THE LOVERLIEST MOTION PICTURE OF THEM ALL!
When George Bernard Shaw’s stage play ”Pygmalion” premiered in London in 1913, it was daring for its time. Making fun of the British class system, suggesting that all it takes to elevate a worker into the upper class is teaching her to speak well and dress properly, must have seemed disturbing to those who wanted to keep things as they were. The play also showed a woman gaining independence at a time when women were denied the vote.
When the musical version came to Broadway in the late 1950s, the story wasn’t quite as controversial anymore and the elaborate film adaptation is more an example of the old-style Hollywood that was threatening to look stale already in 1964. Still, My Fair Lady was a huge hit and remains a delightful classic.
In Edwardian London, phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) runs into a loud Cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). With great confidence, he tells Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), a specialist in Indian dialects, that he could turn even this girl into someone who would pass for a duchess at an embassy ball. Eliza, who wants to work in a flower shop but has been told that her accent makes it impossible, later shows up at Higgins’s doorstep and asks him for lessons. Higgins is intrigued enough to begin his experiment and Colonel Pickering, who’s temporarily living with the professor, agrees to cover any expenses. Eliza moves in and begins her education. However, Higgins soon realizes that Eliza is a very challenging pupil…
Cheerfully foolish soliloquies
George Cukor’s last great hit is fairly faithful to the Broadway original. Harrison repeats his performance and is immensely enjoyable as the stubborn, rude and haughty professor who takes special pride in his bachelorhood; his cheerfully foolish soliloquies on women are among the film’s most entertaining moments. On stage, Julie Andrews played Eliza and was reportedly keen on repeating the role in the movie, but was denied the chance; this was before Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music turned her into a hot item at the box office. Instead, Audrey Hepburn was hired and she’s a marvelous stand-in, compelling both as the vulgar Cockney girl and the subsequent refined lady that Higgins turns her into. Marni Nixon does her singing voice, but the illusion works rather well.
Stanley Holloway, who was also in the Broadway cast, steals every scene he’s in though as Eliza’s shameless father, a drunkard who gets some of the best show-stoppers, such as ”With a Little Bit of Luck” and ”Get Me to the Church on Time”. Those numbers take wonderful advantage of the street sets. The whole movie was shot on the Warner studio lot, a decision that allegedly annoyed screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner. I’m guessing that he was hoping for the movie to do what the stage musical couldn’t, bring more realism to the locations. We never believe that we’re in London, or at the racetrack in one scene, but it doesn’t matter.
Together with production designer Cecil Beaton and his team, Cukor creates a stunning, colorful and lavish scenery that emphasizes fantasy at times, just like so many other previous Hollywood musicals. The film is also chock-full of memorable tunes, evenly spread throughout the movie.
The pacing is slow, but on the whole this opulent experience is hard to beat. It even makes us ignore how unbelievable the romance between Higgins and Eliza is, keeping us from thinking that they’ll actually be a couple until the very last scene – but even that one wins us over thanks to Harrison’s infuriating charm and a great final shot.
My Fair Lady 1964-U.S. 170 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jack L. Warner. Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay, Book: Alan Jay Lerner. Cinematography: Harry Stradling. Music: André Previn. Songs: ”Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, ”With a Little Bit of Luck”, ”The Rain in Spain”, ”I Could Have Danced All Night”, ”Get Me to the Church on Time” (Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner). Production Design, Costume Design: Cecil Beaton. Cast: Rex Harrison (Henry Higgins), Audrey Hepburn (Eliza Doolittle), Stanley Holloway (Alfred P. Doolittle), Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett.
Trivia: Peter O’Toole was allegedly considered as Higgins.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Harrison), Cinematography, Music, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Director, Actor (Harrison). BAFTA: Best Film.
Last word: “Even though I received an Academy Award for the picture, I have never really felt at home in making musicals. I don’t know enough about music to put songs in the proper places within the action of the story. Of course in the case of ‘My Fair Lady’ we had the original stage version to go by. But the transition from stage to screen is tricky. On the one hand you can’t turn out a photographed stage play; on the other hand you can’t rend the original stage version apart. If you don’t know what the hell was good about the original play, you pull it apart to make a different version for the screen and you have nothing left.” (Cukor, Film Comment)