Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Fair Lady (1964) * * *

The film opens with title credits and a musical overture from the film accompanied by colorful close-ups of spring flowers which line the stairway of the Covent Garden Opera house in London. Elegantly dressed high society opera-goers are leaving after a performance and heading for horse-drawn cabs and motorized vehicles. They bustle about to find shelter when rain begins to fall and street vendors cover their wares in the marketplace. Young Freddie Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett) collides with Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), a disheveled Cockney flower vendor, while looking for a cab for his mother Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Isobel Elsom). Eliza accuses both of them of ruining her "full day's wages" of scattered violets that are now trod in the mud: "Well, if you'd done your duty by him as a mother should, you wouldn't let him spoil a poor girl's flowers and then run away without payin'."

When Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) gives Eliza some coins, but isn't given flowers in return, Eliza is cautioned by a bystander that a suspicious character behind a pillar, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), is "takin' down ev'ry blessed word you're sayin'." She immediately assumes that she is in trouble for selling flowers illegally and defends herself as a "respectable girl." She says to bystanders that she did nothing wrong: "Well, I'm makin' an honest livin'." Higgins appears and calms her down by showing her his notebook with strange shorthand symbols, and he reads back to her from his notes what she said with the exact same exaggerated pronounciation: "I say, capt'n; n' baw ya flahr orf a pore gel."

Henry Higgins is an arrogant and misogynistic professor of phonetics who believes that it is the accent and tone of one's voice which determines a person's station in society. Eliza goes to Higgins seeking speech lessons. Her great ambition is to work in a flower shop, but her working-class accent makes her unsuitable for such a position. All she can afford to pay is a shilling per lesson, whereas Higgins is used to training wealthier members of society. He boasts to his new acquaintance, Colonel Hugh Pickering, another expert in phonetics, that he can teach any woman to speak so "properly" that he could make Eliza Doolittle pass as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. Pickering, who is staying with Higgins, is intrigued by the idea and makes a bet with Higgins that he will not be able to do it, and Higgins accepts the challenge.

Pickering: What about your boast that you could pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball, eh? I'll say you're the greatest teacher alive if you make that good. I'll bet you all the expenses of the experiment that you can't do it. I'll even pay for the lessons.
Eliza: Oh, you're real good. Thank you, capt'n.
Higgins: You know, it's almost irresistible. She's so deliciously low. So horribly dirty.
Eliza: I ain't dirty. I washed my face and hands before I come, I did.
Higgins: I'll take it. I'll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe.
Eliza: Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oo!
Higgins: We'll start today, now, this moment! Take her away, Mrs. Pearce, and clean her. Sandpaper, if it won't come off any other way. Is there a good fire in the kitchen?
Mrs. Pearce: Yes, but...
Higgins: Take all her clothes off and burn them and ring up and order some new ones. Just wrap her in brown paper till they come.
Eliza: You're no gentleman, you're not, to talk of such things. I'm a good girl, I am. And I know what the likes of you are, I do.
Higgins: We want none of your slum prudery here, young woman. You've got to learn to behave like a duchess. Now take her away, Mrs. Pearce, and if she gives you any trouble, wallop her.

Higgins: Eliza, you are to stay here for the next six months learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist's shop. If you work hard and do as you're told, you shall sleep in a proper bedroom, have lots to eat, and money to buy chocolates and go for rides in taxis. But if you are naughty and idle, you shall sleep in the back kitchen amongst the black beetles, and be wolloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick. At the end of six months you will be taken to Buckingham Palace, in a carriage, beautifully dressed. If the king finds out you are not a lady, you will be taken to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls! But if you are not found out, you shall have a present... of, ah... seven and six to start life with as a lady in a shop. If you refuse this offer, you will be the most ungrateful, wicked girl, and the angels will weep for you.

Eliza's dustman father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), shows up three days later supposedly to protect his daughter's virtue, but he really wants money from Higgins and is bought off with £5. Higgins is impressed by the man's honesty, his natural gift for language, and especially his brazen lack of morals. Alfred Doolittle explains, "Can't afford 'em!" Eliza the Cockney flower girl poses as a member of the aristocracy while Professor Henry Higgins looks on. He criticizes Eliza's "detestable boo-hooing" and crude pronunciations.

Higgins: A woman who utters such disgusting and depressing noise has no right to be anywhere, no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech, that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible. Don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

Eliza goes through many forms of speech training, such as speaking with marbles in her mouth. At first she makes no progress, but just as she, Higgins, and Pickering are about to give up, Eliza tries one more time and finally gets it right. She begins to speak with an impeccable upper class accent. As a test, Higgins takes her to Ascot Racecourse, where she makes a good impression with her stilted, but genteel manners, only to shock everyone by a sudden and vulgar lapse into Cockney while encouraging a horse to win a race: "C'mon Dover, move your bloomin' arse!" Higgins, who dislikes the pretentiousness of the upper class, partly conceals a grin behind his hand.

The bet is won when Eliza successfully passes as a mysterious lady of noble rank at an Embassy Ball and dances with a foreign prince. Also at the ball is Zoltan Karpathy (Theodore Bikel), a Hungarian phonetics expert also trained by Higgins. After a brief conversation with Eliza, he certifies that she is of royal blood. This makes Higgins' evening, since he has always considered Karpathy as an ill-bred crook. However, after all her efforts, Eliza is not given any credit--all the praise goes to Higgins. This and his callous treatment towards her afterwards, especially his indifference to her future, causes her to walk out on him, leaving him mystified by her ingratitude.

Pickering: (on telephone to Scotland Yard) No, she's no relation, no. What? Well, just let's call her a "good friend", shall we? I beg your pardon! Listen to me, my man, I don't like the tenor of that question--what we do with her is our affair--your affair is bringing her back so we can continue doing it!

Accompanied by Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young man she met at Ascot and who has become enamored of her, Eliza returns to her old stomping ground at Covent Garden, but finds that with her genteel manners, upper-class accent and lovely clothes, she no longer fits in. She meets her father, who has now developed the £5 Higgins gave him into a large fortune and is set to marry Eliza's step-mother. He feels that Higgins has ruined him, since he is now more bound in life by morals and responsibility. Eventually, Eliza ends up visiting Higgins' mother who is incensed at her son's behavior.

Mrs. Higgins: However did you learn good manners with my son around?
Eliza: It was very difficult. I should never have known how ladies and gentlemen really behaved, if it hadn't been for Colonel Pickering. He always showed what he thought and felt about me as if I were something better than a common flower girl. You see, Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I shall always be a common flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a common flower girl, and always will. But I know that I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering, because he always treats me like a lady, and always will.
Higgins: The question is not whether I've treated you rudely but whether you've ever heard me treat anyone else better.

Higgins finds Eliza the next day and tries to talk her into coming back to him. During a testy exchange, Higgins' ego gets the better of him and he explodes when Eliza announces that she is going to marry Freddy and become Karpathy's assistant. As well as his dislike of Karpathy, Higgins considers Freddy pathetic and not up to Eliza's new standards. Eliza is satisfied that she has had her "own back" and rejects him. Higgins has to admit that rather than being a "a millstone around my neck... now you're a tower of strength, a consort battleship. I like you this way." Eliza leaves, saying they will never meet again.

After an argument with his mother in which he concludes that he does not need Eliza or anyone else in life, Higgins makes his way home, stubbornly predicting that Eliza will come crawling back. However, he comes to the horrified realization that he has "grown accustomed to her face". He is reduced to playing an old phonograph recording of her voice lessons. Then, to his great delight, Eliza suddenly returns.

Musical Numbers

Act I

* "Overture"
* "Why Can't the English?"
* "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"
* "An Ordinary Man"
* "With a Little Bit of Luck"
* "Just You Wait"
* "Servants Chorus"
* "The Rain in Spain"
* "I Could Have Danced All Night"
* "Ascot Gavotte"
* "Ascot Gavotte (Reprise)"
* "On the Street Where You Live"
* "Intermission"

Act II

* "Transylvanian March"
* "Embassy Waltz"
* "You Did It"
* "Just You Wait (Reprise)"
* "On The Street Where You Live" (reprise)
* "Show Me"
* "Get Me to the Church on Time"
* "A Hymn to Him"
* "Without You"
* "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"
* "Finale"
* "Exit Music"

MY FAIR LADY is a musical film adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe stage musical "My Fair Lady", based on the 1938 film adaptation of the 1913 stage play "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw. The ending and the ballroom scene are from the film PYGMALION (1938) rather than the play. It's the kind of Technicolor spectacle that isn't made anymore. Witty and classic songs, a great script, marvelous sets and locations, and gorgeous costumes create incomparable eye candy in a lavish motion picture with a runtime of 170 minutes. In the history of movie musicals, only GIGI (1958) has earned more Oscars (9) than MY FAIR LADY. It won 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Director (George Cukor), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score (André Previn), and Best Color Costume Design (Cecil Beaton).

In 1956 songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musicalized Shaw's "Pygmalion", and when producer Jack L. Warner saw the Broadway premiere of "My Fair Lady", he made plans for the best musical in the history of Warner Brothers. The musical romantic comedy was expensive to produce at $17 million--their most costly film to date. MY FAIR LADY was met with immediate critical acclaim and became one of the most commercially successful films in the history of movie musicals, earning $72,000,000. Warner Bros. paid a record $5.5 million for the screen rights and Julie Andrews, who had made flower girl Eliza Doolittle famous in the New York and London stage shows, was passed over in the film's casting for Audrey Hepburn.

Jack Warner explained in his autobiography: "Why did I choose Audrey Hepburn instead of Julie Andrews, the original Eliza? There was nothing mysterious or complicated about that decision. With all her charm and ability, Julie Andrews was just a Broadway name known primarily to those who saw the play. But in Clinton, Iowa and Anchorage, Alaska, and thousands of other cities and towns in our 50 states and abroad you can say Audrey Hepburn, and people instantly know you're talking about a beautiful and talented star. In my business I have to know who brings people and their money to a movie theater box office. I knew Audrey Hepburn had never made a financial flop..." Warner Bros. paid Hepburn a salary of $1 million for her work on MY FAIR LADY, making her only the second actress in the history of Hollywood to receive a seven-figure sum for a single film. Elizabeth Taylor as CLEOPATRA (1963) was the first, and she reportedly fought long and hard for this role as well.

Hepburn's singing was judged inadequate, and she was dubbed by Marni Nixon. Rex Harrison declined to pre-record his musical numbers for the film, explaining that he had never talked his way through the songs the same way twice and couldn't lip-sync to a playback during filming. He has a unique "non-singing" vocal style. To allow Harrison to sing his songs live during filming, Warner Bros. Studio Sound Department put a wireless microphone in Harrison's neckties, the first time in history that one was used to record sound during filming. André Previn then conducted the final version of the music to the voice recording. The sound department earned an Academy Award for its efforts. MY FAIR LADY features great songs such as "On the Street Where You Live", "With a Little Bit of Luck", and "I Could Have Danced All Night."

The cast also includes: Mona Washbourne (Mrs. Pearce), John Holland (Butler), Elizabeth Aimers (Cockney), Helen Albrecht (Ascot extra), John Alderson (Jamie), Mary Alexander (Cockney), LaWana Backer (Ad lib at Church), Frank Baker (Elegant bystander), Lois Battle (Second Maid), Brittania Beatey (Daughter of elegant bystander), William Beckley (Footman), Marjorie Bennett (Cockney with Pipe), Oscar Beregi Jr. (Greek Ambassador), Betty Blythe, Diana Bourbon, Iris Bristol, Sue Bronson, Meg Brown, Buddy Bryant, Walter Burke, Bea Marie Busch, Colin Campbell, Jeannie Carson, Paulle Clark, Natalie Core, Tom Cound, Jennifer Crier, Maurice Dallimore, Allison Daniell, Henry Daniell, and many others. Frederick Loewe composed the original music. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the screenplay from G. B. Shaw's stage play "Pygmalion". George Cukor directed.

By the 1990s, the original film had fallen into disrepair and there was fear of total deterioration. CBS discovered this after two widescreen laserdiscs won "Worst Laserdisc of the Year" two years running. Film restorers Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz in conjunction with 20th Century Fox saved the film and preserved the film's image quality for future generations. A 30th anniversary theatrical re-issue in 1994 by Fox (with new 70mm prints) reinforced the film's popularity.

Currently Warner Bros. owns the DVD rights to the film (under license from CBS), while CBS Television Distribution owns the television rights. The first video release was by MGM/CBS Home Video in 1981, and was re-released by CBS/Fox Video in 1984, 1986, 1991, and 1994. A VHS release by Paramount Pictures in 2001 is currently out of print. The original DVD that featured the restoration was released in the late 1990's. This DVD includes a 9 minute featurette, actor profiles, audio commentary, and Audrey Hepburn singing in 2 scenes. This original 1 disc DVD has since been updated to a special 2 disc Edition. The new DVD includes all the features found on the original DVD, except the actor profiles. It includes the restored print but is a new transfer from the restored print. However, the new transfer is not perfect and supposedly has aliasing problems throughout. The average viewer probably won't notice this, but you can buy the original edition DVD with the superior transfer. One advantage of the 2 disc Edition DVD is that it includes a 58 minute 1994 documentary hosted by Jeremy Brett, Audrey Hepburn's love interest in the film. As well, there are more features on this disc that aren't included on the original DVD, such as footage from the film's premiere, the 1963 production dinner kickoff, and discussions with Harrison and Hepburn.

PYGMALION (1938) is the non-musical movie version of the play from G. B. Shaw's own screenplay. It was filmed in Britain by co-directors Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, who also co-starred with Dame Wendy Hiller. Against Shaw's wishes, a happy ending was added, with Eliza fleeing Higgins with Freddy but then returning to Higgins' home. Shaw did retain the controversial line "Not bloody likely!" from his play, making Wendy Hiller the first person to utter that swear word in a British movie. The film was a financial and critical success, and won Shaw an Oscar for Best Screenplay. In early June 2008 it was reported that a remake of MY FAIR LADY was being planned, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Keira Knightley as Eliza Doolittle, for release in 2009 or 2010. It would be produced by Duncan Kenworthy and co-developed by Columbia Pictures and CBS Films. Emma Thompson was reported to be set to write the screenplay.

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