Paramount // 1964 // 172 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 7th, 2011
Hepburn and Harrison shine in this Oscar-winning musical!
"I sold flowers; I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else."
On one ordinary evening in London, phonetics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison, Dr. Doolittle) makes a claim that he could transform a lower-class flower girl like Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's) into an esteemed member of high society in no less than six months. It's a throwaway boast, but the next day Eliza decides to make the pompous professor prove his worth. She visits his house and demands that he transform her into a proper lady. Henry resists at first, but eventually relents after a bit of encouragement from his colleague Col. Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White, The Third Man). Slowly but surely, Henry begins the long, torturous process of transforming Eliza's lower-class accent and grammatical errors into the speech of a refined citizen. However, he may be ill-equipped to deal with the results of his experiment.
Almost every review of My Fair Lady talks about what the film might have/could have/should have been. It arguably betrays George Bernard Shaw's original work Pygmalion by downplaying that play's powerful social commentary and undercutting its biting ending. It arguably betrays the stage version of My Fair Lady by giving a part played on stage by the great Julie Andrews (who was initially supposed to play the role in the film version) to the more marketable Audrey Hepburn. It arguably betrays Hepburn by having her vocals re-dubbed by Marni Nixon (who is excellent, but whose voice sounds dramatically different from Hepburn's). In that regard, it's nowhere close to where it ought to be.
However, My Fair Lady should not be judged for what we expect it to be, but for what it is: a lavish Hollywood musical. Examined on those terms, it is nearly unparalleled. This is such a joyous cinematic experience, a delightfully intelligent and thoughtful entertainment that runs circles around the average movie musical. Yes, it's glorious and expensive-looking, but the film actually demonstrates an atypical measure of restraint in a genre which is defined by excess (both in terms of production design and emotion). It is a love story in which the romantic leads never kiss; the most moving declaration of feeling is begrudgingly simple: "I've grown accustomed to her face." One character (the earnest Freddy, played by Jeremy Brett of Sherlock Holmes fame) goes so far as to sing a proper, soppy love song, but the film regards him (and such unreserved sentiment) as a bore.
One of the most delightful things about My Fair Lady is that it never apologizes for its characters. Eliza Doolittle, charming as she is, is a shameless opportunist. Henry Higgins, fantastically witty as he is, is monstrously arrogant and selfish. In clever fashion, the film continually flirts with the idea that these two are on the verge of finding redemption and learning their lesson, but it always pulls away. This is never better illustrated than in Higgins' final musical number, as sighing declarations of affection are continually deflated by much bolder statements of stubborn pride. The film's famous concluding scene is wickedly perfect: she hasn't actually got the moral resolve to just dump her benefactor, and he hasn't actually got the decency to admit that he's been a tool. For an ending that represents a romantic compromise of Shaw's work, it's an awfully bold and clever piece of work in its own right.
The film is a marvel on a technical level, as director George Cukor brings his A-game to the table and demonstrates why he was regarded as a supremely capable craftsman (if not as a proper auteur). The production design is continually dazzling, with one major set piece after another impressing us with its rich, detailed opulence. The choreography is exceptional, and the songs by Lerner and Lowe are among the finest the genre has produced. Their lyrics aren't just built on memorable catchphrases and clever lines; they're actually intelligent, literate songs which have a good deal of substance to offer. The songs provide as much character development as the rest of the dialogue in the film (perhaps even moreso); perfectly capturing the attitudes and world views of these endlessly interesting people.
The performances are the element I treasure most, particularly Harrison's memorable portrait of Henry Higgins. It's the role the actor was born to play; a part he digs into with gleeful relish. Harrison's having such a ball with the splendid songs, juicy dialogue and engaging story that it's hard not to love Higgins even at his most loathsome (and he is indeed loathsome at times). However, Hepburn more than holds her own as Eliza, particularly excelling when handling the comic antics of the film's first half (in which she employs a hilariously dirty cockney accent that sounds an awful lot like an alley cat who's just had her tail stepped on). Hepburn handles the transitioning accents with aplomb, and at least emotes well during the songs she isn't actually singing. The other truly great turn comes from Stanley Holloway as Eliza's opportunistic father, who brings vibrant color to portions of the film which might have been a little dull and delivers the movie's most blatantly comic tune ("With a Little Bit of Luck").
The only thing about My Fair Lady (Blu-ray) that disappoints is the transfer, which is a merely adequate 1080p/2.35:1 effort. Granted, it looks dramatically better than it has before, and the film is mostly free of scratches, flecks and other major blemishes. However, it's clear that this release merely offers a hi-def version of the previous good-but-not-great restoration done back in the mid-1990s. This is the sort of treatment we expect for most catalogue releases, but a film of this stature deserves to be given the royal treatment. Maybe a 50th Anniversary Edition is on the way three years from now? Anyway, it's decent enough, but not quite great. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track is fine, though there are a few moments which sound a little bit pinched. The mix is occasionally a little clunky, to; the dubbed vocal performances occasionally seem a shade loud in contrast to the music. The average viewer probably won't even notice, but audiophiles may find it a little distracting. Supplements are ported over from the previous special edition DVD: a commentary track with Robert A. Harris, James C. Katz, Gene Allen and Marni Nixon, an hourlong retrospective documentary ("More Loverly Than Ever: The Making of My Fair Lady"), a "Comments on a Lady" featurette largely comprised of footage from the aforemention documentary, some vintage featurettes from the time of the film's release, alternate Audrey Hepburn vocals, a Rex Harrison audio interview, galleries and a trailer.
The socialist bite of Pygmalion might be considerably repressed in My Fair Lady, but the film has a good deal more weight and relevance than anyone has a right to expect from an expensive musical. It's exhilarating to observe the film's savage dismissal of social classes, suggesting that such notions are built on something as hilariously thin as a person's accent. On top of that, it's a wonderful piece of entertainment featuring excellent music and superb performances. My Fair Lady has long been regarded as one of the finest musicals Hollywood has produced, and I suspect it shall continue to be for many years to come. The Blu-ray is merely decent.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Vocals
* Audio Interview
* Image Galleries