My Fair Lady 
DVD Music-Concert
Written by Bill Warren   
Tuesday, 08 December 1998

My Fair Lady

Warner Bros. Home Video
MPAA rating: G
starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, Theodore Bikel, Mona Washbourne.
release year: 1964
film rating: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

"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.

Higgins is delighted with the challenge -- "she's so deliciously low!" he purrs -- and bets Pickering that he can pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball in six months' time. Pickering worries about the girl's feelings, but Higgins brushes it off: she has "no feelings we need worry about." And he persuades the initially reluctant Eliza -- "I'm a good girl, I am!" -- to move into a bedroom at the house.

He begins the arduous task of changing Liza's way of talking -- "In 'Ereford, 'Artshire and 'Ampshire, 'Urricanes 'Ardly Hever 'Appen" -- into something more genteel. When her stubborn "the ryne in Spyne styes mynely in the plyne" changes to "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" they're all delighted. And as she later sings, "I Could Have Danced All Night," Liza realizes she's starting to fall in love with the arrogant Henry.

And on it goes: of course, she's passed off properly at the Embassy Ball -- there are few women more fair than Audrey Hepburn in this handsome scene -- but, typically, Higgins takes Pickering's praise ("You Did It!") while forgetting about Eliza's part in the event. This leads to a scene of great dialog between Eliza and Higgins' at his mother's lovely all-white house, and to his finally coming to the realization that "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," one of the greatest love songs ever written, if only because the word "love" does not appear in the lyrics.

Rodgers and Hammerstein struggled to adapt "Pygmalion" to the musical stage, but finally gave up in frustration. In one of the many supplementary features, we learn that this was because they tried to write love songs for Henry Higgins -- and he's a man who not only doesn't know love when he feels it, he thinks he's a confirmed old bachelor. When Lerner and Lowe accepted this, and incorporated as much of Shaw's superb lines into the play and the songs, they solved the problem and created their masterpiece.

When Jack Warner bought the rights for his studio (and made the project his personal production), he initially wanted Cary Grant to play Higgins. But Grant refused, saying, according to Hollywood history, that not only would he not play Higgins, but he wouldn't even see the movie unless Rex Harrison was given the role. Similarly, Warner wanted James Cagney, originally a musical star, to play Liza's resolutely ne'er-do-well father Alfred P. Doolittle. Cagney probably would have cut a great rug with numbers like "Wif a Little Bit o' Luck" and "I'm Getting Married in the Morning" to work with. But no one can argue with the final choice: the great Stanley Holloway reprised his role from the theatrical version of "My Fair Lady."

The commentary track is exceptionally interesting; it's partly about the restoration and partly about the making of the film in the first place. Art director Gene Allen sets the record straight: whatever the credits might say, he designed the movie himself, not Cecil Beaton. The egotistical Beaton was a great photographer anddesigner of women's clothes, yet insisted that he be credited with designing the whole damned movie.

There are many supplemental shorts, the most significant being "More Loverly Than Ever," hosted by the late Jeremy Brett. It's hard to imagine this great interpreter of Sherlock Holmes as playing the love-struck Freddy Eynsford-Hill ("On the Street Where You Live"), but that really was him, mooning away on the big screen. He takes us through the production of the film and a visual demonstration of the restoration process. This excellent documentary was created for the CBS airing of the restored "My Fair Lady" in 1991.

Audrey Hepburn had hoped to both play and sing Eliza, and recorded "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and Liza's forthright "Show Me," and her visual/audio tracks are included here. Hepburn does a reasonable job with "Loverly," but, alas, not with "Show Me." She makes a beautiful fair lady, though not quite the "squashed cabbage leaf" that the part of Liza required. The one who did, Julie Andrews, is also interviewed here; she's as gracious, charming and funny as you would want. And she also won the Oscar (for "Mary Poppins") the same year "My Fair Lady" was released. Her comments on why she won are honest and surprising.

All in all, this is a great package. You get a very fine movie and all this extra material in a handsome boxed set. "My Fair Lady" may not be as great a movie as it promised to be, but it is loverly indeed.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Disc 1: commentary track by Gene Allen (art director), Marni Nixon (singing voice for Hepburn), restorers Robert A. Harris, James C. Katz; Disc 2: "More Loverly Than Ever" -- documentary on restoration of the movie; alternate Audrey Hepburn song tracks; vintage featurettes and archival footage of the production kickoff, the Hollywood premiere and some awards sessions; comments by Rex Harrison, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Martin Scorsese and others; production stills, sketches, posters; trailers for this and other Lerner & Lowe musical movies.
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reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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