MY FAIR LADY – DVD review

Warner Bros. studios continue their extraordinary series of two-disc special edition classics with this re-release of “My Fair Lady” on DVD. It’s appropriate that the film celebrate its fortieth anniversary in the best possible audio and video presentation and that it be accompanied by as much supplemental material as feasible. In terms of its picture quality, this new set is probably as good as it’s going to get until high definition comes along, and in terms of its extras, the set contains about as much on the subject as anyone could want. It’s a potent combination.

“My Fair Lady” is, of course, one of the best and most popular stage musicals of all time. It has what so many other musicals do not have–an intelligent script, great acting, clever dialogue, and an endless stream of memorable tunes. While its filmed rendition might be open to minor reservations, its DVD transfer leaves few doubts. It was restored in 1994, and its technical merits are nearly flawless. The film won eight Oscars in 1964 for Best Picture (Jack L. Warner), Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Director (George Cukor), Best Art Direction (Gene Allen, Cecil Beaton, George James Hopkins), Best Cinematography (Harry Stradling, Sr.), Best Costume Design (Cecil Beaton), Best Music (Andre Previn), and Best Sound (George Groves). No self-respecting film library can be without a selection of musicals, and no selection of musicals should be without “My Fair Lady.”

With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, the story is based on George Bernard Shaw’s popular 1913 stage play, “Pygmalion,” which in turn was based on the classical myth about the sculptor who fell in with the statue of a maiden he created, brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite. The musical stage play was an instant success on Broadway in 1956, coming to the screen in 1964 under producer Jack L. Warner and director George Cukor.

The plot centers on the idea that the way things appear is not always the way they are; or, conversely, if you can change the way things appear, it makes them the way they are. In the story it is phonetics professor Henry Higgens’ proposal that he can take any lower-class citizen off the streets of London and pass him or her off as a cultured gentleman or lady simply by teaching the person to speak properly. Of course, it was Shaw’s satiric dig at society that we judge people on how they look and sound, not on who they really are. The object of the professor’s interest in this pursuit becomes Eliza Doolittle, a poor, largely uneducated flower girl. Taking her under his wing, he makes a bet with his friend and colleague, Col. Hugh Pickering, that he can successfully introduce her into high society within six months. Needless to say, Eliza winds up teaching Professor Higgens as much about life and about himself as he teaches her about how to be a proper lady. The story is endlessly engaging and has as much appeal today as it did when Shaw first conceived it.

Rex Harrison reprises his stage role as Higgens, the part for which he will forever be remembered. Harrison was already an established star when he accepted the role in the musical, and it is one he seemed born to play. When Warner Bros. initially asked Cary Grant to do the movie role, Grant turned it down, saying if Harrison didn’t get the part he’d never do another film for Warners. Harrison is so convincing one would think he were the Professor in real life. I rather expect his fans thought he was, too. Shaw’s play leaves the final relationship of the Professor and the flower girl ambiguous, but the musical is more romantic and hints at something more serious. It is a tribute to Harrison that audiences hardly notice the age difference between the two characters, although the twenty-one-year span is almost exactly what Shaw had in mind. Higgens’ most notable songs are “Why Can’t the English?,” “I’m an Ordinary Man,” “The Rain in Spain,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

The part of Miss Doolittle went to Audry Hepburn, and therein lies the movie’s major point of contention. Julie Andrews had made the role her own on Broadway and record albums, and for audiences who had seen or heard her, it was inconceivable that anyone else should get the part. But the studio felt otherwise, unconvinced that Ms. Andrews had the necessary drawing power they thought the film needed and also a little wary of Ms. Andrew’s photogenic qualities. So they went with what they considered a sure thing in superstar Audry Hepburn, causing not a little bitterness on the part of theatergoers everywhere. Meanwhile, Ms. Andrews went on to do “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” in the next year and half; and while Ms. Hepburn was not even nominated for “My Fair Lady,” Ms. Andrews won the Best Actress Oscar for “Poppins.”

None of which is to suggest that Ms. Hepburn’s portrayal of Eliza is anything but delightful and charming. Yet the controversy was not to end there. In spite of her insistence that she do her own singing, Hepburn’s voice was dubbed over by uncredited singer Marni Nixon, who had previously done the singing dubs in the movie versions of “West Side Story” and “The King and I.” Again the studio got its way, and again there was a degree of bitterness involved, this time on the part of Ms. Hepburn, who had apparently been assured she could do the vocals herself and had even rehearsed for and filmed several of them. But it’s all history now, and we will never know what more Ms. Andrews might have done with the role or, except for two songs mentioned below, what Ms. Hepburn might have done with the rest of the singing. Eliza’s most celebrated songs include “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “Just You Wait,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Without You,” among others.

Eliza’s father is played by the indefatigable Stanley Holloway, who, as he did on Broadway, all but steals the show with his two cockney music hall numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” In other notable parts, fans of English television’s Sherlock Holmes will be tickled to see the late Jeremy Brett playing Eliza’s young, lovesick, high-society admirer, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and singing “On the Street Where You Live” (uncredited singing voice courtesy of Bill Shirley). Wilfrid Hyde-White plays Col. Pickering; Gladys Cooper plays the Professor’s mother; and Theodore Bikel plays the deliciously unctuous Zoltan Karpathy (“Oozing charm from every pore, He oiled his way around the floor”).

The songs, cast, dialogue, direction, costumes, and set designs combine to make “My Fair Lady” one of the all-time great movie musicals in Hollywood history.

Video:
Warner Bros. again present the film in its original Super Panavision 70 scope, an anamorphic widescreen measuring a 2.35:1 ratio. Using a slightly higher bit rate in this newest transfer of the 1994 restored print, the colors are more beautiful than ever, even deeper and richer than in the earlier DVD copy. As before, the brightest colors and the black-and-white contrasts in scenes like the Embassy Ball and the Ascot Races are spectacular. After thirty years of neglect, the film stock had apparently deteriorated considerably, and it was the job of the restorers to render the picture quality as close as possible to what it was in 1964. Obviously, they succeeded beyond expectation. However, the first DVD transfer displayed a higher-than-average number of horizontal line fluctuations, which I’m happy to say have mostly disappeared in this new presentation. There are still some evidences of edge enhancement and minor color bleed-through, but it’s nothing serious.

Audio:
The movie’s six-track master soundtrack was restored in a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix for the previous edition and remains good. At least I assume it’s the same DD 5.1 track since I could hear no changes from the older DVD transfer, and I suspect the engineers left this area alone. The vocals still have a very slightly pinched quality, a little high and raspy at times, but they are concerns so minor as to go mostly unnoticed unless one expects up-to-the-minute audiophile sonics. The surround channels are used mainly for ambiance enhancement, providing a flattering bloom to the musical acoustic.

Extras:
Disc one contains the widescreen feature presentation, of course, plus a feature-length audio commentary with art director Gene Allen, singer Marni Nixon, and restorers Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz that affords the kind of behind-the-scenes insights that movie buffs adore. There are fifty scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Disc two contains the bonus materials. Most important is a 1994 making-of documentary, “More Loverly Than Ever: My Fair Lady Then and Now,” hosted by the film’s costar, the late Jeremy Brett. It’s fifty-seven minutes long and contains a wealth of material on the movie’s filming and the movie’s restoration, embracing before and after comparisons and comments from just about everyone still living who had anything to do with the production. About the only thing odd I found in it is that while there is much discussion of the beauty of the widescreen restoration, the documentary itself is in a 1.33:1 ratio and the movie excerpts used as illustrations are in pan-and-scan.

Next, there is a series of vintage featurettes, including twenty-three minutes of the 1963 production kickoff dinner; nine minutes of the film’s Los Angeles première on October 28, 1964; some Academy Awards ceremony highlights from April, 1965; Rex Harrison’s Golden Globe acceptance speech; audio only of George Cukor directing the Baroness Rothschild scene; and a nine-minute promo, “The Fairest Fair Lady.” Following these featurettes are two alternative Audrey Hepburn vocal tracks, “Show Me” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” These long-thought-lost musical numbers demonstrate Hepburn’s highly expressive singing voice, but one can readily hear that Ms. Nixon’s voice is smoother, fuller, more cultivated, and more wide ranging. The studio probably made the right decision in dubbing over Hepburn’s songs. Next are three “Show Me” galleries of black-and-white stills, color stills, and general publicity stills, followed by comments on the movie and on film preservation from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martin Scorsese. Finally, there are trailers for several Lerner and Lowe musicals, including the original 1964 “My Fair Lady” trailer and the 1994 re-release trailer, plus trailers for “Brigadoon,” “Camelot,” and “Gigi.” The two-disc set comes packaged in a foldout, cardboard-and-plastic box, complete with scene indexes for the feature presentation and the bonus items, all housed in a tastefully attractive slipcase.

Parting Thoughts:
Certainly, for the person who has always considered owning “My Fair Lady” on disc, this new two-disc edition makes an attractive proposition. Then, too, for the person who already owns the previous DVD transfer, the new edition with its slightly better video quality and additional bonus items may be equally attractive. The set is not inexpensive, but it does offer the buyer a generous return on his investment.

As pure entertainment “My Fair Lady” makes other musicals seem almost crude by comparison, and it deserves to be the standard by which others are judged. Movie fans’ concerns about Julie Andrews notwithstanding, both the film and WB’s new special-edition DVD set are absolutely loverly.

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