Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.

Coming in December: Day of Silents & Alamo Drafthouse

It’s a little early to write about December, but here are two events I want to tell you about right away. In fact, I wanted to tell you about them weeks ago, but I was too busy.

A Day of Silents

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will run a one-day festival at the Castro on Saturday, December 5. As one would expect, it’s going to be a very long day…but probably a fun one.

I’ve only seen one of the five programs scheduled: Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (11:00am). Fairbanks was the top action hero of his day, and also an auteur who wrote and produced (but didn’t direct) his movies. This swashbuckler isn’t his best movie, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In his only pirate movie, Fairbanks plays a nobleman who joins a band of scurvy buccaneers in order to take them down in revenge for his father’s death. The movie contains one of Fairbanks most spectacular stunts–and yes, he did it, himself. Fairbanks sticks his knife into the top of a sail and slides down, holding onto only the a knife. Of course there were a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks to make it safer than it appears, but it was still dangerous and looks amazing. The stunt was ineptly recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

This was Fairbank’s only color movie, shot in two-color Technicolor. To my knowledge, it’s the first feature shot entirely in Technicolor that wasn’t financed and produced by the Technicolor company. For decades, The Black Pirate was available only in black-and-white; the color was restored in the 1990s. This will be my first chance to see it in color on the big screen.

The Alloy Orchestra will provide the musical accompaniment.

It will be followed by:

  • Around China with a Movie Camera
    (1:00): A selection of newsreels and travelogues shot in China. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Grim Game
    (3:00): A melodrama staring the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Inhuman Woman (6:30): Can one make a good silent film around a singer? We’ll find out with this French film, which the Festival describes as a “fantasy.” Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
  • Piccadilly (9:15): I seldom stay for the last film of the night at the Silent Film Festival, but I just might with this one. The always-amazing Anna May Wong plays a scullery maid turned dancer in this British film. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission

Movie lovers in Texas, New York, and other locations have enjoyed Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas for years. Now it’s our turn.

The Alamo Drafthouse company has restored The New Mission Theater (in the Mission, of course), and it will open December 17 with the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve yet to attend a Drafthouse theater, but the company’s reputation for good beer, good food (meals as well as snacks), and good projection seems promising. They screen mostly new movies, with some classics–often of the camp variety.

Judging from some of the photos on their Facebook page, The New Mission looks spectacular. And even though they have chopped it up into a multiplex, They’ve kept enough of the original to have one spectacular auditorium.

Or, at least, that’s what the photographs have led me to believe.

I’ve added the New Mission to the list of theaters this blog covers.

What’s Screening: November 6 – 12

Six film festivals in the Bay Area this week, and I wish I could cover all of them in detail. Since I can’t, I’ll just list them:

And now, this week’s movies:

A Fantasia, Castro, Sunday; Cerrito, Sunday, 10:00am; Elmwood, Sunday and Monday; Lark, Sunday

Special 75th Anniversary presentation
I have a sneaking feeling that I don’t really have to tell you about this movie. Decades before MTV, Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and countless other artists took classical music and turned it into poetry. Not every piece is brilliant, but several of them are and none of them are truly bad. A great achievement and an entertaining two hours.

B+ Oklahoma!, Cerrito, Saturday, 10:00am; Embarcadero, Wednesday, 7:00

Yes, the plot is silly and some of the cowboy accents are terrible, but when you see Oklahoma! on the big screen, and with an audience, you discover what a remarkable piece of entertainment it is. The songs are catchy, the jokes are funny, and Agnes DeMille’s choreography is amongst the best ever filmed. Historically, the movie racked up a lot of firsts. It was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein picture (based on their first play), the first film shot in Todd-AO, the first presented in 70mm with six-track sound, and the beginning of the roadshow musicals that dominated Hollywood for the next 15 years.The new digital restoration brings back all that Todd-AO beauty.

A+ The General, Cerrito, Thursday, 9:30

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else in his masterpiece. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. Read my A+ essay. Also on the bill: Keaton’s short comedy The Blacksmith. As far as I can tell, the musical accompaniment will not be live.

A Juno, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

The last thing I expected before 2007 ended was a comedy about unintentional pregnancy that was more truthful, more insightful, and just plain funnier than Knocked Up, but writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman pull it off. And they do so without ever moving into parody or farce, and never straining for laughs. They get a lot of help from star Ellen Page as the titular “cautionary whale.” IMHO, the best film of 2007. Read my full review.

B+ The Iron Giant, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space. Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A good movie for all but the youngest kids.

A Psycho, Castro, Friday

You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times, leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes. On a double bill with Dressed to Kill, which I’ve never seen.

A Diary of a Teenage Girl, , Castro, Wednesday; Roxie, Wednesday, 7:00

Minnie (Bel Powley in an amazing breakthrough performance) isn’t just any teenage girl. She’s an inspiring cartoonist with an irresponsible hippie mother in 1977 San Francisco–and she’s just lost her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. The movie bursts with conflict, absurdities, and underground-comic-style animation as it captures San Francisco in the late 70s flawlessly (I was there). But even better, it captures the rocky emotions of a young woman overwhelmed with hormones and not sure what to do with them. On a double bill with Dazed and Confused, which I haven’t seen since it was new but remember liking.

A- Grandma, Shattuck, opens Friday

Here’s a star vehicle in every sense of the word–a movie that’s based entirely on showing off Lilly Tomlin’s talent. Fortunately, Tomlin’s talent could easily fill eight movies. As an aging poet trying to raise money to help her granddaughter pay for an abortion, Tomlin is acerbic, touching, unpredictable, outrageous, angry, concerned, and–of course–very funny, The story and the supporting players, especially Julia Garner as the granddaughter, are really there for Tomlin to have people to talk to. But her poet character is such a wonderfully unique, real, and funny person (if not always a nice one) that it makes the movie more than just worthwhile.

C The Sound of Music, Stanford, Friday through Sunday

Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture postcard kind of way. The last show in the Stanford’s Roger and Hammerstein series.

Doc Stories

Janis: Little Girl Blue, Vogue, Saturday, 8:30

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, it makes a great introduction to one of the greatest and most influential performers in popular music. Filmmaker Amy Berg put together a touching documentary that finds the right interviews and keeps the music front and center.

B+ Hitchcock/Truffaut, Vogue, Sunday, 4:30

This is the movie version of a book about making movies. In the early 60s, François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock and together they created one of the great books on filmmaking. Now documentarian Kent Jones has turned that book into a film. He rightly focuses on cinematic technique as he explains the creation of the book and what it taught filmmakers. Top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese, talk onscreen about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art. I enjoyed the movie very much, but I’m biased.

B+ What Happened, Miss Simone?, Vogue, Friday, 9:15

it’s surprising how many people don’t know about singer and political activist Nina Simone. She first gained notice as a classical pianist–an astonishing feat for an African American woman in the middle of the 20th century. Then she started singing and switched to popular music, where she gained far more–and very-well deserved–success. She turned to the civil rights movement, and in doing so turned far more left than other performers, hooking up with Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers. After that she was soon forgotten. Director Liz Garbus tells her story in a moving and engaging way.

What’s Screening: October 30 – November 5

It’s autumn, so things are cooling down a bit festival-wise. Only three this week.

D Othello, Rafael, Sunday

Orson Welles and William Shakespeare often made a great team, but not this time. That’s a real pity, because the making of Othello was in itself an epic, multi-year struggle against bad financing. Welles would raise money, shoot a little, then put the picture on hold as he tried to raise more money. Unfortunately, the tight budget and off-and-on shooting schedule shows. Bad sound, obvious dubbing, and unmatched locations makes it impossible to suspend your disbelief and jump into Shakespeare’s tragic love story. Orson Welles in blackface doesn’t help. Part of the series Welles 100: The Maverick.

C- South Pacific, Stanford, Friday through Sunday

There’s a fair amount of historical interest in the film version of this Rodger and Hammerstein musical, but not much good filmmaking. It was only the third film shot in Todd-AO, and the first after a major format alteration. It has a big song about the evils of racism (risky at the time). But in the end, this tale of American sailors stationed in a paradise that’s about to become a war zone is just plain bland. Neither the songs, the story, the actors, or even the scenery rises above so-so. See my article on big roadshow musicals of the 50s and 60s.

A Night of the Living Dead, Castro, Saturday, 3:30

This is fear without compromise. The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (sequels and imitations would later rename them zombies) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. Decades later, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear remain, made less spectacular but more emotionally gripping by the black and white photography. Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on American racial issues, or simply as one of the scariest horror films ever made. Read my essay. On a triple bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead.

A- Grandma, Castro, Wednesday; New Parkway, opens Friday

Here’s a star vehicle in every sense of the word–a movie that’s based entirely on showing off Lilly Tomlin’s talent. Fortunately, Tomlin’s talent could easily fill eight movies. As an aging poet trying to raise money to help her granddaughter pay for an abortion, Tomlin is acerbic, touching, unpredictable, outrageous, angry, concerned, and–of course–very funny, The story and the supporting players, especially Julia Garner as the granddaughter, are really there for Tomlin to have people to talk to. But her poet character is such a wonderfully unique, real, and funny person (if not always a very nice one) that it makes the movie more than just worthwhile. The Castro will screen Grandma on a double bill with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man.

B Truth, Albany, Piedmont, Aquarius, opens Friday

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence proved to be fake, turning the exposé into a media scandal that helped Bush and destroyed several journalism careers, including Dan Rather’s. Writer/director James Vanderbilt gives us a slick, entertaining, but unexceptional movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. It has one very big casting flaw: Robert Redford as Rather. But it tells a story that we should all know and remember. Read my full review.

C+ Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00

I’m not entirely sure why Universal’s 1948 genre mash-up remains so popular. Yes, it combines the studio’s massively successful comedians with the three most popular monsters on the back lot. But I’ve never been a huge Abbott and Costello fan, and the monsters were definitely running out of steam by the late 40′s. But it has enough laughs to make it worth the time.

A Tangerine, Roxie, Sunday, 9:00; Tuesday, 7:00

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be. Sean Baker’s tale of a transgender prostitute out for justice creates just that sort of magic. Fast, frenetic, funny, and sad, Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, in part because it was shot entirely on iPhones. And yes, that works, allowing the filmmakers to capture the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood (the neighborhood, not the industry). The most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. Did I tell you it’s a Christmas movie? Read my full review.

? Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Halloween Edition, New Parkway, Saturday, 10:00.

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. (Why haven’t I experienced this big-screen experience? Because I’m too old to see movies that start at 10:00.) I hope this will be a good episode; no one is telling us which one will be screened.

The Stanford and Castro in November

The Fox Film Corporation played a major role in Hollywood from 1915 through 1935. During those two decades, it turned John Ford into an A-list director, brought F. W. Murnau to America, and followed Warner Brothers closely into the sound era–investing in what proved to be the better and longer-lasting technology.

But the depression hit Fox hard. By 1935, the company eagerly accepted a merger with a far more successful new kid on the block: Twentieth Century Pictures. The birth of 20th Century-Fox spelled the end of Fox Film.

Through six weeks in November and December, the Stanford will screen 18 double bills made by Fox before the merger. Sundays will be devoted to silent movies, most of them accompanied by Dennis James on the Stanford’s Wurlitzer organ.

Some highlights:

  • 11/22: John Ford’s first big-budget western, The Iron Horse is a trite but entertaining melodrama. I’ve heard James accompany this movie–using the original score–and enjoyed it considerably. On a double bill with Upstream.
  • 11/27: I’ve never seen The Power and the Glory, but I know its reputation. It’s Preston Sturges’ first produced screenplay, with a story structure that influenced Citizen Kane. On a double bill with Cavalcade.
  • 11/29: F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise, is a rarely-seen masterpiece. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Four Sons.

The Castro also has some interesting movies coming up:

  • 11/8:
    Fantasia is coming to the big screen for the first time in years.
  • 11/14: Apocalypse Now is out in a new 4K restoration. The Castro is listing its length at 153 minutes, which means it’s the original cut–much better than the longer Redux version.
  • 11/15: Great 1950’s international cinema in alphabetical order? What else can you call a double bill of The Seven Samurai
    and The Seventh Seal. I guess that totals to 14 counts of greatness.
  • 11/22:
    Goodfellas–always a great film.
  • 11/27-29: Of course, the Sing-a-Long Sound of Music. This must be very profitable for the theatre.
  • Throughout the month: Last but very much not least, the Castro will screen Wim Wenders double bills every Monday in November.

A+ List: The Grapes of Wrath

By all logic, the film version of The Grapes of Wrath shouldn’t have been made–let alone become a masterpiece. It’s a great film based on a great novel–how often does that happen? It was directed by the revered auteurist director John Ford, but it’s not really an auteurist film. It’s a Hollywood movie from the height of the studio era, yet it’s unabashedly political, utterly lacking in glamour, and holds no punches (well, not many). It’s a story very much of its time, yet its themes echo into the 21st century.

I first saw The Grapes of Wrath, made in 1940, in a 16mm print in 1972. I’ve seen it many times since (only twice in 35mm, but one of those was a nitrate print) and have always been moved by it. It easily makes my A+ list of films that I loved decades ago and still love–my all-time favorites.

Book vs. film

I don’t agree with the cliché that the book is always better than the movie, but great books seldom make great films. A great novel is a great novel in part because prose suits the story. It’s bound to lose something when told in images. Mediocre books often make great films (see Jaws and Red River), but great books almost always make disappointing films.

But The Grapes of Wrath is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. John Steinbeck’s novel became more than just the best-selling book of 1939. It won a Pulitzer. It’s considered one of the Great American Novels.

The novel, and the film, trace the story of the large and extended Joad family, Oklahoma farmers thrown off of their land by the twin disasters of economic depression and dust storms. They pile everything that they own into a ramshackle truck and head west to the promised land of California. After a long and difficult trip, they find exploitation, poverty, and violence in the Golden State.

Following the novel closely wasn’t an option in 1940. It might be an option today, but only on cable television, where there’s little censorship and a story can run as long as needed. (I would love to see an HBO adaptation.)

In order to fit The Grapes of Wrath into two hours that would pass the censors of the day, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson significantly changed the story–a dangerous thing to do with a recent best-seller. The two biggest changes: Johnson provided a semi-happy ending by moving the book’s most optimistic section, where the Joads temporally stay in a well-run government camp, to the last act. And he completely removed the last and most depressing section of the book.

But despite these changes, the film has a power all its own–the power of images, and especially of faces. The look on a face can show a complexity of emotion that feels labored when described in words. And when a great director like John Ford is coaching those actors, the faces can say plenty.

John Ford–part of the team

We tend to think of a film directed by John Ford as a John Ford film, in a way that we don’t think of a film directed by, say, Michael Curtiz. And for Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and many other masterpieces, that description fits. But with The Grapes of Wrath, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and producer/screenwriter Nunnally Johnson deserve equal credit with Ford.

Zanuck, a former screenwriter, was probably the most talented of the studio-era moguls–and with The Grapes of Wrath, he proved himself the most courageous. Yes, the book was a huge commercial hit, but it was being banned, burned, and denounced as Communist propaganda as the film was being made.

Johnson was one of the best screenwriters working in Hollywood, and had reached the point where he was producing the films that he wrote. Ford, who liked to pretend he didn’t answer to anyone, answered to both Zanuck and Johnson.

Which isn’t to say that Ford didn’t play an important role. In Grapes as in all of his best work, Ford used actors and photography to create an atmosphere that balanced between myth and realism. It would not have been a great film without Ford.

All movies, of course, are collaborations, and you can’t give all the credit for The Grapes of Wrath to Zanuck, Johnson, and Ford. After Citizen Kane, cinematographer Gregg Toland does some of his best work here. The film’s star, Henry Fonda, gives one of his best performances as Tom Joad–a basically decent, semi-literate man with a short fuse.

But even Fonda is out-acted by two of the best supporting roles in American cinema: Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and John Carradine as “Preacher” Casy. Darwell’s Ma is the strong backbone of the family–the matriarch who keeps everything together even when there’s nothing left. Carradine’s Casy is a former man of God who lost that divine spark. He’ll find it again, in the most unlikely place. He’s a decent, sinning, caring, talkative man, trying to understand the world and find another way to save souls.

Hollywood gets it right

As remarkable as it is, The Grapes of Wrath is still very much a Hollywood film of 1940. Most of it was shot on sound stages, the backlot, and southern California locations. Almost every speaking part is played by a familiar face (if not a famous name).

Then as now, Hollywood was allergic to controversy. But The Grapes of Wrath makes no attempt to be even-handed, upbeat, or escapist. This American film is telling American filmgoers that something is very rotten in America. Dustbowl refugees such as the Joads are treated like scum, paid literally starvation wages (if they get paid at all), threatened and attacked by mobs, and denounced as “reds” if they complain. You didn’t see that sort of thing in a Hollywood film of 1940. I doubt you would see it today.

And yet, even some of the villains can be decent. Ford regular Ward Bond has one scene as a cop who runs the Joads out of town. But he’s as kind as he could be under the circumstances.

Yes, the government camp sequence allows the audience to relax and see the Joads find a mild degree of happiness–even if they’re still living in a tent and unsure how they will eat. But even this was controversial at the time. Steinbeck–and the filmmakers–wanted to show that the US government was the only entity that could fix this problem. Come to think of it, that’s a more controversial opinion today than it was in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath in the 21st century

Steinbeck wrote, and Ford filmed, a story based on the reality around them. The specific conditions that drove the book and film no longer exist. But the story feels fresh today. It’s there in the California farmworkers still fighting for a decent life, in the disappearing family farms, in the growing Bay Area homeless population–which now includes people with full-time jobs. And it’s in the refugees pouring out of Syria in a desperate search for peace and security, and finding only hate and bigotry.

As long as human society detests its poorest members, The Grapes of Wrath will not be out of date.

My Fair Lady on the big screen

This Saturday morning, I finally saw the film version of My Fair Lady on the big screen–specifically, the big screen at the Cerrito. I really enjoyed it. As far as the big, roadshow musicals of the 1950s and ’60s go, it’s one of the best. Although, in general, those aren’t my favorite musicals.

I give it a B+.

The story is George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, , turned into a musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a brilliant phonetics expert and a horrible human being, sets out to turn cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a fine lady. It’s just an experiment for him; he couldn’t care less about Eliza as a person–at least initially.

Shaw’s original play brilliantly examined issues of class, culture, and gender roles in an intimate story that deftly balanced between drama and comedy. The musical version adds spectacle, which is absolutely unnecessary but doesn’t really hurt the story.

The stage version became a phenomenal hit on Broadway, so Jack Warner( at that point the sole surviving Warner Brother) turned it into a very big movie directed by George Cukor. This was probably the last movie set in Britain but shot entirely in Hollywood soundstages. But the sets built on those soundstages dripped with high-polish–whether its Higgins’ enormous study or Covent Garden in the wee hours of the morning.

And yet, for all its polish, the film version of My Fair Lady stays true to Shaw’s vision and themes. A pivotal scene at a racetrack manages to be opulent, expressionistic, surreal, funny, and very satirical.

Harrison makes a wonderful Higgins, tyrannical, cruel, and yet slowly falling in love and not understanding why. Harrison wasn’t a singer, but he talks his songs so well you don’t notice it. Stanley Holloway steals the movie as Eliza’s happily slothful father. His two songs are the movie’s musical highlights. Both Harrison and Holloway won Oscars for their roles.

Audrey Hepburn didn’t’ win an Oscar, and didn’t deserve one. She’s pretty good in the title role, but she’s miscast and had to have her singing dubbed. Julie Andrews, who created the role on the Broadway stage, should have been cast in the movie. (She won an Oscar that year for Mary Poppins.)

The other big problem is the ending. When Pygmalion was turned into a movie in 1938 (starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller), the money people objected to Shaw’s original ending. Their “happy ending” (I personally find it depressing) was used in both the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady.

I have a strange history with this story. My mother had the Broadway cast album, and I listened to it often as a young child. So I grew up knowing the songs, but not the story. I was ten when the movie came out, and I don’t remember why I didn’t see it.

Years later, when I was in my 20s, I saw the 1938 film version of Pygmalion. A few years later, I read the play.

I finally saw My Fair Lady about 20 years ago–a borrowed Laserdisc of the then-new Robert Harris restoration. It was a strange experience. I knew the story. I knew the songs even better. But I was stunned to realize that I had no idea how the songs fit into the story.

Laserdisc didn’t do My Fair Lady justice. A DCP and a large screen does.


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