"I'll make a queen of that barbarous wretch."—Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison)
Pour me a pint, 'en I'll tell ya a li'l story. 'Ave you 'eard wot 'appened ta Liza Dooli'l, Alfie's li'l girl? She moved in wif a right rich chap, a real keepa. Name a 'Enry 'Iggins. 'E made a bet, ya see, wif anotha rich bloke, see if Liza could be brought up all right and propa, like a real lady. So's 'e teaches 'er ta speak, fancy like, 'en fasta 'en you can say Bob's yer uncle, she's dress up like a duchess and goin' ta balls 'en the like. Swea on me life. Funnies' thing you eva saw.
So now Liza's got boys chasin' 'er, and this 'Iggins chap treatin' 'er like a dog, 'en that rascal Alfie sneakin' aroun' lookin' ta make a few, if ya know wot I mean. But all she wants is a room somewhea', fa' away from the cold night air.
Wouldn't that be loverly?
The opening credits note that the script comes "from a play by George Bernard Shaw." A play? Any play? The play in question is Pygmalion, Shaw's 1913 social satire in which language and class are soundly thrashed. In the original version, Henry Higgins plucks street urchin Eliza Doolittle from the steps of a church in Covent Garden and drags her off to 27A Wimpole Street in an effort to prove that pronunciation and culture are pretty much the same thing.
Higgins succeeds—and creates a monster. His new golem is as tough and assertive as he is, "a tower of strength: a consort battleship," able to stand up to his tyranny with a temper of her own. Higgins is delighted: he has created another "old bachelor" like himself. But Eliza will have none of it. Free of her master, she wants to be the master herself. So she marries the docile Freddie Eynsford-Hill and spends her time hanging around with Higgins so that the two can endlessly bully one another. In a savage response to Shakespeare's misogynistic The Taming of the Shrew, Shaw has the love/hate relationship between Eliza and Higgins continue long after the play and its prose epilogue are over.
Wait, you say this is not the happy musical you remember? Where are the songs? Where is the love story? Shaw never had much interest in love stories. But this preface is nonetheless meant to suggest something: the peculiar language of a story tells us a lot about the storyteller.
We will put this thought aside for a moment though. As Shaw himself notes in the play's preface, "Pygmalion needs, not a preface, but a sequel." So let us consider what happened to Pygmalion and his Galatea over the years. In 1938, Shaw himself penned the screenplay for a cinematic version of his play. Certainly, any play critiquing class structure gains resonance during the Depression. But in Hollywood, class structure must always be validated, and audiences must learn to aspire to wealth rather than question it too carefully. So Higgins and Eliza must clearly fall in love. If Shaw's original play resists closure, almost demands a sequel, his screenplay wraps things up neatly.
It is this version of Pygmalion that forms the basis for Lerner and Lowe's memorable musical version, My Fair Lady. Of course, both Broadway and Hollywood are all about reconfiguring identity. Ordinary people are shaped into celebrities. For example, Audrey Hepburn was born Audrey Ruston, which is not exactly a glamorous name. Rex Harrison started out as Reginald. Jeremy Brett once had the ungainly name of Peter Jeremy William Huggins. Where else but Hollywood could a cowboy named Marion or a lower middle class runaway named Archibald become sex symbols?
If anyone understood how easily identity could be shaped by the power of the movie camera, it might be Jack Warner and George Cukor. Both men were pivotal figures in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. Cukor had a hand in many of the defining films of that era, from Gone With the Wind to The Philadelphia Story. Warner—hell, Warner created an entire studio. Both men knew Hollywood needed a makeover, still smarting from the debacle of Cleopatra and the unraveling of studio power. Hollywood needed a better image. Hollywood needed a hit musical.
In a sense, these Warner and Cukor are the real Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady. And everyone under their thumbs became Eliza Doolittles. Indeed, there is a sense in which story of the making of the film version of My Fair Lady is as much about how identity and class are shaped through language as is the script itself. Julie Andrews, star of the stage version, was passed over for the part (gaining stardom in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins). Andrews could sing without a doubt. But what about Audrey Hepburn, the new Eliza? She wanted to sing; she even filmed several scenes lip-synching to her own temp tracks. But her Hollywood taskmasters were no less fussy than Henry Higgins: her vocals were removed in favor of Marni Nixon, whose voice went uncredited in this and several other blockbuster movie musicals. Jeremy Brett (the film's Freddie), in spite of a fine singing voice, was also dubbed.
As to Henry Higgins himself, Rex Harrison was quite used to performing his part from years on the stage. But his peculiar language consisted of a sort of recitative, half-speaking the songs rather than singing them. This made his vocal rhythms fit perfectly with his acting. In most musical numbers, the performers must step out of their characters, whose rhythms are designed by one artist (in this case Alan Jay Lerner), to sing in the characteristic rhythm of the songs, composed by somebody else (in this case Frederick Lowe). Harrison could smoothly segue from dialogue to song without a pause. But on film, this was a potential disaster. How could Harrison lip synch on the set when his vocal inflections changed with each take? The solution was inventive for the time: Harrison was hooked up with a wireless microphone so he could perform his songs live on the set.
Thus, it was language that would shape the creation of My Fair Lady: who could keep their own voices, who would lose theirs, and who would offer theirs on condition of anonymity. Shaw would have laughed at the irony.
Still, after all these years, there is something a little, well, affected about My Fair Lady. It is a musical that begs to take a few more risks, to take advantage of its potential to critique Hollywood as Shaw critiqued British society. And yet the film keeps backing off. My Fair Lady is certainly a triumph of art direction, with stylized costumes and sets that shout theatricality. Everything is highly detailed, from Higgins' study to the enormous soundstages that recreate Covent Garden, but there is a Hollywood gloss to it all, a hyperreality that makes the more cynical aspects of Shaw's play merely a happy dream.
Still, My Fair Lady is infectious and fun. All the above analysis might sound like I am being overly harsh toward the film, but this is hardly the case. My Fair Lady was the first Broadway musical I ever saw on stage (with Rex Harrison!), and I grew up watching the movie dozens of times. I memorized the songs, and could probably quote the dialogue as a child as well as Shaw himself. I published a scholarly article a few years ago on Pygmalion as a socialist spin on the golem legend. So I am pretty familiar with this stuff.
My Fair Lady is a gorgeous affair. Harrison's pitch-perfect timing as Higgins (singing live only enhances his performance) keeps things moving briskly: we both love and hate his bluster. Audrey Hepburn is, as always, the personification of glamour. But the real delight is the supporting cast, particularly Stanley Holloway as Eliza's scene-stealing father, Alfie Doolittle. The class contrast between his opportunism and Higgins' paternalism (ultimately both the signs of selfish men who use women to bolster their power) helps us get a sense of exactly what sort of Scylla-or-Charybdis situation Eliza has gotten herself caught in.
All the class and identity politics of the film are wrapped up in the detailed set designs of Gene Allen and the lush costuming of Cecil Beaton. Director George Cukor always had a reputation for his hand with actors, but he was also always conscious of the look of his films. My Fair Lady may be bound by soundstages, but the sets themselves gain a depth by virtue of their opulent detail. When I was a kid, watching this film on television in the 1970s, much of this detail was lost by virtue of the film's degrading condition and the horrible cropping job that was standard practice back then. In 1994, My Fair Lady underwent a thorough restoration. Warner Brothers already released the My Fair Lady on DVD in a single disc version a few years ago, and there is no appreciable difference in quality with the new two-disc "Special Edition" version. In fact, the new edition suffers the same problems with considerable edge enhancement, so viewers with high-end systems should consider themselves warned.
The same commentary track from the previous release is also included, with restoration experts Robert Harris and James Katz interviewing art designer Gene Allen (and Marni Nixon turning up from time to time). The participants offer interesting stories about the production process (and the restoration), although nobody seems to want to talk about story or theme. Of course, theme is not a big priority in most musical theater, but appearance is. A few of the supplements from the one-disc edition have also been ported over, like Audrey Hepburn's original vocal tracks for "Show Me" and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and a 1964 featurette.
The selling point of this new two-disc edition is evidently the wealth of new extras. We get galleries, awards and premiere footage, audio of Cukor directing, and a curious piece of footage from a production kick-off dinner that puts the entire film into its historical context. Watch Rex Harrison and Jack Warner try to spin the Cleopatra disaster in interviews. Later, Warner makes a speech to his fellow Hollywood insiders in which he complains about television and European art films. This is a surprisingly revealing look at how My Fair Lady might reflect Hollywood's own anxiety about its future.
You will hear none of this anxiety discussed in the 1994 CBS television special "More Loverly Than Ever." Jeremy Brett hosts this gushing, hour-long documentary that rightly notes that Shaw's play is about ideas, and My Fair Lady is about emotions. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martin Scorsese drop by to chat, and not a minute seems to go by without somebody, probably Brett, telling us how "brilliant" or "timeless" the film is. Of course, we already knew that. In between the effusive worship, the documentary does give a great overview of the film's production and its restoration, and hints at some interesting behind the scenes turmoil (Hepburn's frustration at not getting to sing her own songs, costume designer Cecil Beaton's feud with George Cukor). The documentary is generally solid, especially for viewers not likely to wade through a long commentary track, which repeats many of the same stories.
If you already have the single disc edition of My Fair Lady, there is no real advantage to picking up this two-disc edition. Most of the material in the documentary is covered in the commentary track already, and the transfer is virtually the same, with all its strengths and flaws.
But on its face, My Fair Lady is one of the most entertaining musicals of Hollywood's later years. It also has gained some resonance over the years as a comment on Hollywood's desperate attempts to hold the line against a new generation of artists who would favor ideas over production design. Unlike many of its contemporaries, My Fair Lady mostly succeeds in balancing its ideas, characters, and design. But of course, it has a hell of a pedigree.
After all, you might be able to turn Bernard Shaw's language into catchy tunes, but you will still never entirely cover up his voice.
Henry Higgins is ordered to pay Colonel Pickering immediately, as per the terms of their wager. He is also ordered to get his own damn slippers for a change. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track by Gene Allen, Marni Nixon, Robert Harris, and James Katz
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