What Are They Doing to Shaw? (1938)

What Are They Doing to Shaw?

by J. Danver Williams

Hungarian producer Gabriel Pascal, highbrow director Anthony Asquith, screen star Leslie Howard–these are the men whom George Bernard Shaw has chosen to bring Pygmalion to the screen. And here is the story of how they are getting on with the job

Is it possible to make Pygmalion into a significant film?
On the face of it this would appear a very difficult task. Pygmalion, like most of Shaw’s plays, has very little physical movement.
On the stage the characters, tied down and disciplined by explicit instructions, are never allowed to become anything more than puppets mouthing the language of their creator. The work remains alive and stimulating purely on account of the irony and the intellectual duelling.
The question is whether Shaw’s titanic wit, which is purely the result of cleverly-constructed dialogue, can be successfully captured in a medium, one of the chief attributes of which is violent action.
Until recently Shaw himself thought not. Some years ago his play Arms and the Man was put on the screen, and the artistic failure of this picture demonstrated quite plainly the difficulties which have to be surmounted by anyone who tries to put Shaw’s wit into a motion-picture.
In this instance the producers tried very hard to do right by Shaw. His stage-directions were scrupulously followed.
A camera was set up in the studio and the actors strutted before it as they would have done on the stage. But the result was more like a puppet show than a film.
It was so slow and artificial that even the brilliant dialogue failed to bring it to life or make it interesting.
After that Shaw solidly refused to have anything to do with the cinema. He refused to sell Pygmalion to Sam Goldwyn for a hundred thousand pounds or have any dealings whatever with any film-making concern either here or in America. That was the situation when he met Gabriel Pascal.

He borrowed £2!

It is typical of Shaw that when, at last, he should have been induced to part with the film-rights of Pygmalion he should hand them to a man who knew comparatively little of the English language.
Pascal–short, rotund Hungarian–arrived in England in the summer of 1937; rang up Shaw’s flat and asked to speak to his secretary.
“Mr. Shaw’s secretary is out,” came a voice from the other end. “Will I do? I’m Shaw.”
“I’d like to make a film of Pygmalion,” said Pascal.
“So would scores of other people,” Shaw told him, “including Sam Goldwyn who has offered me a hundred thousand for it.”
Pascal then went into a lengthy explanation of why he considered he should be given the film-rights. But his English was so sketchy that Shaw couldn’t make out what he was driving at.
He invited Pascal round to the flat to finish his dissertation.
Who was the more surprised, Pascal or Shaw, it would be difficult to surmise: but within half an hour the Hungarian found himself outside the front door with the film-rights in his pocket.
He was also the better off by two pounds, which sum Shaw had lent him because he was at that time so short of ready cash.

Fun on the set of Pygmalion

Fun on the set when Leslie Howard cuts his birthday cake. That’s Anthony Asquith with the battle-axe and Gabriel Pascal with the sword

All-Important Dialogue

This week I drove down to the Pinewood Studios, where Pygmalion is now in full swing, to ascertain the results of Shaw’s quixotic gesture.
“Quixotic” is the word.
The film is being made in the same spirit in which it was conceived. The three men in charge of the production are as queer an assortment as it would be possible to find.
Pascal was wandering around the set like a cat on hot bricks uttering monosyllabic suggestions about lights and camera-angles.
Then there was Leslie Howard, good-natured and efficient, but completely unlike my conception of Professor Higgins.
This looks, at first glance, a perfect piece of miscasting. One would think that Howard is too big a star and that his characteristics are too well known ever to permit his becoming a Shavian puppet.
The third member of the threesome is Anthony Asquith, whose excursions into the montage have won him the title of England’s most highbrow director.
Some years ago he made a football film for Gaumont-British in which there were lots of quick shots of feet, football, goalposts and spectators. The intellectual circles of Bloomsbury praised it for its ingenuity, but for myself I never found out who was playing whom or which side had won.
How is Anthony Asquith going to apply his ultra-advanced Russian technique to a slow-moving theatre piece like Pygmalion? That was the question uppermost in my mind.
I tackled Pascal, but he was determined to give me no information. He bowed, shook hands and then went as far away from me as possible. So I asked Asquith himself.
“I agree,” said he, “that a Shaw play is quite the most difficult thing in the world to film. The dialogue is all-important.
“To tackle Pygmalion in the ordinary way, by cutting down the speeches and infusing new incidents, would be to fail completely in our task.
“A single line by Shaw is not, in itself, funny like a single line by Oscar Wilde. It is only when the dialogue is viewed as a whole that it assumes a titanic wit. Therefore no part of it can be successfully cut. On the other hand, it would be equally futile, in an effort to preserve the dialogue intact, just to photograph the play as it stands.
“When Pascal invited me to co-direct this picture with Leslie Howard, we discussed the matter thoroughly and came to the conclusion that a unique technique would have to be evolved  for this production.
“Although Shaw’s plays are all written with the minimum of physical movement there is plenty of intellectual action. The vital nature of the dialogue should, if properly handled, be enough to rivet the attention of audiences and keep their minds moving forward.”


“Instead of standing still, as on the stage, Howard and Lawson moved incessantly while delivering their lines. They came up a flight of stairs talking nineteen to the dozen”

The Disgruntled Dustman

“Our idea is to wipe out all the stage-instructions, such as a theatrical placing of the characters, and to develop a cinematic technique which enhances and amplifies the vital nature of the dialogue. The more exciting the dialogue becomes the more the camera will move about.
“I am photographing each sequence many times and from many different angles, so as to have plenty of raw material from which to cut the finished film.”
Asquith moved away to take a new scene and I followed him across to the cameras to discover just how he was putting his theories into practice.
They were just at that part of the third act where Doolittle, the dustman (played by Wilfrid Lawson), comes to Professor Higgins’s house to grumble because he has just been left a fortune and lost his happiness.
Instead of standing still, as on the stage, Howard and Lawson moved about incessantly while delivering their lines.
They came up a flight of stairs talking nineteen to the dozen.  The camera slid backwards, then moved to the left to take a speech by Lawson. Then back it went to Howard, and so on.
All the while the dialogue rattled on incessantly. The camera movement was quite brilliantly ingenious and it was obvious that it had all been most carefully and laboriously worked out to suit the dialogue.
The whole sequence took, perhaps, an hour or an hour and a half to film. When it was over Howard slumped down in the nearest chair. His hand was shaking perceptibly with the long and concentrated effort before the cameras.
“Well, what to you think of it?” Asquith inquired.
“Ingenious,” I told him. “All the same, I still think that Howard is completely unlike Shaw’s original conception of the Professor.”
“Quite so,” was the surprising reply. “Leslie is completely unlike any stage version of Higgins that I have ever seen.
“Candidly, it would never have occurred to me to cast him in the rôle. But having worked with him for several weeks I am beginning to see what a brilliant piece of casting it really is.
“The stage Higgins, with all his theatrical characteristics, has no place on the screen. This character must change with the change of medium. He must, for example, be less exaggerated in his gesticulations and altogether more restrained.
“In an effort to make the Professor alive and filmic, Howard is, to a large extent, ignoring the stage directions. He is building up, from his wide experience, a character which will at one and at the same time fit the cinema and the all-important dialogue.”
“And what does Shaw think of that?” I queried.
“He thinks that Howard is one of the very few actors in the world capable of changing Professor Higgins’s outward characteristics without altering his fundamental nature.
“Shaw himself is fully aware of the difficulties which we have to overcome in making Pygmalion into a film. In an effort to help us he has, as you know, written a certain amount of new dialogue and altered other speeches to suit new scenes.
“Take the sequence we are about to photograph. We are going to show Eliza having her first bath.
“When we pointed out to Shaw what hilarious possibilities this sequence would have, he rehashed some of the dialogue in the first act to suit the new situation.
“We’re just going to make it,” Asquith added. “We think it’s going to be a pip.”


“We are going to show Eliza having her first bath”–and here it is, with Wendy Hiller as Eliza

Water Down a Drain-Pipe

He walked off to make the final arrangements, I waited. In a few minutes Wendy Hiller emerged from her room in a dressing-gown.
To save her any embarrassment, part of the studio had been carefully barricaded up so as to allow no Peeping Toms to get a glimpse. The men working the lights up above were ordered to move to a respectful distance.
Pascal, Asquith, Howard and the cameramen were the only people allowed inside.
There was a sound of water being poured into a bath and a steam began to ascend above the top of the enclosure. Then the dialogue began again, this time interspersed with feminine squeaks and the sound of a sponge being slapped against bare flesh.
It was strange hearing Shavian language sharing the microphone with the gurgle of water going down a drain-pipe.
Behind the barricade there was a good deal of jocundry and good nature. If the scene was half as funny inside as it sounded outside, it must indeed have been a pip.
I went away thinking that perhaps Shaw was very shrewd when he passed the film-rights of Pygmalion over to a foreigner who can only just speak the English language.

(Film Weekly, May 14, 1938)