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When phonetics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) meets low-class flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), he wagers to his friend Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he could change the cockney-accented street urchin into a proper lady of society. Thus begins a series of lessons on elocution posture and grooming, treating the young Eliza like a laboratory rat in his grand social experiment. But will it be too late before he realizes she is a woman and a human being too?

Review by Louise Keller:
Of course, we all know this Cinderella story, but there's something special about this first English film version of George Bernard Shaw's play, before it became a musical. Shaw's dialogue has not lost any of its bite in this comedy of manners in which Leslie Howard's Professor Henry Higgins turns a lowly street flower-seller into a lady. 'She's so deliciously low; so horribly dirty. I shall make a duchess of this draggle tailed guttersnipe,' he promises his friend Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) and we become quickly involved in the transformation. Winning the 1939 Oscar for Best Screenplay (and nominated for best actor, best actress and best picture) this funny and entertaining film is punctuated by its wit and timeless in its appeal.

Filmed in black and white, the action starts in the Piccadilly flower markets where Wendy Hiller's Eliza Doolittle sells her violets. ('Garn, Captain,' she whines). It was the year before Howard played Scarlett's beloved Ashley in Gone With The Wind, and here he is wonderfully subtle as the obsessed linguist with an ear for accents who treats his ward like an inanimate object devoid of feelings. Hiller perfectly embodies the Cockney flower girl who learns that the difference between a lady & flower girl isn't how she behaves but how she is treated. Supporting performances are also excellent with Scott Sunderland a perfect foil as the very British Colonel Pickering, Jean Cadell as Higgins' pragmatic housekeeper Mrs Pearce, Marie Lohr as his no-nonsense mother, Wilfrid Lawson as Eliza's outspoken father and David Tree as the soppy, besotted Freddy. The scene in which Eliza makes her society debut at the chandelier-filled Transylvanian Embassy ball is a hoot ('She has a faraway look as though she has always lived in a garden'), including the especially written scene with Esme Percy's Hungarian Count Aristid Karpathy who insists 'Only the Hungarian Magyar race can produce that air of the divine right.'

Directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, the well known references to the weather are delivered with panache ('The Rain in Spain' and the hurricane warning in Hampshire, Hereford and Hartford'). We are on Eliza's side throughout this beguiling comedy ('If I can't have kindness, I'll have independence') that remains a classic for all time.

Published October 30, 2008

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(UK, 1938)

CAST: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell, David Tree

PRODUCER: Gabriel Pascal

DIRECTOR: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard

SCRIPT: George Bernard Shaw (play by Shaw)


EDITOR: David Lean

MUSIC: Arthur Honegger

PRODUCTION DESIGN: John Bryan (art direction)

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes


SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by Dr Brian McFarlane, Monash University; audio interview with Dame Wendy Hiller recorded by Brian McFarlane in July 1991


DVD RELEASE: October 8, 2008

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