sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2009-12-23 04:05 am

I am always reasonable

1. Four chapters into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women), I am intrigued most by the allusions that suggest the novel is a crossover fic between two Astrid Lindgren characters, grown up and gritty in 2005. I call jackpot if Ronja Rövardotter turns up.

2. TCM is currently showing a double feature of musicals and the movies that inspired them—first My Fair Lady (1964) and Pygmalion (1938), then Silk Stockings (1957) and Ninotchka (1939). I don't, unfortunately, have the time to watch either. 'Twas a few nights before Christmas and all through the house is a mess and why are there more things to wrap and did we mail all the fruitcake? Oh, God, why not? Et cetera. I am sorry to miss the latter pair, since I haven't seen either Cyd Charisse or Greta Garbo playing Russian since high school. But I am at least going to take the former as an excuse for that post about My Fair Lady and Pygmalion I've been meaning to write since last May; and anyone who's seen both films recently is free to tell me I'm wrong.

I wrote initially, "And I have to say, I grew up on Rex Harrison. He's definitive. Anyone who essays the role of Professor Henry Higgins from now until the end of time will have his shadow to contend with, and lines of My Fair Lady are regularly quoted in my family's house. But for an obsessed phonetics geek with no people skills, I'll take Leslie Howard for a thousand, please. If there's a romance here, it's even more one of the intellect. And Wendy Hiller is luminous." And then I never expanded on any of these claims. I don't think Wendy Hiller needs defense; she is less gamine than Audrey Hepburn and therefore less shockingly exquisite in her transformation, but her early scenes are unsentimental as an alley cat and then, as her vocabulary comes up to speed with her wits, we begin to see not only her long-eyed, stubborn beauty, but the depth and strength her Lisson Grove smudges have camouflaged. I bet she could have done her own singing, too. Don't make me choose between Wilfrid Lawson and Stanley Holloway; one has the rougher edges the musical smooths off with the social commentary, but the other simply owns "Get Me to the Church on Time." They can time-share Alfie Doolittle, like Castor and Pollux above and underground. Jeremy Brett is infinitely preferable as Freddy. But Henry Higgins, there's someone I want to talk about. The difference that surprised me most about the film of Pygmalion—and a great part of the reason I love it so much—was the characterization of its eponymous professor of phonetics, and I have some ideas as to why.

We can start with Shaw's stage directions, from Pygmalion the original play (1913):

Higgins is standing up near [Pickering], closing two or three file drawers which are hanging out. He appears in the morning light as a robust, vital, appetizing sort of man of forty or thereabouts, dressed in a professional-looking black frock-coat with a white linen collar and black silk tie. He is of the energetic, scientific type, heartily, even violently interested in everything that can be studied as a scientific subject, and careless about himself and other people, including their feelings. He is, in fact, but for his years and size, rather like a very impetuous baby 'taking notice' eagerly and loudly, and requiring almost as much watching to keep him out of unintended mischief. His manner varies from genial bullying when he is in a good humor to stormy petulance when anything goes wrong; but he is so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments.

This is not a description which fits Leslie Howard. It does, of course, Rex Harrison. Whether through direction or personality, he invests his Higgins with a great deal of infuriating charm—Sexy Rexy, after all. His boisterousness is infectious; his explosions of temper are a theatrical delight to observe; if there's such a thing as disarming petulance, he's got it. You leave the theater quoting him: In America, they haven't used it for years! There's no such immediate warmth to Howard's Higgins. He doesn't fling his voice around as colorfully; his thin smile is unreassuring; he's cooler and less charismatic and consequently I have no difficulty accepting him as someone who stays up at all hours, too enraptured by some quirk of Cockney dialect to notice that it's half past four or to care that anyone else has. Not everyone is going to find that appealing. I don't think it's an accident that the role plays off the basic oddness of his looks; here he's no dreamy Ashley or dashing Pimpernel, but gangling and careless, a loose-limbed, fey-faced coatrack who doesn't change out of his dressing gown unless he has to leave the house and isn't exactly the height of fashion when he does; in tweeds and cockeyed hat, he jams his hands into his pockets and hikes up his shoulders as he slouches down the street, looking as though he might start a fight (and probably get himself thrashed) if the next passerby mispronounces "Hereford." It's a small shock to find him elegant in white tie and tails at the Embassy Ball, to remember that this is Leslie Howard who made the ladies swoon in Intermezzo and all sorts of other things besides.1 And much more than Rex Harrison, this Higgins has an air of the mad scientist about him. His house is a clutter of acoustic charts and anatomical diagrams and early oscilloscopes; tinkering with recording and playback is clearly as much fun as studying the sounds themselves. He's got a terrible pair of black-framed spectacles he drops over his eyes like an aviator's goggles for close work, and he looks ridiculous with a cold compress on his head. And he doesn't care. He's indifferent, obsessive, and a complete mess where anything but his work is concerned—for want of a better word, he's geekier. I think Pygmalion was made about six years too soon for "boffin," but that would work, too.

All of which I would approve of on its own merits, but it's not just window dressing. I have spoken before about the aspects of reversal that I love so much about My Fair Lady: that all the while Higgins thinks he's sculpting a duchess out of a squashed cabbage leaf, he himself is being knocked into the shape of a human being, which he's never properly been before in his life; and he doesn't notice until it's too late. I was serenely independent and content before we met! Surely I could always be that way again—and yet . . . This is not an element of the original play, where Higgins' laughter as the curtain falls demonstrates his insensibility to the mysteries of the human heart once and for all. It is crucial to the ending of the musical, which wouldn't work as either a tentative romance or a platonic rapprochement otherwise. And when Higgins is played as prickly and cerebral as he is in the 1938 film, this twist is all the more pronounced. Her grammar may need work, but Wendy Hiller's Eliza starts off with a far finer sense of human interaction than her social better, who's caustic and confident on his own ground and rather flails when he's not in control. He makes it a matter of scientific detachment, of intellect: "Oh, it's a fine life, the life of the gutter. It's real, it's warm, it's violent. Not like science and literature and classical music and philosophy and art." But for every social grace he flouts because he doesn't see the point, there's another bunch he simply doesn't understand, because they require the other person to be subject, not object. He likes to push other people's buttons: the Eynsford-Hills, the Covent Garden crowd he does his phonemic fortune-telling for; Eliza, when he feels threatened. ("Oh, you are a devil. You can twist the heart in a girl as easily as some could twist her arms to hurt her.") He does not like to be destabilized himself. When he says stiffly, "You have caused me to lose my temper: a thing that has hardly ever happened to me before," what he means is that she's gotten too close for comfort; and it's not a matter of a luminous face or a Hungarian princess' poise or a voice he's grown accustomed to. "I've taught scores of American millionairesses to speak English," he assures Pickering at the outset of the experiment. "The best-looking women in the world. I'm seasoned. They might as well be blocks of wood." Note again that language of things. What he's not prepared for is a person: a woman with a first-rate mind of her own, and strong-willed enough not to let him treat her like something to pick up and play with and put down again when the point's been made. Pygmalion of Cyprus was lucky. Galatea softened from ivory into flesh, stepped down from her pedestal, and gave her sculptor a son from whom the island of Paphos takes its name. Henry Higgins has no such guarantee: if you let other people become real, not dolls or statues, they can hurt you. Even by their absence. And romance is one of the least safe ways to let a stranger in.2

I'm not saying that none of this works in My Fair Lady. I've made a version of this argument for the musical as far back as my senior year of high school, when I can remember (with a specificity I didn't expect when I started this sentence) discussing it before chorus rehearsal for the spring Pops.3 But it works better in Pygmalion. I was surprised. And I think it works better because of Leslie Howard, who may not have been Shaw's Higgins of choice—the playwright wanted Charles Laughton, before Gabriel Pascal voted him down—but whose utterly unromantic affect makes him convincing as a man who is meant to have gone through life as a student of humanity without knowing thing one about its stickier points, yet who is not incapable, however unsuspectingly, of change.4 He doesn't always have the audience on his side. Quite a lot of the time, in fact, he looks like an asshat, and not necessarily in ways that make him as affectionately, exasperatingly sympathetic to the viewer as Rex Harrison's cheerfully oblivious professor. (Nor does Wendy Hiller yield all her scenes to him, even before she wrong-foots him so deftly—"a bit of your own back, as you call it"—at his mother's.) But the tradeoff is a clear emphasis on the intelligence of both parties involved, rather than a simple, surprising click of chemistry, and whether we are meant to construe a love affair or merely a passionate life of the mind to follow from the famous exchange at the end of the film, that's what I can believe it might rest on. And as much as I have sprechstimmed my way through all of Rex Harrison's songs in the shower, he just doesn't throw off the same crackle of neural recognition as Leslie Howard in a late-night fidget of papers, eating chocolates the way other men bite their nails. I know people like that. Sometimes they fall in love.

Anyway. It's possible that's told you more about me than about Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard's Pygmalion, but I'm not deleting it now. The film is worth watching; it's usefully available from Criterion; I am now waiting for them to release Major Barbara (1941), also adapted by Shaw under the auspices of Pascal and starring Wendy Hiller (and Rex Harrison, in case you are feeling deprived). There's editing by David Lean and the nicely Shavian irony of the casting. There's satire and magnificent argument. And if you can't go home humming "I Could Have Danced All Night," there's always the bit with the xylophone.

1. Leslie Howard was responsible for something by H.P. Lovecraft? Flipping Hades Terwilliger. It's a small, small world.

2. The fact that George Bernard Shaw wrote the screenplay for Pygmalion fortunately saves me from a fight about authorial intent, but I still find the above line of argument more plausible than the one given in his original epilogue, which is sort of embarrassingly Freudian: "When Higgins excused his indifference to young women on the ground that they had an irresistible rival in his mother, he gave the clue to his inveterate old-bachelordom. The case is uncommon only to the extent that remarkable mothers are uncommon . . ." especially when compared to an immediately relevant reason already present in the text: "I can't be bothered with young women, besides. They're all such idiots." This is patently not the case with Eliza; early on in the experiment, in fact, Higgins is glowing over her cleverness. "Continental dialects," he rhapsodizes to his mother, "African dialects, Hottentot clicks, things it took me years of get hold of, she hears them right off when she comes home . . ." She doesn't start to disturb him until it becomes clear that he is dealing with an intellect equal to his and an emotional intelligence that he doesn't have a chance at. And then he doesn't know what the hell to do.

3. And the songs are in service of this interpretation. "I'm an Ordinary Man" is a catalogue of stereotypes, but I have always thought it worth pointing out that what "A Hymn to Him" ultimately reveals is not misogyny ("Why can't a woman—"), but massive generalized egotism ("—be like me?"). You can, of course, debate whether this is an improvement.

4. It struck me only recently that even within the framework of Shaw's plays, there's a concrete reason his original ending for Pygmalion is problematic: one of his great recurring themes is characters' confrontation of their own unexamined assumptions, whether that means Raina's romantic notions of chivalry in Arms and the Man (1894) or Barbara Undershaft's preference of pie in the sky to cash in hand in Major Barbara (1905) or the attitudes toward sexuality and class displayed by every character except the eponym in Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893). The same situation is set up with Higgins, and yet in the play he is allowed to leave the stage with exactly the same self-justified worldview as he started with. In the film, with the discomfiting realization that he is not immune to human attachment, he joins the honorable company of Shavian protagonists whose philosophies have gotten a sound kick in the pants. It doesn't need to be driven by romance, just good character work.

3. If CBS Films is going to remake My Fair Lady, as I have been hearing for some months now, could someone please persuade them to cast Hugh Laurie as Henry Higgins? Please?

[identity profile] 2009-12-23 11:44 am (UTC)(link)
I really, really enjoyed this essay, on more points than I can list. Just so you can get a sense of its overall effect, you've inspired me now to read these other works of GBS, and to see the Leslie Howard Pygmalion. (We have everyone home now, and we were saying, "What good thing can we put on Netflix?" Since the ninja girl was very disappointed to have missed seeing Lesley Howard's Pimpernel, maybe this will be a good substitute--and conversation provoking, as well, seems like.)

--Yes, really you've made me think a lot about George Bernard Shaw, I think.

But also about the effectiveness of different portrayals of character.

Can you elaborate on Footnote 1? The first link requires logging in (and I'm lazy), and when I searched on Flipping Hades Terwilliger (surname only known to me from the Simpsons), I found him as a character in Daniel Pinkwater books, so I'm confused.

Another thought that occurred: intellectual rivalry (cf footnote 2). Do you think--and I'm only asking, not challenging, because it's been a while since I saw My Fair Lady, and I haven't seen Pygmalion--that it needs to be a sense of rivalry that opens up Higgins? That is, is that he senses someone who is superior to him in some way? And if so... if so... hmm, I wonder what the more general question is that I want to ask, but I can't frame it now--must go wake people up. More anon, maybe.

[identity profile] 2009-12-23 02:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Hello! Are you recovered from any ailments? Did you have a good solstice? Did you mail all the fruitcakes? Mine are gone away. It's rather sad.

[identity profile] 2009-12-23 06:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you!

Stephen Fry would be an excellent, disconcerting Higgins: he's got the self-absorption and the academic obsessiveness down pat.

[identity profile] 2009-12-23 06:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I watched half of "My Fair Lady" back in the summer, and was overwhelmed by loathing of Henry Higgins, to the point where I became red in the face and started swearing at the VCR. Then a customer came into the shop and I had to shut it off, which I think was for the best. I've never dared go back to it since then.

This entry may make me give it another try. I dunno, though... I'm gritting my teeth to make myself watch it because I can't bear to leave things halfway through, but then again I know that it's going to end with Henry Higgins and Eliza getting together, and that's a horrendous fate for Eliza as far as I'm concerned. Let me try to explain--you may find it interesting even if my points don't carry weight with you.

It's not that I find Rex Harrison unappealing. Earlier this month, I watched "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir", in which he was both gorgeous and lovable. He's even pretty cute in "My Fair Lady". That just makes his loathsomeness more distressing to me. He is: (1) a classist and (2) a misogynist, which are both qualities that will make me stop liking a character fast. Those are debatable, I suppose. But most importantly, (3) he... makes... FUN... of the way people talk. Death is too good for him.

(NB: a lot of this is due to my personal experiences. Whether this also means it's valid as a general opinion, you can judge. I don't think we've ever talked about this, but you've probably noticed: I am apparently unable to speak English with an American accent. I grew up in New England, I still live here, I sound pretty normal to myself, but my life has been full of people imitating the way I talk back to me. Most of them don't mean to be rude, but it's obnoxious anyhow. End of NB.)

Anyhow, after the squashed-cabbage-leaf conversation, the only way I would have felt OK about Henry Higgins and Eliza hitting it off would be if something horrible did happen to him wherein Eliza was the only person who could possibly help him, and if he attained some kind of consciousness of what an asshat he really was. None of which was apparently going to happen--and Eliza was looking more and more like a weak, whiny idiot. I'd liked her a lot initially, but if she's the sort of person who would take orders from a windbag like Higgins, I don't want to spend time with her. So I stomped off and never went back. Only... only... now I sort of want to. I'll watch the Leslie Howard "Pygmalion", in any case.

[identity profile] 2009-12-24 07:56 pm (UTC)(link)
One of my housemates this past semester was a big fan of Howard's. I think it's high time I watched him in something, anyhow.

[identity profile] 2009-12-24 01:03 pm (UTC)(link)
In the original play, they do not end up together, she goes off and SPOILER starts her own elocution school. In the movie (which Shaw wrote) and in the musical, they do.

As I also loathe Henry Higgins, I much prefer the original play.

I have seen four stage versions of Pygmalion, the Howard movie, and a stage version of My Fair Lady, but never the movie of MFL. The problem with stage versions is that they're there and gone forever, so there's no point me telling you about the amazing performance of Eliza's father in the 2004 version at the Dome, or the great Pickering in London in 1987, because hey, live, over. Last year there was a local production of Arcadia and I went three times, including on the last night in a blizzard and as they were dancing at the end I could have believed that they kept on dancing in and out of time every night somewhere.

[identity profile] 2009-12-24 08:01 pm (UTC)(link)
Hey, you're the first person I've ever discussed this with who didn't like Henry Higgins! Sweet! We can hate on him together. But I think I'll find the original play and give it a read; I'm very fond of Arms and the Man and I think I'd enjoy Shaw's writing if I gave it half a chance.

I envy your chance to see the production of Arcadia you describe. Out here in Massachusetts, I've been fortunate enough to see two productions myself, one college theatre and one professional. They were both excellent, and I would love to see it again. Sometime between 'em, I read Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Lands, by John Crowley, which went with them very well.

[identity profile] 2009-12-24 02:42 am (UTC)(link)
The essay is lovely.

God, Silk Stockings is an awful movie. A utter waste of Peter Lorre.

[identity profile] 2009-12-24 03:47 am (UTC)(link)
It's almost unwatchable. I mean, they somehow managed to surgically remove Cyd Charisse's sexual magnetism; it's the only film in which I don't find her attractive. And the music is uniformly horrid, and Peter Lorre is completely gratuitous.

[identity profile] 2009-12-24 06:05 pm (UTC)(link)
1) You're on the money. Stieg Larsson did indeed imagine the characters as grown-up versions of Lindgren's.

[identity profile] 2009-12-24 11:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Interesting. You've raised some points about the play/movie and the musical that I've never thought of before. (I think I saw Pygmalion once, as a child, but I'd forgot how different it actually was to My Fair Lady.)

I hope you and yours have had a happy Solstice, will have a happy Christmas, and are having an enjoyable Christmas Eve.