Through a Lens Darkly
To Be Pickering in a Henry Higgins World
When George Bernard Shaw first learned of the creative licenses taken in an effort to make the ending of his play Pygmalion more marketable, he was outraged. Confronted by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's claim that "My ending makes money, you ought to be grateful," he responded (with his trademark sharpness of wit and tongue): "Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot."
Two years later, still stinging from the change, he penned a 5,000-word essay—"Sequel: What Happened Afterwards"—in which he emphatically (and bitingly) defended his original ending. In it, he argued that any version that returns the transformed Eliza Doolittle to Professor Henry Higgins' home is undermining the very core of the play's message, tossing away the power and relevance of his modernized myth for the sake of a cheapened and shallow emotional payoff.
Interestingly, neither big screen version of Shaw's most famous work features his intended ending. In both 1938's Pygmalion (made with the approval and assistance of Shaw himself) and My Fair Lady (the famous musical version from 1964), Higgins and Doolittle are reunited in the film's final scene. Yet despite the fact that much of the two films' language is identical, Lerner and Loewe's version manages to avoid the cheap and shallow finale, while Pygmalion, despite its undeniable charms and wonderful performances, is rooted in Shaw's aforementioned "damnable" territory.
The most obvious reason for this dramatic difference is the contrast between the two actresses playing Eliza: Wendy Hiller and Audrey Hepburn. Both bring a wonderful vivacity and charm to the role; both are clearly at ease with Shaw's nimble, sharp-edged dialogue; and both serve as the perfect foil to their respective Higginses. Yet the unique aspects of their performances are striking, dramatically altering the tone and focus of the two films.
When Rex Harrison lobbied My Fair Lady's producers to allow his stage co-star, Julie Andrews, to play Eliza, he suggested that Hepburn's background—her mother was a Dutch baroness—made her unfit to play the early, draggle-tailed guttersnipe stages of the story's heroine. And while Harrison subsequently recanted his view, proclaiming Hepburn to be his favorite leading lady, his reservations are at least partially born out: Hepburn belongs in the high society to which Professor Higgins elevates her. Her Eliza is a diamond-in-the-rough; Higgins' relentless cutting and polishing brings out her full luster, producing a lady that would make any finishing school proud. Even the famous Ascot Race Track scene, where Eliza reveals herself to be unprepared for high society in the most spectacular fashion, underscores her grace and charm. In the midst of such an overwhelming, surreal display of British ostentatiousness, her slip is more amusing than it is damaging, and the audience finds itself easily overlooking the indelicate reminder of her low-class roots in the face of her undeniable magnetism.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.