|My Fair Lady
1964 - G - 170 Mins.
|Director: George Cukor
|Producer: Jack Warner
|Written By: Alan Jay Lerner
|Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Gladys Cooper
|Review by: Bill King
Even though "Chicago" and "Moulin Rouge" are doing a fine job of making the case for the viability of movie musicals, I can't help but be drawn to the classics of the genre that have lived on for years. My favorite musical is "The Wizard of Oz," but there is another that I love nearly as much, and that is "My Fair Lady" (1964).
The rain in spain
George Cukor, the great director behind "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) undertook the effort of faithfully recreating Alan Lerner's stage musical in the form of an extravagant movie production. He pulled together an excellent cast and team of skilled production designers, and the result is a film that still stands fourty years later as a wonderful achievement in both the musical genre and the canon of film. "My Fair Lady" looks and sounds great, not a single scene is wasted, and every detail is lovingly presented.
I was first exposed to "My Fair Lady" in my senior year in high school (1994) and we watched it after reading George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," upon which which Lerner based his story. Shaw's "Pygmalion" tells the story of an egotistical phonetics professor who bets he can turn a simple phonetically challenged woman into a "proper lady" who would be accepted by royalty. I liked it in 1994, even before I became a movie critic. Then in 2003, I had the opportunity to watch "My Fair Lady" in a theatrical setting. I couldn't pass up the chance, and was rewarded with the experience of a glorious film from Hollywood's Golden Age, from a time when Audrey Hepburn graced the screen with elegance and charm. Grace Kelly and Katherine Hepburn were other leading ladies of the era, but my affection remains with Audrey.
Here, she stars as Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl roaming the streets of London. One night, she meets Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a professor who excels in the fields of phonetics, speech and language. Higgins jokes to Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can turn anyone from the street into a proper lady. He gets more than he bargained for when Eliza shows up at his doorstep the next day, eager to take Higgins up on his offer, and also to live in a huge mansion and wear stylish clothes. Colonel Pickering likes the idea, and challenges Higgins to make good on his boast. The Colonel even offers to pay for Eliza's education.
The weeks go by. Very slowly, Eliza learns the proper way to speak, act and dress. Higgins uses various contraptions to condition Eliza's speech, and to help her emphasize certain syllables over others. The methods at his disposal are rather ingenious. One device uses a flame to help Eliza practice the "H" sound. Marbles, phonographs and xylophones are also put to good use. When Eliza finally gets the hang of it, Higgins proposes to take her to the horse races as practice. The ultimate goal, to see if Eliza has learned everything Higgins taught her, will be to take Eliza to a royal ball, where hopefully she can convince everyone that she herself is royalty and not a fake.
At 170 minutes, "My Fair Lady" moves at a swift pace, thanks to the engaging performances. Rex Harrison brings boundless energy and humor to his role. We know he means well, but we can't always see that underneath his bloated ego. The way he carries himself onscreen is the perfect contrast to Hepburn's mannered performance. Hepburn excels in bringing out Eliza's transformation; At first hyper and easily offended, as her speech developes into the manner Higgins prescribes, her behavior and attitude adapts to the societal boundaries and the expectations she is being trained to fool. She matures not only in her outward appearance, but also in her persona. By the end of the film, the aimless flower girl we met three hours prior has been supplanted by a beautiful and thoughtful woman.
The movie features many musical numbers, varying from funny to insightful, but they're all a joy to listen to. When Eliza bursts into music after declaring "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain," her face goes from bewilderment to happiness. Though it's not really Audrey Hepburn singing (Marni Nixon was the the vocalist), we still sense the excitement in Eliza, who can see the new person she will become, and appreciate her joy in the accomplishment.
"My Fair Lady" is a triumphant film, filled with terrific songs, gorgeous sets and great acting. George Cukor has a clear idea of what he wants in every scene, and we can see his influence everywhere. My Fair Lady is a true Hollywood classic, and sets a benchmark for movie musicals past and present. 2004 Marks the fourty year anniversary of the film's release, and a great reason to see the film if you haven't or revisit it again if you have.