If you've seen 1964's musical My Fair Lady you know the plot of 1938's Pygmalion. Both are based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion and feature virtually the same plot and dialogue. For the uninitiated the story concerns the efforts of Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), master of linguistics and dedicated bachelor, to remake Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) in the image of an upper crust aristocrat. Though Higgins initially sees no value in Doolittle he slowly falls in love with his creation and has in the end to convince both Eliza and himself of his sincerity.
Pygmalion was adapted for the screen by Shaw himself and the movie is very true to his original stage play. Much of his dialogue is intact and director Anthony Asquith presents the material in a very theatrical manner (lots of static two shots and a dearth of exteriors.) Wendy Hiller is wonderful as Eliza Doolittle, presenting her character in a sympathetic and reasonably believable manner. Comparisons between Hiller and Audrey Hepburn are inevitable but perhaps unfair given the difference in approach between the two films. Leslie Howard is a cold and unsympathetic Henry Higgins who, unlike his musical counterpart Rex Harrison shows little change in character over the course of the film. Indeed, Howard's performance is the film's weakest point. He's funny but offers the audience no relatable side to latch onto.
With this release Criterion again delivers a technically excellent transfer. The picture is rich and deep with exemplary black levels, very good shadow detail, whites that shine without blooming and no noticeable digital artifacts. Where problems are introduced is in the source material. Criterion transferred the film from the original 35mm composite fine-grain master and enhanced it with their MTI Digital Restoration system but there are still many flaws in evidence. There are pinholes in almost every frame, a fair amount of fading and some streaking that tend to distract from the enjoyment of the film. That being said Pygmalion is surely better looking here than it has been in many years and these minor flaws shouldn't discourage you from buying the disc.
Pygmalion's soundtrack derives from the original 35mm optical source and it sounds very good. As you'd expect there's no great dynamic range here but the dialogue is clean and clear throughout. There is some hiss but it's kept to a bare minimum and I didn't hear any significant popping, dropout or clipping.
Regrettably this is one of Criterion's bare bone editions. There are no extras of any kind on the disc. Though this practice is common in Criterion's catalogue I have to question their high price structure for these discs. In an age in which consumers have come to expect extra content on DVDs it's a shame that Criterion (the inventor of ancillary content) couldn't have dug up at least the theatrical trailer.
Pygmalion is a classic and very enjoyable film that suffers from comparison to it's 1964 musical remake. If you're familiar with the film you'll probably find satisfaction with this release and if you've only seen My Fair Lady you may want to enhance that experience by viewing Shaw's original. All others should probably rent first and buy later.