Hollywood Sights and Sounds: Pygmalion (1939)

Hollywood Sights and Sounds
by Robbin Coons

I don’t suppose Hollywood will or can take a lesson from it, but “Pygmalion” was made by doing things just about as differently from Hollywood’s way as possible.
If you haven’t seen “Pygmalion” you’ve heard about it. Around Hollywood you hear of little else. You get scenes and bits of business quoted at you, and you hear Oos and Ah’s. You hear about Wendy Hiller, the “find” in the lead of the Bernard Shaw play, his first successfully adapted to films, and about Leslie Howard, and Gabriel Pascal, the brilliant young producer who admits he’s brilliant. It all adds up–“Pygmalion” is in the bag.
And “Pygmalion” hails from England, where all reports have it the film industry is in a bad way. From England, where a “dying industry” created about half the pictures that found places on critical “ten bests” of 1938!

Leslie Howard is in town, probably to do Ashley Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind” while he’s here, but mainly to arrange for future work on what “Pygmalion” has started for him. For a long time Howard has talked about directing movies, and with Anthony Asquith on “Pygmalion” he had his chance. He and Asquith are going on together, making pictures in England for RKO release, with Howard acting and co-directing. Pascal, Shaw-bitten, is doing more Shaw for Metro.
The scholarly Howard would be the last to hold that the British movie business is prospering. He’s sure the boom, boomed too fast, was its undoing. Money lured into “quick movie profits” was lost, and became thereafter timid. It’ll come back, however. Of that he’s sure. Phoenix-from-the-ashes, that idea.
Howard believes the success of “Pygmalion” can be attributed first of all, to its source — Mr. Shaw’s play — and then to “a spirit of harmony that prevailed.”
When Pascal prevailed upon the hitherto reluctant Shaw to allow one of his plays to be filmed, Howard went into the venture — like most of the others — on a percentage basis. They were concerned with making the best possible picture, and they weren’t frantic about it.
They went to the splendidly equipped–but otherwise deserted–new Pinewood studios at London, and they made the thing in eight weeks. Before that they had spent five months preparing it– story conferences, yes, but not in the Hollywood style. They didn’t have a release date to meet, and they didn’t have a wild-eyed supervisor yelling about costs. (Leslie Howard, understand, is much more tactful than I am–he phrased all this nicely so as not to hurt Hollywood’s feelings.)

They were so pleasantly leisurely about it. In fact, that once the whole kaboodle of them packed up to St. Moritz and the snows for talk sessions; and even during production, when enthusiasm mounted highest, they’d sit up half the night working on ideas despite that they all had to be on the set, bright-eyed, in the morning.
The important thing–as Howard’s humble listener sees it–is that “Pygmalion’s” forces, discarded none such until it had been well discussed; on the other hand, they threw out as holding nothing of real value all the old cliches and time-worn devices of the screen.
Mr. Shaw, despite his reputation, proved tractable enough–on rare occasions only did he hit the ceiling at Pascal’s suggestions of changes, end even then he invariably “came around.” The ads are not deceptive–the great Shaw was pleased with his picture.
And well he can be–it stands to clean up a fortune!

(Niagara Falls Gazette, February 1, 1939)