Anthony Asquith was the son of Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and one of the many men who entered films from Oxbridge in the 1920s and 1930s. Highly-connected himself, he knew all about British class distinctions, which was useful when directing work by Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952) or Shaw's Pygmalion. He directed in the theatre as well as for the screen, and enjoyed a successful professional partnership with playwright Terence Rattigan.
Pygmalion was charismatic Hungarian Gabriel Pascal's first attempt at putting George Bernard Shaw on the screen. In fact he saw it as his personal mission to translate the great man's plays to film; Major Barbara appeared in 1941, followed by Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). He produced a Hollywood version of Androcles and the Lion (d. Chester Erskine, 1952), but an attempt to film The Doctor's Dilemma around 1946 was still-born. Shaw had been notoriously reluctant to agree to film versions of his plays; Pascal's secret was to use his enormous charm to persuade GBS to adapt the works for the screen himself.
Pygmalion had first been produced on the London stage in 1914, when it starred the 'perilously bewitching' Mrs. Patrick Campbell as the cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, who is successfully introduced into high society by Higgins, a professor of phonetics. Higgins teaches her to speak, dress and behave like a 'lady'. Shaw had admired the playing of Wendy Hiller as his St. Joan, and also as Eliza, during the Shaw Festival at Malvern in 1936, and he recommended her for the part. Shaw also wanted Charles Laughton to play Higgins, but Pascal held out for Leslie Howard, who is excellent, although Shaw felt he was too romantic in the role.
The famous Ball scene, absent from the play, was written especially for the film, and Shaw also wrote a new character for this scene, Higgins' former pupil, the Hungarian Karpathy, which was modelled on Pascal himself. The Ball scene was also included in the book for the musical version of the play, My Fair Lady, which premiered in New York in 1956, in London in 1958, and was filmed in 1964 (US, d. George Cukor).