George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion technically originated prior to the Great War, but it continued to appear on the West End throughout the interwar period. Indeed, its impact has lasted throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Shaw’s play continues to be regularly performed in London. The various film adaptations have made the story familiar to generations: the 1964 version My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn is probably the best-known, but more recent films such as She’s All That (1999) and The Duff (2015) have used the same source material to transplant the story into a modern setting.
The story of Pygmalion, in turn, is based on the Greek myth about a sculptor of the same name, who makes a sculpture of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it. Aphrodite, goddess of love, is moved by Pygmalion’s devotion and decides to turn the statue into a real woman, so they can live happily ever after.
Shaw’s play dispenses with the mythical elements. In his story, Professor Higgins who has an interest in phonetics, meets the cockney flower girl Eliza. Higgins places a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering, that he (Higgins) can change Eliza’s speech so thoroughly that he will be able to introduce her into high society as a duchess. Higgins and Eliza embark on a rigorous training regime, during the course of which affection develops between them. The original play does not end with Higgins and Eliza in a romantic relationship – however, subsequent productions and film adaptations have made changes to increase the story’s appeal.
Pygmalion shows the international nature of British cultural life in this period. Shaw himself was Irish; although Ireland was still part of Britain when the play debuted, he was removed from the core of the Empire. Pygmalion’s first production was in Vienna in 1912; it was also performed in the US before it reached the West End. Consequently, there was a lot of ‘buzz’ around the play when it arrived in His Majesty’s Theatre in 1914. Newspapers covered the first performance extensively with text and pictures, as the play had already built up a reputation. Of particular interest to the tabloids was the line ‘Not bloody likely’ which is uttered by Eliza during the play. That a female actor would say the word ‘bloody’ on stage was considered extremely transgressive; the papers were not even willing to print the word but rather referred to it as ‘b—-‘.
Despite the ostensibly extremely British setting of the story, which for a substantial part hinges on Eliza’s Cockney slang and the peculiarities of class identities in British society, the production continued to have international appeal. This is also evident from the film adaptions. As the story is so dependent on pronunciation, it would have made little sense to attempt to adapt it as a silent film. However, once sound films became the norm in the 1930s, the first country to adapt Pygmalion for the screen was Germany.
Rather incredibly, the second feature length film version was made in the Netherlands in 1937; it moves the plot to Amsterdam and introduces a romantic ending for Higgins and Eliza. The first Dutch sound film was only made in 1934, years after the first sound films were made in Britain, Germany and the US. That Dutch filmmakers were willing to invest into a production of Pygmalion, which included paying a substantial sum for the rights to the story, indicates that the producers were confident the film would be a hit with the domestic audience.
In 1938 the first British film version of Pygmalion appears; co-directed by Anthony Asquith and actor Leslie Howard, the latter also fulfilling the role of Professor Higgins. Wendy Hiller stars as Eliza. This version introduces some of the elements modern audiences are most likely to be familiar with from subsequent adaptations, for example Eliza’s speech exercises ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ and ‘In Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.’ The ‘not bloody likely’ line was also retained, but by 1938 it caused notably less controversy than it had done two decades prior.
The casting of Howard, who was mid-forties at the time, as Professor Higgins, changed the dynamic of the story’s central relationship considerably. In the original productions, Higgins was an older man who was primarily interested in Eliza as a research object. When she emancipates herself throughout the story and asserts her rights as an individual, it takes Higgins by surprise as he has not previously considered her as an equal. Howard, who was a successful film star on both sides of the Atlantic, plays Higgins as an absent-minded but romantic hero, who comes to realise he loves Eliza. Although the ending of the film is somewhat open, it can be interpreted that Eliza ends up choosing Higgins over her (other) love interest, Freddie. Shaw hated Howard’s interpretation of the role; he was insistent that Eliza should not end up marrying Higgins.
However, audiences favoured the ending and it was retained for the musical adaptation of the play, My Fair Lady, which was first produced on Broadway in 1956 and then, as noted above, turned into a successful film in 1964. The original story which promoted female emancipation and independence was turned into a more conventional romantic tale, in which the woman stays with the man who has provided for her rather than making her own way. Pygmalion shows both the changing social norms of interwar Britain which allowed the production to thrive despite (or because of) the female lead uttering a swear word; and the enduring attachment to patriarchal values which over time reduced and removed the story’s more radical ideas.
The 1938 film version of Pygmalion is in the public domain and available to view for free via the Internet Archive.
 Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 237