My Fair Lady (1964)
Release Date: December 25th, 1964 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George Cukor Actors: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, Theodore Bikel, Mona Washbourne, Isobel Elsom
fter a music hall event, a downpour soaks the departing high society patrons as they attempt to get a taxi. The rain doesn’t bother loud, annoying, squawking flower girl (or a “prisoner of the gutters”) Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), who seems right at home even when knocked into a mud puddle in the middle of the bustling street. But her boo-hooing and ear-piercing dialect becomes the focus of phonetics (or the science of speech) professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), who intently documents all the nearly unintelligible words spewed from her mouth.
As Higgins points out the ways in which speech defines every Englishman, fellow observer Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) realizes that the professor is just the man he’s been hoping to meet to discuss their corresponding expertises. The next morning, Eliza journey’s to Higgins’ estate to hire him to instruct her in the ways of genteel speaking, hoping that she might eventually acquire a job in a proper flower shop, rather than selling only in the streets. Pickering is intrigued by the farfetched prospect and wagers that Higgins can’t succeed in passing off the “guttersnipe” as a duchess of the Embassy Ball. He has six months to conduct this experiment in teaching, to which Eliza agrees – with quite a bit of reluctance at first. And Higgins’ detestable elitism, stubbornness, and childishness are sure to make the task more difficult (thankfully, the story is smart enough not to let this behavior go unchallenged; book-learned gentlemanliness can’t effortlessly win over a strong, confident woman, no matter her humble origins).
The first couple of songs don’t just contribute to the mood or establish characters; they actually explain the backgrounds and intentions of the lead duo. This integration of music and narration helps move the story forward, even though the picture turns out to be a whopping three-hour epic. Following musical digressions reiterate daydreams of transformative prosperity, reassert the combative (or vengeful) nature of Eliza against her training, or set up Higgins’ insistence that he has no interest in pursuing a serious romantic relationship (they’re interruptive and torturous, and he’s a confirmed bachelor) – which is, of course, a looming, unavoidable circumstance of Doolittle’s progressing reformation.
There are some largely extraneous roles, such as Eliza’s drunken father Alfie (Stanley Holloway), who gets more than one song (and plenty of screentime) to himself, though he does reveal the important origins of his daughter’s uncommon optimism (despite her current state of virtual homelessness). Though inessential, it also contributes to the notion of proud, uppity, self-centered, upper-crust people against the common, less-than-human lower class, which is, predominantly in the form of Eliza, described as deliciously low and a barbarous wreck. Supporting characters do come to the defense of the talk that denigrates the commonality, particularly when it’s suggested that Higgins might have unscrupulous intentions with the young woman, even if she hails from an incompatible community (humorously, Alfie is willing to sell his daughter’s companionship for less than honorable purposes, for 50 pounds; he asks only for 5 because he assumes Higgins is upright). Later, the maids in Higgins’ home even share a few lines of singing as segues that might have been traditional montages in a more modern movie, and here also feel unnecessary.
“My Fair Lady” additionally incorporates plenty of comedy, partially in the rampant immorality of the Doolittles and the suggestive comments by Higgins, and mostly in smaller moments, such as when Eliza is forced to bathe (as if a cat being dunked in water for the first time), or when she’s routinely shown little sympathy from the professor. In her “Cinderella” moment, where she makes a grand appearance in a distinctly black-and-white dress, she riotously attempts to make small talk, failing so spectacularly at the close that one gentlewoman faints. Perhaps the most ironic element of the whole premise is that it takes so long for the pupil to shed her “ghastly accent” to recite a few words with refined pronunciations; the greater achievement is surely the curbing of Eliza’s spontaneous crying and obnoxious bewailing.
Though there are a few unique stage arrangements (the film is based on the Bernard Shaw play) – including one in which characters freeze in place mid-movement, and an abrupt cut between Pickering insisting the experiment must stop to the night of the final test, the ball – as well as an underlying criticism of the education system in Britain and the harsh divisions of social statuses (complete with motifs of superficiality or illusion being more potent than warmheartedness, and economic role-reversals painted as tragedy), it’s Lerner and Loewe’s music that is really at the heart of the production. Many songs are memorable, but only a few are triumphant – the best of which is “I Could Have Danced All Night,” a significant number in that it reveals Eliza’s first language breakthrough and an initial recognition of her admiration for her tutor. It’s so magnificent, in fact, that it graces the entr’acte as well as the first ballroom dance and the parting shot. Ultimately, the critical and commercial successes of “My Fair Lady” are a testament to the power of fantasy, considering that no matter the depictions of love or sorrow, singing and dancing and eye-popping colors defy the sometimes bleak realism of the human condition.
– Mike Massie