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)

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

The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

One of the many genres that can be found at the Internet Archive is educational films. Most of these are quite old, and some are terribly outdated. Two examples of outdated but extremely interesting (not to mention amusing) films are Duck and Cover (1951) and Destination Earth (1956). But like most other educational films, those are too short to be relevant for this blog.

Better, both in terms of length and fact content, is one of the films that was produced as part of the classic The Bell Laboratory Science Series. The series consisted of nine different educational films on scientific topics that were tremendously popular and influential in the 1950s and 1960s. The one that has been chosen for today’s post is The Alphabet Conspiracy. The choice was made not only because it has aged with reasonable dignity, but also because the film very neatly ties in with characters from Alice in Wonderland. Throughout the film, the Mad Hatter and Jabberwock run around trying to devise a scheme to kill the alphabet (hence, the title of the film).

Dr. Frank Baxter, Cheryl Callaway, Dolores Starr as Jabberwock and Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy is an old film and linguistics is an evolving field of science. Hence, some parts are a bit quaint or even outdated. For example, the part about baby language acquisition is not consistent with modern views. But unlike the above-mentioned short films (which are perhaps bordering on propaganda), The Alphabet Conspiracy was firmly grounded in the science of its day. Even now, it is not laughable. Just a bit old.

But even while care must be taken with the fact content, perhaps the content is not what is most important anymore. Far more interesting is the dramatic structure, including the fantastic sets, the nice animations, the literary characters, the neat dialogue and the slow-moving but effective cutting. In these respects, The Alphabet Conspiracy outshines most of its contemporary competition, and even most present-day educational films. I work as a teacher. I know these things far too well.

Several other films from the same series are available at the Internet Archive. Those I have been able to track down are Our Mr. Sun (1956), Gateways to the Mind (1958) and Thread of Life (1960). The one I had most wanted to see, however, is not there, namely The Restless Sea (1964). It is the last film in the series, and it has Walt Disney as host.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to learn some basic facts about linguistics, or if you just want to enjoy the nice Alice in Wonderland references, or the fine animations. Or if you simply want to admire some classic, not to mention classy, educational material.

Dolores Starr as Jabberwock, Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter, Dr. Frank Baxter and Cheryl Callaway having a tea party in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy
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Year: 1959
Running time: 52 min
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Stars: Frank C. Baxter
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

It may perhaps seem like constructed languages, such as Star Trek’s Klingon or John Carter’s Barsoomian, have only started to appear in movies and on TV during the past few decades. Sure, a language like Na’vi in Avatar (2009) that was created directly for the movie – with the complexity of a natural language and a large base of fan speakers – that kind of thing has not been seen before Klingon. But Esperanto, originally constructed as a tool for peaceful communication across borders, was used at least as early as the classic silent film Der letzte Mann (1924), and the earliest attempt to create a dedicated language for a movie may have been the subject of this week’s post, namely Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford and Dame May Whitty in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The language in question is spoken in the fictional European country which through different sources is variously known as Mandrika, Bandrieke, Vandreka, etc. The film begins at a hotel in a small town where the only train out is delayed by snow.

The language can be heard in many brief dialogues throughout the movie, though without the original script, it is impossible to analyze whether it is actually a complete language with coherent grammar and vocabulary, or just so many nonsense syllables. One of the few sentences which is both easy to make out and easily translated is spoken as “Reinefetado eŇ° fenito.” (We are out of food.) This would seem to vaguely suggest a Romance language, though some sources claim it is a mashup of many different European languages.

Constructed language can serve several different purposes on the silver screen. Often, it is used to provide credibility to a fantasy culture, such as the elves in The Lord of the Rings (2001) or the vampires in Blade (1998). But in The Lady Vanishes, this is not the main reason. Hitchcock could have just as well used an existing language, and an existing country.

The purpose is rather to create ambiguity about the underlying identity of the country. The interesting blog Reel Club has a post about Hitchcock’s political messages in this movie, and how he criticized England’s blindness in the face of the dangerous European situation. (In my opinion, Reel Club is perhaps overinterpreting some aspects, but essentially the reasoning is very good.) From that perspective, it is plain that Bandrika (the most common spelling, I think) is a Germany in disguise, and the Bandrikan language is part of that disguise. The viewer, of course, was supposed to infer as much, but there was no war and Germany could not be pointed out as the enemy just yet.

Over in America, about the same time, several films were released that used Esperanto for the same purpose, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1939). The technique is similar to that used in e.g. Dark Journey (1937), where the action is moved to a historical period (World War I) in order to provide the necessary setting for the political allegory.

Though far from Hitchcock’s best, The Lady Vanishes is competently made and in many ways a typical and very adorable Hitchcock thriller. Hitchcock’s amazing sense of perspective and focus is seen in a few instances, and as always, the plot holds a good deal of psychological interest. There is also a bit more comic relief than in most Hitchcocks.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of train thrillers. Hitchcock had an excellent sense of the dramatic possibilities offered by the limited space in a train.

Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Dame May Whitty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,017 M)