The best stage musical of all time and one of the most loved romances.
I selected one of Hollywood's best-loved musicals for tonight's Saturday Nght Cinema -- a special Passover treat, My Fair Lady, directed by the legendary George Cukor. The film stars Audrey Hepburn, the epitome of what every girl aspires to be, and she is brilliant. I love, love, love her.
Contrary to what current box-office would say, there was a time when musicals were the most profitable “genre” in Hollywood. Beginning in the late ‘30s and all the way up to the ‘70s, musicals were bona fide blockbusters that drew the crowds to movie theaters on a weekly basis, perhaps because they were always huge spectacles that demanded to be seen in big screens.
Screen: Lots of Chocolates for Miss Eliza Doolittle: 'My Fair Lady' Bows at the CriterionBy BOSLEY CROWTHERPublished: October 22, 1964
AS Henry Higgins might have whooped, "By George, they've got it!" They've made a superlative film from the musical stage show "My Fair Lady"—a film that enchantingly conveys the rich endowments of the famous stage production in a fresh and flowing cinematic form. The happiest single thing about it is that Audrey Hepburn superbly justifies the decision of the producer, Jack L. Warner, to get her to play the title role that Julie Andrews so charmingly and popularly originated on the stage.
All things considered, it is the brilliance of Miss Hepburn as the Cockney waif who is transformed by Prof. Henry Higgins into an elegant female facade that gives an extra touch of subtle magic and individuality to the film, which had a bejeweled and bangled premiere at the Criterion last night.
Other elements and values that are captured so exquisitely in this film are but artful elaborations and intensifications of the stage material as achieved by the special virtuosities and unique flexibilities of the screen.
There are the basic libretto and music of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, which were inspired by the wit and wisdom in the dramatic comedy, "Pygmalion," of George Bernard Shaw. With Mr. Lerner serving as the screen playwright, the structure and, indeed, the very words of the musical play as it was performed on Broadway for six and a half years are preserved. And every piece of music of the original score is used.
There is punctilious duplication of the motifs and patterns of the décor and the Edwardian costumes and scenery, which Cecil Beaton designed for the stage. The only difference is that they're expanded. For instance, the Covent Garden set becomes a stunningly populated market, full of characters and movement in the film; and the embassy ball, to which the heroine is transported Cin-derellalike, becomes a dazzling array of regal splendor, as far as the eye can reach, when laid out for ritualistic emphasis on the Super-Panavision color screen. Since Mr. Beaton's decor was fresh and flawless, it is super-fresh and flawless in the film.
In the role of Professor Higgins, Rex Harrison still displays the egregious egotism and ferocity that he so vividly displayed on the stage, and Stanley Holloway still comes through like thunder as Eliza's antisocial dustman dad.
Yes, it's all here, the essence of the stage show—the pungent humor and satiric wit of the conception of a linguistic expert making a lady of a guttersnipe by teaching her manners and how to speak, the pomp and mellow grace of a romantic and gone-forever age, the delightful intoxication of music that sings in one's ears.
The added something is what Miss Hepburn brings—and what George Cukor as the director has been able to distill from the script.
For want of the scales of a jeweler, let's just say that what Miss Hepburn brings is a fine sensitivity of feeling and a phenomenal histrionic skill. Her Covent Garden flower girl is not just a doxy of the streets. She's a terrifying example of the elemental self-assertion of the female sex. When they try to plunge her into a bathtub, as they do in an added scene, which is a wonderfully comical creation of montage and pantomime, she fights with the fury of a tigress. She is not one to submit to the still obscure customs and refinements of a society that is alien to her.
But when she reaches the point where she can parrot the correct words to describe the rain in Spain, she acknowledges the thrill of achieving this bleak refinement with an electrical gleam in her eyes. And when she celebrates the male approval she receives for accomplishing this goal, she gives a delightful demonstration of ecstasy and energy by racing about the Higgins mansion to the music of "I Could Have Danced All Night."
It is true that Marni Nixon provides the lyric voice that seems to emerge from Miss Hepburn, but it is an excellent voice, expertly synchronized. And everything Miss Hepburn mimes to it is in sensitive tune with the melodies and words.
Miss Hepburn is most expressive in the beautiful scenes where she achieves the manners and speech of a lady, yet fails to achieve that one thing she needs for a sense of belonging—that is, the recognition of the man she loves.
She is dazzlingly beautiful and comic in the crisply satiric Ascot scene played almost precisely as it was on the stage. She is stiffly serene and distant at the embassy ball and almost unbearably poignant in the later scenes when she hungers for love. Mr. Cukor has maneuvered Miss Hepburn and Mr. Harrison so deftly in these scenes that she has one perpetually alternating between chuckling laughter and dabbing the moisture from one's eyes.
This is his singular triumph. He has packed such emotion into this film—such an essence of feeling and compassion for a girl in an all too-human bind—that he has made this rendition of "My Fair Lady" the most eloquent and moving that has yet been done.
There are other delightful triumphs in it. Mr. Harrison's Higgins is great—much sharper, more spirited and eventually more winning than I recall it on the stage. Mr. Holloway's dustman is titanic, and when he roars through his sardonic paean to middle-class morality in "Get Me to the Church on Time," he and his bevy of boozers reach a high point of the film.
Wilfrid Hyde White as Colonel Pickering, who is Higgins's urbane associate; Mona Washburn as the Higgins housekeeper, Gladys Cooper as Higgins's svelte mama and, indeed, everyone in the large cast is in true and impeccable form.
Though it runs for three hours — or close to it — this "My Fair Lady" seems to fly past like a breeze. Like Eliza's disposition to dancing, it could go on, for all I'd care, all night.
MY FAIR LADY, screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, based on the stage musical by Mr. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, from "Pygmalion," by George Bernard Shaw; directed by George Cukor and produced by Jack L. Warner. Presented by Warner Bros. Pictures. At the Criterion Theater, Broadway and 45th Street. Running time: 170 minutes.
Eliza . . . . . Audrey Hepburn
Henry Higgins . . . . . Rex Harrison
Alfred Doolittle . . . . . Stanley Holloway
Colonel Pickering . . . . . Wilfrid Hyde White
Mrs. Higgins . . . . . Gladys Cooper
Freddie . . . . . Jeremy Brett
Zoltan Karpathy . . . . . Theodore Bikel
Mrs. Pearce . . . . . Mona Washbourne
Mrs. Eynsford-Hill . . . . . Isobel Elsom
Butler . . . . . John Holland
During the ‘60s alone, four musicals were named Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and twice as much received Best Picture nominations. Titles such as West Side Story, Funny Girl and The Sound of Music, have entered the collective consciousness, even if nowadays audiences seem unable to process what made musicals so special.
One of the landmark movies made during the musicals’ golden era was My Fair Lady, an adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe stage show, which was itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s timeless Pygmalion. The simple story deals with the snobbish Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a misogynistic phonetics professor living in Edwardian London, who believes a person’s way of speaking determines their place in society. Bragging about his talents, Higgins goes as far as to say that he can pass off any woman as a duchess, at an upcoming ball, just by teaching her how to speak properly. Higgins chooses poor, flower-girl, Eliza Dolittle (Audrey Hepburn) as his subject and most of the film devotes itself to watching her transformation from an unkempt urchin to, well, a fair lady.
Even if the story is quite simple the film, as directed by the legendary George Cukor achieves various levels of depth, particularly because of the way in which he turns it into a keen gender study. It’s easy for people to merely concentrate on Higgins and his almost positively Frankenstein-ian experiments on Eliza, but the story subtly moves beyond that, even if Harrison’s gargantuan performance seems to overpower the more delicate themes.
Cukor was always considered one of the best “women’s directors”, because of the way in which he approached his actresses needs over almost any other element in the production. His films feature some of the most notable female performances of all time, including Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, Greta Garbo in Camille and Judy Garland in A Star is Born. He was so beloved by his actresses that, legend has it, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland almost quit Gone With the Wind after Cukor was fired.
Historians have said that some of their best scenes in My Fair Lady are Cukor’s work. Unlike many of his contemporary directors, however, he never came up with an auteur vision or any sort of visual trademarks, but he still remains an iconic figure, if only because women thrived under his direction.
What then, you could ask yourself, did Cukor see in this story so famous for its depiction of misogyny? For starters, he sets his entire film in sets that create an initial rejection of reality. Through the sets and elaborate costumes (mostly work of Cecil Beaton) the director creates a barrier between his audience and the story at hand. We are constantly reminded that the events on the screen not only take place in a distant century, but they also reek of self-conscious artifice.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the film has Higgins taking Eliza to a racecourse, which at first we could’ve confused for a fashion show. The camera takes its time absorbing the richness in the costumes and places the people watching the show as nothing else than objects of our attention. They too are part of a horse race. By establishing these parallels between old-fashioned values and cinema’s ability to convey fantasty, Cukor is inviting us to disregard any of the moral clauses invoked by Higgins and his kind.
Why then, you might wonder next, does the movie insist on delivering a romance between Higgins and Eliza? The question might best be answered by recurring to the excuse of Hollywood politics, since it would’ve been impossible for Cukor to change the film’s central love story without displeasing studio heads. In fact the movie borrows its ending not from Shaw’s play, but from a previous movie version in which romance was the road to happiness.
Cukor, however, doesn’t seem satisfied with this easy excuse and what he does is subvert the notion of romance. Since he couldn’t change his heroine’s fate, he takes the road less traveled and leads us to wonder if love after all is something other than a financial transaction. The lack of chemistry between Hepburn and Harrison is palpable (but then again who could fall for Higgins?) and one can say that Cukor sabotaged the screenplay’s romantic intentions with this very purpose. Almost every romantic pursue in the film is marked by either disillusion, ulterior economic motives or capriciousness.
Eliza is courted by the picture perfect Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett) who performs the breathtaking “On the Street Where You Live” after realizing he loves her, but Eliza chooses to remain with the man who first treated her as a guinea pig, perhaps aware that Freddy’s beauty shall pass and she would have to share her life with someone who’d become as detestable as Higgins or her own father (played by the hilarious Stanely Holloway). By choosing economic security and peace of mind, Eliza makes a choice that predates the deterministic feminism of the Sex and the City gals: she chooses to love and protect herself over anyone else.
The main attraction is the movie itself which looks absolutely astonishing in high definition. The Blu-ray edition pretty much recycled bonus features from the 2-disc DVD edition released by Warner Brothers a few years ago. It’s truly a shame they didn’t recycle that version’s cover image as well… but anyway, features include a making-of documentary which offers the behind the scenes backstabbing that went on when Audrey was cast instead of Julie Andrews, as well as the tough time Harrison gave the crew with his reluctance to be dubbed.
There are trailers, smaller features about the style and best of all (and what once were the jewels on any release of this movie) are the outtakes where Audrey does her own singing. Producers decided to use Marni Nixon to dub her singing voice onscreen. Nixon shows up on the feature commentary, and showing pure class, she does nothing but compliment Hepburn.