What’s Old is Always New

TCM is wrapping up its 31 Days of Oscar. Among the movies they featured was My Fair Lady. Released in 1964 and starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, it was directed by George Cukor, who directed such movies as Judy Garland’s A Star is Born and The Philadelphia Story.

My Fair Lady is one of those movies that owes its story to another medium, in this case the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, which was turned into a musical in 1956 and also made into a 1938 movie with the same name, which starred Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, as Professor Henry Higgins and the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle.

But, ultimately, My Fair Lady, the 1912 play, the 1956 musical (and its subsequent revivals) and the 1938 movie all share the same source.

The Greek myth of Pygmalion.

Pygmalion was a very talented sculptor in ancient Greece who loved his work, and would spend hours carving beautiful ivory statues, immersing himself in his art. One day, he chose a large, beautiful piece of ivory, and worked diligently at it, chiseling and hammering until he finished. It was a statue of a beautiful lady. Pygmalion thought it was so beautiful, he clothed the figure, gave it jewels, and named it Galatea (sleeping love). Pygmalion went to the temple of Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love and beauty to pray for a wife just like the statue in his home.

Pygmalion and Galatea

When Aphrodite heard him, she went to the home of he sculptor to see what all the fuss was about. She was delighted when she saw Galatea. She thought it looked a lot like herself, so she brought it to life. When the sculptor returned home, he found Galatea alive, and threw himself at her feet. Galatea smiled down at him. They soon got married, and Pygmalion didn’t forget to thank Aphrodite for his good fortune. He and Galatea brought gifts to her altar as long as they lived. Aphrodite blessed them with happiness and love in return.

“Pygmalion.” Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
[Accessed March 02, 2014].

In My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison)  is Pygmalion and Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) is his Galetea. Higgins takes on the task of transforming Eliza from a lower class flower girl with a broad Cockney accent into a woman of class and breeding.

So, pretty much, what is old is new. It may not be as politically correct these days to redo the myth of Pygmalion and Galetea, unless of course, perhaps, some gender switching were involved. Make the character of Pygmalion a woman and a man her Galetea. That would be interesting. And, who knows, maybe that story has already been written. There are so many books, movies, plays and short stories about I can’t keep up with them all.

My Fair Lady – Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn

But that’s the beauty of myths and fairytales and folklore and legends. There’s nothing wrong with taking an old story and making it new. Shakespeare did it all the time and, well, look what it got him.