Friday Flashback: My Fair Lady (1964)

I’m not much of a movie musical kind of guy. More times than not, there is so much that is lost from the stage to the screen. The immediacy and magic of the live theatre is absent and we are usually left with shells of what the productions once were. In my experience, there have only been just a few musicals that have been successfully adapted for the silver screen – and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady is certainly one of them. Winner of 8 Academy Awards (including “Best Picture”), this classic piece of cinema is based on the Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner stage musical – which, in itself is based on the brilliant stage play Pygmalion by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s 5-Act play, a wondrous social satire, is inspired from the renowned Greek myth of the woman-hating sculptor who falls in love with his very own creation.

Set in Edwardian London, My Fair Lady stars the lovely Audrey Hepburn as the infamous Eliza Doolittle – a poor flower girl with a horrific Cockney accent and modest dreams of being “a lady in a flower shop.” Rex Harrison plays the arrogant, uncouth, impetuous Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics who haughtily makes a bet with a colleague that he can transform Eliza, a “deliciously low” piece of baggage, into a lady by passing her off as a Duchess at the royal Embassy Ball. Harrison was born to play Henry Higgins. He is absolutely marvelous here and took home the “Best Actor” Oscar for his multifaceted performance. Higgins takes the frightened and naïve Eliza into his luxurious home where he and his phonetics associate Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) clean her up and teach her how to speak properly. Gladys Cooper plays Henry’s mother – the only woman who can really put Henry in his place. And really, Higgins comes off like an absolute mamma’s boy in their scenes together. Stanley Holloway does a fine job at playing Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle, a common dustman who is looking to profit from his daughter’s good luck.

Surprisingly, the musical is (for the most part) remarkably faithful to Shaw’s original work. Much of the earlier dialogue is still in tact – and Shaw’s societal statements (on language, education, social classes, et al) still come through very well. Cecil Beaton’s costume design is exquisite – featuring the lavishness of the upper class and the browbeaten garb of the lower class. The musical numbers are woven into the story quite nicely. It’s no secret by now that Ms. Hepburn did not do her own singing…I guess this was not her strong suit. Rather, her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. And Harrison doesn’t really have to do much singing. Most of his vocal work is him speaking in key. Musical highlights for me include the humorous “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain” (which accompanies the classic scene not illustrated in the play), and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

It is fascinating to watch Hepburn’s slow transformation from a poor, disheveled girl into a model of style and grace. It is equally fascinating to see all that Eliza is sacrificing in order to achieve her goals and win Higgins his bet. The chemistry between Hepburn and Harrison is riveting throughout. There is obviously something between the two – but both are too stubborn to relent. The one scene that always makes me tear up happens late at night, after a long and arduous day of trying to get Eliza to speak properly. Everyone is drained and feeling hopeless. Finally, after constant verbal attacks, Higgins gives her a confidence builder for th every first time: “think what you’re trying to accomplish. Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds. And that’s what you’ve set yourself out to conquer Eliza. And conquer it you will.” This, combined with Hepburn’s reaction to this speech, always makes me lose it.

My Fair Lady is a classic motion picture and a few years ago was ranked #8 in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years of Musicals” list. It is an enchanting piece of movie-making, to be sure and is part of an era when Hollywood was famous for its majestic and sweeping musicals. And for 168 minutes of its 170-minute running time, it represents all that is right in movies. The last minute or so has always bothered me — and I can’t help but feel that the brilliant G.B. Shaw is always turning over in his grave at what they did to his sensible and realistic conclusion. (SPOILER ALERT!) In the film, Eliza and Henry have just parted. They will sadly go their separate ways. Henry walks home alone and has a light-bulb moment…an epiphany. He loves Eliza. “Damn, Damn, Damn, DAMN!” he shouts, and breaks into “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” But does he do anything about it? Does he rush back to Eliza and confess his feelings? No! He slumps back home, plays an old recording of Eliza’s voice, sulks in his chair, and begins to wallow in self-pity — forever missing Eliza, even though they’ve been apart for all of perhaps 30 minutes. What happens next? Eliza is the one to cave in. She instantly walks back to Henry’s home and sees him stewing in his melancholy. When he realizes that she has come back, a Cheshire cat-like smile appears on his face…he tips his hat and asks, “Where the devil are my slippers?” as one would ask a maid. She smiles. She will stay. And the two live happily ever after. [INSERT VOMIT HERE] The play does not end this way — because it shouldn’t end this way. Shaw explains his reasoning in a rather lengthy epilogue. The Hollywood execs though would have none of that — and we are treated to Eliza, the woman, being the one to relinquish her power to the mighty male figure…and it always ruins it just a little bit for me. I hate that she does that. I hate that he “wins” that way. And I think it’s more than just another one of my little pet peeves. This is a big deal. In spite of this small travesty of an ending, I can’t help but return to this film often…because there is so much right with it, and the performances are wonderful. It remains one of my all-time favorite movie musicals. Sorry G.B.S.

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6 Responses to Friday Flashback: My Fair Lady (1964)

  1. Pingback: Quote of the Day: George Bernard Shaw « weareliterarycritics

  2. Pingback: Sika’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time! 75. My Fair Lady (1964) « Lunki and Sika – Movie, TV, Celebrity and Entertainment News. And Other Silliness.

  3. Pingback: The Pygmalion Complex « XX Factor

  4. Brianne Boyd says:

    I’m so glad you sent me this link. After our conversation about it, it was just really wonderful to read everything I feel about this film as written by you! Nailed it. Made me smile for sure.

  5. Phil Carbo says:

    I remember you making the point about the ending very emphatically when we watched it. And you’re right. There is a chauvinistic smugness that is both out of place and feels rushed. Studio execs will do it every time!

    • I do love the movie. I just hate that last 60 seconds. It has always rubbed me the wrong way. I understand it was a lush Hollywood musical though that needed a happy ending. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it!!! 🙂

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