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.