“My Fair Lady” is one of the best and most popular stage musicals of all time. It has what so many more-recent 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, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Director (George Cukor), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Music, and Sound. No self-respecting film library can be without a selection of musicals, and no selection of musicals can be without “My Fair Lady.” Kind of makes the film a must-buy, you know.
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.” The musical 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. 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 how 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. He is so convincing one would think he were the Professor in real life. I rather expect his fans thought he was. 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. 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 only point of contention. Julie Andrews had made the role her own on Broadway and records, 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 felt 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.
None of this is to suggest that Ms. Hepburn’s portrayal of Eliza is anything but delightful and charming. Yet in spite of her insistence that she do her own singing, Hepburn’s voice was dubbed over by singer Marni Nixon. 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 them. But it’s all history now, and we will never know what more Ms. Andrews might have done with the part. 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 roles, fans of English television’s Sherlock Holmes will be tickled to see the late Jeremy Brett playing Eliza’s young, lovesick, high-society admirer, Freddie Eynsford-Hill, singing “On the Street Where You Live.” 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”). It’s a grand company of players.
Warner Brothers present the film in its Super Panavision scope of 2.35:1, and they accommodate its nearly three-hour length uninterrupted on a single-sided, dual-layered disc. The colors, lovingly restored from the original 70 mm prints, are stunningly beautiful, and thank goodness for DVD for enabling them to show up so clearly and vividly. Equally impressive as the bright colors, the black and white contrasts in scenes like the Embassy Ball and the Ascot Races are truly 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. I’d say they succeeded beyond all expectation. However, the DVD transfer does have a higher-than-average number of horizontal line fluctuations; still, it’s hard to say if they would show up with every player. In any case, they are only noticeable if one is looking for them, as I was.
The stereo sound, too, is quite good. The vocals have a very slightly pinched quality, a little high and raspy at times, but, again, they are concerns so minor as to go mostly unnoticed unless one expected audiophile sound. The Dolby 5.1 Surround is used mainly for ambiance enhancement, providing a flattering bloom to the musical acoustics.
Among the disc’s bonus items are a short, ten-minute documentary, a long trailer really, made about the time of the film’s opening. More important is a feature-length audio track with the voices of Art Director Gene K. Allen, restorers Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, and singer Marni Nixon. It affords the kind of behind-the-scenes insights that movie buffs love. In addition there are two musical tracks with Audrey Hepburn singing “Show Me” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Ms. Hepburn’s voice is highly expressive, with an engaging simplicity to it, 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.
The disc also offers filmmaker bios and filmographies, an assortment of trailers, and a generous fifty track selections. One last matter I should applaud is that the film starts right up upon hitting the play button. There are no FBI warnings, no announcements, not even a menu to deal with. If you want the Main Menu, it’s easy enough to access from the Menu button on one’s remote control, but otherwise everything defaults to the most commonly used options: English language, no subtitles, and, of course, widescreen and Dolby Digital, which are the only selections for picture and sound. Other companies should take note.
“My Fair Lady” makes most other musicals seem almost crude by comparison. It deserves to be the standard by which others are judged. The movie fan’s concern for Julie Andrews is neither here nor there. Both the film and the DVD are absolutely loverly.