Against Shaws wishes, a happy ending was added, with Eliza fleeing Higgins with Freddy but then returning to Higginss home though whether permanently or on her own terms is left deliberately ambiguous. Shaw and his fellow writers did, however, retain the controversial line "Not bloody likely!" from the plays text, making Hiller possibly the first person to utter that swear word in a British film and giving rise to adverts for the film reading "Miss Pygmalion? Not ****** likely!".


2. Cast and crew

Wendy Hiller was chosen by Shaw to play Eliza Doolittle after she had appeared in stage productions of Pygmalion and Saint Joan – though the films initial credits stated that this movie was introducing her, she had in fact already appeared on film in 1937s Lancashire Luck. Shaws choice for Higgins had been Charles Laughton. The movie also includes the very first film appearance brief and uncredited of Anthony Quayle, as an Italian wigmaker. Cathleen Nesbitt, credited here as Kathleen Nesbitt in the role of A Lady, portrayed Mrs. Higgins in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady 18 years later.

The films crew included David Lean on his first major editing job; he also directed the montage sequence of Higgins teaching Eliza, set designer Laurence Irving and the camera operator Jack Hildyard who later did the photography for Leans The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sound Barrier and Hobsons Choice.


3. Cast

  • Ivor Barnard as Sarcastic Bystander
  • Jean Cadell as Mrs. Pearce
  • Iris Hoey as Ysabel, Social Reporter
  • Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins
  • Everley Gregg as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill
  • Scott Sunderland as Colonel George Pickering
  • Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle
  • Frank Atkinson as Taxi Driver
  • Violet Vanbrugh as the Ambassadress
  • Kate Cutler as The Grand Old Lady
  • Cecil Trouncer as First Policeman
  • Viola Tree as Perfide, Social Reporter
  • Esme Percy as Count Aristid Karpathy
  • Irene Browne as the Duchess
  • David Tree as Freddy Eynsford-Hill
  • Wally Patch as First Bystander
  • Stephen Murray as Second Policeman
  • Wilfrid Lawson as Alfred Doolittle
  • Eileen Beldon as Mrs Higgins’s Parlourmaid
  • Leueen MacGrath as Clara Eynsford-Hill
  • O. B. Clarence as Mr. Birchwood, the Vicar
  • Marie Lohr as Mrs. Higgins
  • Cathleen Nesbitt as Old Lady
  • H. F. Maltby as Second Bystander


  • Leo Genn as a Prince
  • Moyna Macgill as a Woman Bystander
  • Anthony Quayle as Elizas Hairdresser
  • Patrick Macnee as an Extra


4. Reception

George Bernard Shaw, Cecil Lewis, Ian Dalrymple, and W.P. Lipscomb won the 1938 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay. The film also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor Howard and Best Actress Hiller. Shaws reaction to his award was: "Its an insult for them to offer me any honour, as if they had never heard of me before – and its very likely they never have. They might as well send some honour to George for being King of England." However, his friend Mary Pickford later reported seeing the award on display in his home.

At the 1938 Venice Film Festival, Leslie Howard won the Volpi Cup and the film was nominated for the Mussolini Cup.

The copyright of the film Pygmalion lapsed in the United States in 1966 after its rights holder, Loews Incorporated, failed to renew its copyright registration; as such, the film entered the public domain. However, in the 9th Circuit case Russell v. Price 1979, Shaws estate was able to assert its rights in the underlying work Shaws play, and thus retain control over the films distribution and public performance in the United States as a derivative work. US copyright in Shaws play ended in 1988, which also restored the film to public-domain status.