Paramount // 1964 // 172 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // November 27th, 2009
The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
"It's almost irresistible. She's so deliciously low, so horribly dirty! I'll take it: I make a duchess out of this guttersnipe!" -- Prof. Henry Higgins
Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday) is a poor flower girl in the streets of London. A run-in with phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison, Doctor Dolittle) inspires him to make a bet with colleague Col. Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White, In Search Of The Castaways). Can Henry turn Eliza, with her screaming Cockney accent and illiterate speech, into a regal lady?
Being a purist, I should completely disapprove of My Fair Lady. This 1964 musical, based on the stage show by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, is in turn based on the 1913 play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. It's debatable as to whether it's Shaw's finest work, but its initial impact and fervent following remain undisputed. Shaw adapted the play to the screen -- brilliantly, by the way -- with Leslie Howard (Gone With The Wind) and Wendy Hiller (Separate Tables) in 1938. Although he made some slight alterations, including an ending which hinted at a potential relationship between Higgins and Eliza, Shaw never intended on them becoming romantically involved. Yet, it was these subtle romantic underpinnings which made My Fair Lady possible in the first place.
As wonderful as My Fair Lady is, I can't claim it to be the definitive version of Shaw's play. Many have such an undying love for it (namely Hepburn fans) that accepting any other version would be virtually impossible for them. Consider critic David Ehrenstein's assessment in "there's a saying that goes: one definition of an intellectual is someone who can listen to Rossini's 'William Tell Overture' without thinking of the Lone Ranger. Were that notion expanded to include anyone who can experience Shaw's Pygmalion without humming the melodies of 'I Could Have Danced All Night' or 'I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face,' millions would fail the test." It's a sad fact, but there isn't much to do about it. I even tried to persuade my English teacher back in high school to show the 1938 version instead of My Fair Lady because it's arguably the next best thing to seeing the stage play.
Still, it's difficult not to marvel at the sheer opulence and extraordinary craftsmanship exhibited by My Fair Lady. The costumes, production values, and art direction are all world class. Many cite the music as the most memorable element, but I've always preferred the exquisite set pieces and expansive landscape. Director George Cukor more than succeeds in making the film larger than life, with the racetrack and embassy ball sequences still grandly impressive. Of course, Shaw's razor-sharp dialogue and witty wordplay emerges pretty much intact. As a musical, I can't submit to loving all the songs. Shaw would have no doubt detested the numbers, due to his revulsion of romanticism, but many remain justly famous, including "Loverly," "Just You Wait," and "On The Street Where You Live."
The acting is top-notch on every level, with Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins so memorable he even rivals Howard in terms of unmitigated nastiness. Hepburn is indeed "loverly" in the title role as Eliza Doolittle, though I can't help but feeling for Julie Andrews, who got shafted after playing the role on stage. Despite Lerner's endorsement, producer Jack L. Warner insisted on a star for the sake of box office numbers. Andrews could have easily provided her own vocals, while Hepburn had to be dubbed by the great Marni Nixon; and, as we all know, Andrew's voice is the literal definition of lovely. Nothing against Hepburn fans, but she seriously exhausted her Cinderella/Princess routine to the point of repetitiveness by the time of My Fair Lady. Nevertheless, Hepburn deserves credit for nailing the accent to perfection and carrying the picture on her star wattage.
Back in 2004, Warner Bros. released a splendid 2-disc special edition and Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky offered a fine review. I don't know how Paramount obtained distribution rights for the film, considering this has been a Warner catalogue title for over 40 years. One possible clue is the looming possibility of a 2010 remake, with Kiera Knightley tapped to play Eliza Doolittle and her Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright attached. While the production company at IMDb is listed as CBS (owned by Paramount), the distributor is actually Columbia Pictures. Regardless of who's doing it, is there a really a point?
Paramount's treatment of this classic is mediocre by comparison, with a significant drop in video and sound quality. Film grain and edge enhancement are noticeable and even the colors come off as flat. Flesh tones and black levels aren't bad, but it's clear the film wasn't given the polish or attention Warner had done. The Special Edition boasted a 5.1 Surround track, which Paramount has curiously downgraded to 2.0 Stereo, absolutely insulting to an Oscar-winning musical. The tunes and dialogue still come off okay, but that's all they are.
As for bonus features, only half have been ported over from the Special Edition, with absolutely nothing new added. A feature-length documentary "More Loverly Than Ever" has been excised over possible rights issues, although the commentary with art designer Gene Allen, singer Marni Nixon, and restoration supervisors Robert Harris & James Katz has been retained. It's a good, detailed track, yet the film obviously doesn't represent the work in which Harris & Katz did in rescuing the original elements. All of the vintage featurettes, the radio interview with Harrison, and alternate Hepburn vocals have also been included. The "Comments on a Lady" piece is really nothing more than snippets from the aforementioned documentary, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martin Scorsese discussing the movie.
The film is free to go, but Paramount is found guilty for releasing a sorry DVD with all the appeal of a pre-restoration VHS. They are hereby ordered to give all the rights back to Warner Bros. so a future Blu-dip is done right.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Portuguese (Brazilian)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Original Vocals