Pygmalion (1938)

There is an eternal controversy regarding the ending of Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion and its various incarnations, apparently ever since its London premiere in 1914. This controversy is most frequently mentioned, and most glaring, in connection with the musical version My Fair Lady (filmed in 1964), but can also be seen in the 1938 film adaptation of the original play, as well as in a previous Dutch adaptation, unfortunately not available at the Internet Archive.

Scott Sunderland, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller as Colonel Pickering, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1938)

The story of Professor Higgins and his pupil Eliza has become so well-known during the past hundred years that it barely requires an introduction. But just to be on the safe side, the film begins as one Colonel Pickering, returning to England, comes across Professor Henry Higgins (an expert in dialects and phonetic variations) as the latter is taking notes on the speech of a flower girl. The two fast become friends, and enter a bet that Higgins could teach the cockney-speaking girl to pass for a well-bred lady, just by teaching her manners and good pronunciation. This he sets out to do with great determination. The film for the most part stays very close to the original play. Shaw himself adapted the script for the screen, adding some scenes and characters that since have sometimes been used in new productions of the play as well.

The above-mentioned controversy, it should be pointed out, is not in the tension between a happy versus unhappy ending. Shaw’s intended ending is indeed very happy for everyone involved. Higgins has made Eliza into an independent person, one who can logically no longer remain with her “creator”, or her independence no longer has any real value. The controversy is rather as to whether she should remain with Higgins or go out in the world and stand on her own two feet.

But the romantic movie-making tradition, passed down in the 1920s from Hollywood to British film, prescribes that a dramatic build-up with two opposite-sex characters demands closure where they fall in love, and implicitly live happily ever after. Shaw’s film script indeed had no such closure originally, but the studio insisted that it could not end thus, and forced a late rewrite. I shall not here go into the details of that ending so as not to spoil it for you entirely.

Speaking of strong language, no-one is likely to be shocked today by the use of the word “bloody” in a film. But both when the play premiered in 1914 and when the film did so in 1938, this word was highly controversial. In fact, that single word alone helped to draw an audience to the theatres.

This film is best enjoyed if you have previously only seen My Fair Lady, or if you are somehow entirely unfamiliar with this entire story. With the debatable exception of the ending, it is an excellent film, and it is a good representation of this modern classic. Both Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza are excellent.

Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (1938)

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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Leslie Howard, Anthony Asquith
Stars: Leslie Howard
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Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

As You Like It (1936)

Earlier this year, it was exactly 450 years since the birth of William Shakespeare, considered by many as the greatest playwright ever. And even though such anniversaries are technically speaking just non-events based on arbitrary calendaric and mathematical concepts, it is nevertheless a good thing to be given a reason to reflect and celebrate.

According to Wikipedia, Shakespeare is the most filmed author in the history of motion pictures. Quite an accomplishment. Considering that, there are comparatively few Shakespeare films at the Internet Archive, and fewer yet that I find to be interesting.

There is a lot of stuff about Shakespeare and his texts, such as a TV programme with the title Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. A fascinating subject, though fraught with speculating charlatans. There are also several films of amateur companies performing Shakespeare, as well as abridged LEGO animations(!) of Macbeth and Hamlet. (I have seen none of these, so watch at your own risk.)

"All the world's a stage." Henry Ainley and Leon Quartermaine in As You Like It (1936)

But when it comes to feature films, we have to look harder. There are some early silent adaptations, mostly incomprehensible if you do not know the stories well, but historically interesting.

There are a handful of others, but the only one I find really interesting is the first sound version of As You Like It. Not only is this a nice version with neat, theatre-style scenography and good actors, it was also the first Shakespeare adaptation to feature Laurence Olivier, here in the role as the love-sick Orlando.

Unlike Olivier’s other three Shakespeare films, As You Like It was not directed by him. This is a shame, since his three films as director are among the greatest Shakespeare adaptations of all time. But at least you get to see this legendary actor perform, and that is certainly not a bad thing.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful, Shakespearean language, delivered by very good actors. The story about Orlando and his beloved Rosalind – who dresses as a young man in order to escape when she is driven away by her uncle, the Duke – is frankly a bit silly. Yet, it is a popular Shakespeare text, and this is a very good adaptation of it.

Laurence Olivier, Sophie Stuart and Elisabeth Bergner acting out the mock marriage of Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It (1936)

As You Like It
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 36 min
Director: Paul Czinner
Stars: Laurence Olivier
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)