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Sunday, November 4, 2007

The New You, Part 1 (originally published 2/99)

In her immortal novel "Frankenstein," Mary Shelley dramatized the consequences of the perverse human impulse to play God. By yielding to the temptation to create a human life, Victor Frankenstein commits the sin of pride in what may be its ultimate form. Lesser offences along these same lines may be found throughout our literary tradition. George Bernard Shaw's Professor Henry Higgins, for example, attempts to pluck a young woman out of the Cockney gutter and remold her into an English aristocrat. This feat may not actually involve breathing new life into a corpse, but in social terms it virtually amounts to the same thing. Since the time of Shaw's "Pygmalion," stories about lowly characters being recreated in a more exalted form have been retold in Western literature dozens of times. (Actually, of course, the story is much older than that, going all the way back to the tale of Pygmalion in Ovid's "Metamorphoses," from which Shaw took his title.)

Naturally, this plot device has also been widely exploited by moviemakers through the years. The most recent example is "She's All That," which is currently enjoying box office success nationwide. For a sampling of earlier films using a similar makeover premise, look for these titles on video.

"Lady For a Day" (1933). When director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin joined forces, as they often did, the result was usually a comedy of razor-sharp wit and profound humanity. When their deft touch was applied to source material by Damon Runyon, as in this adaptation of Runyon's "Madame La Gimp," an entertaining evening was guaranteed for all. May Robson stars as "Apple Annie," a streetcorner apple peddler who is about to be caught in a lie. In the letters she has sent to her daughter, who is pursuing her education in Spain, Annie has written that she is a wealthy society matron, the wife of a judge. Now it seems that her daughter is coming for a visit. To Annie's rescue comes "Dave the Dude," (Warren William), a gangster who has a sentimental attachment to Annie because he believes her to be his good luck charm. Dave pulls a few strings (and twists a few arms) to give Annie the appearance of wealth and social prominence for the duration of her daughter's visit. This film is currently available only on laserdisc, but old VHS copies can still be found for rent. If it proves too elusive, however, you might try the remake, also directed by Capra, called "A Pocketful of Miracles" (1961).

"Princess Tam Tam" (1935). In the United States during the twenties, African-Americans remained a second class citizenry even as their musical culture enriched and undergirded the emergence of American jazz. In Paris, by contrast, African-American jazz performers enjoyed a vogue. The performer who rode the crest of this tidal wave of Parisian adulation was Josephine Baker. Born in the slums of East St. Louis, Baker came into her own in Paris, becoming the toast of the Folies-Bergere. In "Princess Tam Tam," Baker stars as a simple Tunisian native girl. She is whisked away to Paris by a French novelist vacationing in Tunisia and introduced into high society. The writer is determined to pass her off as a princess in order to get back at his wife, who has taken an exotic lover of her own.

"Pygmalion" (1938). It should come as no surprise that Shaw's own play, the modern progenitor of makeover storylines, also made its way to the screen. This British screen version stars Leslie Howard as Professor Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle. Although the film departs rather freely from the text of the play, it was produced with the blessing and cooperation of Shaw himself, who pronounced himself pleased with the result. The familiar story begins with a friendly wager. Higgins, a professor of phonetics, bets a colleague that he can take a lowly Cockney flower girl and pass her off as an aristocrat within six months solely by teaching her the diction of the upper class. What Higgins doesn't count on, of course, is that he might develop an emotional attachment to the subject of his experiment.

The movies were not finished with Professor Higgins, however. Next week we'll look at more makeover movies, including the memorable second screen incarnation of Shaw's classic play.

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