The Good: Decent acting, Some moments of character
The Bad: Predictable plot, Musically unimpressive, Poor use of film medium, Character arcs are predictable.
The Basics: A long and drawn out musical, My Fair Lady illustrates the process Henry Higgins goes through to make Eliza Doolittle into a lady before becoming an even more droll romance.
For all of the films I have seen, it seems I am still finding famous actors for whom the film I am now partaking is actually my first experience with the great actor. So, for example, it seems that My Fair Lady is actually the first time I have seen a work featuring the talents of either Audrey Hepburn or Rex Harrison. My Fair Lady, a musical based upon a play by George Bernard Shaw pairs Audrey Hepburn with Harrison and the result would be incredible were it not for the script, songs and character/plot arcs. Outside the flash, this is very much an average "rags to riches" type story. The film is surprisingly average, in fact.
My Fair Lady is, unfortunately, oft-parodied in shows that I enjoy, like The Simpsons and Family Guy, which take potshots at popular culture. As a result of having it alluded to so many times in my life, I thought it would be valuable for me to see the source material which is so often mocked. Ironically, the allusions to this work that made a mockery of this film actually were close enough so that I needn't have spent the time on this (almost) three hour musical. Even so, I watched My Fair Lady and it is worth noting that this review is solely of the 1964 film and not the play, book or other musicals which preceded or followed it.
Eliza Doolittle is working selling flowers on the streets of London when she picks a fight with a man who is on the street studying the way people speak. Henry Higgins is a phoeneticist who is excited to run into one of his professional idols, Colonel Pickering, makes the offhanded remark that he can make someone like Eliza into a respectable woman within six months. The comment annoys Eliza, but she soon approaches Henry to get lessons from him on how to speak English properly and Pickering challenges Henry to make good on his offer to make her a true lady. Henry decides that he will take the challenge, with the success being determined by whether or not Eliza can pass as a duchess at an upcoming Embassy Ball. If she passes, she will be made wealthy and have the skills to rise in society, if she is not convincing, she will be beheaded for infiltrating the event!
So, with six months on the clock, Eliza moves in with Henry and begins an assault on the English language with her accent, poor grammar and street urchin humor. As Henry manages to break through all of her bad habits, he begins to mold Eliza into a respectable woman. With tests like taking Eliza to the track where she tries to blend, Eliza tries to grow, even attracting the attention of Freddy. But will Eliza pull it off?
My Fair Lady follows pretentious people being utterly pretentious and the way it assumes class separation is actually useful and beneficial is truly disappointing. The best analogy I have for it is Songcatcher meets [insert name of any generic rags-to-riches story here]. The film unflinchingly supports the idea that it is better to be wealthy and proper in every way than to appreciate life or the style of life one has. While Eliza is certainly kept out of "proper" society and the jobs that proper training and speech could afford her due to the way she speaks, the movie never becomes any form of broader social narrative (like a call for the value of public schools). Instead, My Fair Lady works to reform Eliza into a perfect society lady on the assumption that this is such a vastly better way to live than the way she is existing at the outset than without challenging that assumption. To be fair, Eliza does not seem particularly happy at the beginning.
Moreover, the film is problematic because director George Cukor insists on essentially creating a stage play on screen. So, for example, when Eliza - in frustration - sings about meeting the king and getting him to behead Henry for him, Eliza's fantasy king appears in the house illuminated by a spotlight, instead of changing the set and having Eliza and the King elsewhere. Given that it was a passing fancy, the film medium could have been used to illustrate well the nature of the dream. Moreover, the film includes an intermission and many of the scenes begin with characters, in static positions, shown from many angles. As a result, things like these "stage changes" where a play would require set alterations, are included in the film and this makes it a much more problematic use of the medium than other films at the time.
As well, the film is particularly dull and the pacing is nightmarishly slow in many places. The film opens with over a minute of pictures of flowers before even the title card comes up. My Fair Lady belabors itself and the process of making Eliza into a proper lady. In fact, so much time is spent on developing the details of Eliza's education that no real time is spent on developing her character. As a result, this is ultimately a troublingly generic "rags-to-riches" tale with the viewer expected to simply appreciate and accept that with proper training comes such a radically different mindset that the monolithic characters would suddenly have depth. This is a tough sell for me.
At the same time, I am perfectly able to acknowledge the incredibly high caliber of acting in My Fair Lady. Audrey Hepburn has to mangle the English language pretty righteously to sell the viewer on her character's defects. As a result, it clearly takes a lot of training to so incredibly speak and Hepburn in unflinchingly great in her performance. Hepburn alters her speaking slowly and dramatically through the film and it works to convince the viewer that she is developing and learning. In fact, the moments that seem less like an acting challenge are the moments Hepburn has to play a classy and erudite lady.
Rex Harrison is believable as well as Higgins and the strict ministrations of his character are played out well. Harrison is authoritative and when he smiles and relishes in his accolades, he seems purely human.
The problem, though, is that My Fair Lady doesn't know when to quit. The final hour of the film is almost an entirely different film and a droll one at that. With characters the viewer is unlikely to care about, the movie trundles on without real soul. For sure, there is some decent music, but the majority of the film is plodding melodrama that is entirely forgettable.
On DVD, My Fair Lady arrives with a commentary track by the team that restored the film and the art director. There is an alternate take with somewhat different vocals from Hepburn performing and a documentary with behind-the-scenes information on how the film was made. There is also the theatrical trailer that promoted the film as well as text notes on the production of the film. While these are decent bonus features, the source material left me so unfulfilled that I did not feel enriched by them.
In all, My Fair Lady is a very average musical and because it uses the film medium poorly, it is easy to pass by. And for those who are fans of things like Family Guy, if you appreciated episodes like "From Method To Madness" without seeing My Fair Lady, seeing the long musical will not add anything to your appreciation of it.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project, which is available here! Please check it out!]
For other musicals, please check out my reviews of:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street
Repo! The Genetic Opera
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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