|My Fair Lady|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 08 December 1998|
Page 1 of 2
"My Fair Lady" is the best American musical play ever written. The "book," by Alan Jay Lerner from Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion," is witty, satirical and warm; the songs, by Lerner and Frederick Lowe, are brilliant and some have become imperishable classics. The ideally-cast Rex Harrison made theatrical history and carved out his own entry in the list of immortal theatrical performances. It ran for years, and touring companies revived it again and again. It's here to stay.
But the movie is only very good, not the deathless classic the play itself is. Few list it among the greatest Hollywood musicals, though it is admired by most and won the Oscar for best movie of 1964. Rex Harrison won for Best Actor, but Audrey Hepburn wasn't even nominated despite excellent work as flowergirl-turned-stylish beauty Liza Doolittle.
The movie seems preserved in amber. The unusually remote camera is probably more due to producer Jack Warner, who wanted audiences to see as much of the very expensive sets as possible, as long as possible. The Super-Panavision 70 camera stays well back from the action with relatively few closeups. It's also not very lively; there's no choreographed dancing at all (nor was there in the play), but the words and the lyrics dance with amazing grace.
But at least these performances and this script have been preserved. Astonishingly, the movie was actually in danger of being completely lost due to neglect and stupidity. Warner only owned the rights for a certain period of time; after that, under an agreement underlying the play, rights reverted to CBS. Warners sent all the elements (all negatives, sound tracks, etc.) to CBS -- which discarded the majority. Part of the story of this DVD is of the painstaking, meticulous restoration of the film, a task handled by Robert H. Harris and James Katz. It's one of the first movie restorations for which digital technology was a big plus.
The result is a gorgeous DVD, crystal clear in both image and sound, with surround sound paying off in appropriate scenes. The vocals are especially good, even when you know Marni Nixon dubbed Audrey Hepburn's singing. Surprisingly, Rex Harrison's vocals were recorded live on set; he refused to mime to even his own playback. It was the first time a radio mike was used for this, and in the supplemental materials, it's revealed that occasionally the equipment picked up broadcasts by police cars and the like.
The story is familiar -- and must have been especially familiar to cinematographer Harry Stradling, who had also shot the fine 1938 movie based directly on "Pygmalion." (Another surprise: George Bernard Shaw won the Oscar for his screenplay, whether the cantankerous old Irishman wanted it or not.)
Outside a lavish London theater one night, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) tries to sell "vi'lets" to passersby. She's outraged when she learns a tweedy stranger, Henry Higgins (Harrison), is taking down every word she says -- in a phonetic alphabet that captures her accent perfectly. He frets, "Why Can't the English Learn to Speak?" and tosses Liza a handful of coins.
Higgins meets Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White), a fellow linguist just back from India; Pickering moves into Higgins' handsome, stylish home as a guest and fellow scientist. Eliza shows up, offering Higgins some of his own money back if he'll teach her English well enough that she can open a flower shop of her own.