MY FAIR LADY was a very expensive 1964 gamble for Warner’s (with Jack L. himself acting as producer), the jaw-dropping cost of $17,000,000 more than four times what it took to launch either of the studios big 1962 musicals, Gypsy and The Music Man. Despite a tense production history and negative press over the choice of its leading lady, it cleaned up, catching hold of the British Wave to become the year’s 3rd biggest hit (after Mary Poppins and Goldfinger), with re-releases ultimately grossing $72,000,000 just in America. It also clocked the Oscars, winning eight of twelve nominations. Along with Julie Andrews airborne governess, it arrived in a year stacked to the rafters with musicals, 13 altogether. *
1912, London. ‘Henry Higgins’ (Rex Harrison), confirmed bachelor and stuck-up phonetics scholar, makes a bet with somewhat nicer houseguest ‘Pickering’ (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can transform the dissonant squawks and lack of spoon-choice acumen in low-born Cockney flower girl ‘Eliza Doolitle’ (Audrey Hepburn), take her from a slang-slinger to a society sensation whose proper elucidation and fastidious manners can fool rich nabobs into thinking she’s a duchess. Under Higgins battering-ram approach, the seemingly hopeless duck Eliza turns hopeful swan, but the clueless professor is too thick to get it’s not a bird’s heart beating in her breast, after all.
Most critics love it, and it has a loyal fan base, plus there is built-in nostalgic factor from the inescapable familiarity of the songs. They date from its long-running Lerner & Loewe stage success that started back in 1956 (with at least 15 revivals since), itself based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion (filmed in 1938). Warner kept Lerner for screenplay duty, hired George Cukor to direct and famed photographer and all-round creative artist Cecil Beaton as production designer/co-art director.
Harrison, 55, had done the part more than 2,700 times on stage, but Warner scorned the play’s Eliza—then-unknown-for-film 27-year-old Julie Andrews— in favor of box-office bait with Audrey Hepburn, 33 (who got a cool million bucks). Infamously, Cukor and his musical advisers decided to dub Hepburn’s voice (she was crushed, after preparing for months) with Marni Nixon, who’d done unseen duty for Deborah Kerr in The King And I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story (meanwhile Andrews was nabbed by a shrewd Uncle Walt for Mary Poppins).
The ebullient Stanley Holloway, 73, was brought on from the play crowd as ‘Alfred P. Doolittle’, Eliza’s beer-loving layabout dad. The abrasive Warner and a dogged Cukor soon alienated Lerner. Then the caustic George and snippy Cecil began a personality-vanity feud. Location shooting was nixed in favor of soundstage sets. 1,000 elaborate costumes were created. Tempers frayed, costs flayed. It all turned out in the end.
Well, here goes the whole good will thing….one hates to honk sour notes on a much-wuv’d blockbuster like MFL, but I’m at best a 50-50 wager on the legs of this old warhorse, with numerous complaints. Most of the era’s musicals were too long, and at one minute short of three hours, this one would benefit from a firm-hand trim, at least a half-hour. Counting the Overture, Intermission and Finale, there are no less than twenty-five musical numbers, several of them reprised, with some (“Get Me To The Church On Time”, for example) really overstaying their welcome. Yards of dialogue could have been snipped from many scenes. Editor person, where are you?
Unlike some of his deft and elegant offerings (The Philadelphia Story, A Star Is Born, Bhowani Junction) I’m not at all impressed with Cukor’s tired, impersonal direction here, nearly all perfunctory medium shots with no punch or immediacy. The elaborate sets are so obvious it’s continually distracting. Is that where all the money went? The pallid character played by Jeremy Brett (dubbed by Bill Shirley) could have been eliminated entirely (though you’d lose “On The Street Where You Live”, a good song), and that whole, long, artsy sequence at the racetrack thuds.
Harrison puts ample energy into Higgins, but the character is frankly a jerk 90% of the time. Hepburn is affecting in the second half of the film, which is fortunate, as early on her Cockney is cockeyed and the continual screeching wears out pretty fast. Though she gives her all, the often-sketchy dubbing is surprising, considering what such a big-ticket item would warrant. Again, she’s the usual winning Audrey in the second half. There, her hurt and angry arguments with Harrison have some spark, but why does the resilient Eliza go with this duffer bore at the end? This is one plot/play/movie where we’re tempted to join hands with the dreaded p.c. folk (is ‘folk’ offensive?) She does look great in some of those costumes, especially that Titanic-bound hat donned for Ascot.
Classic songs include “The Rain In Spain”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”. They’re hard to resist, even if they’re not showcased as well as they could have been.
As for those Oscars–oh, boy. It won Best Picture, Actor (Harrison), Director, Cinematography, Adapted Score, Art Direction, Costume Design and Sound. It was nominated for Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Holloway), Supporting Actress (Cooper) and Film Editing. Notably, Hepburn was shut out, but she was trouper enough to present Harris with his trophy at the ceremony. Hats off to a class act. As for the goodies themselves, I’ll go along with the win for Adapted Score and nominations for Holloway and the Costume Design, but otherwise? No, no, no and No…**
With Gladys Cooper, Mona Washbourne, Theodore Bikel, Isobel Elsom. Be ye a toff buff with quick peeps you can spot Walter Burke, Henry Daniell (final role), John McLiam, Queenie Leonard, Alan Napier, Ben Wright and Grady Sutton. For some dash of ritziness— or maybe just toadying to what passes as ‘royalty’—the cast included one Katherina Eleonore Veronika Irma Luise Henckel Von Donnersmarck, married to Baron Erich von Goldschmidt-Rothschild. Well, la-dee-dah. ‘Baroness Rothschild’ plays the ‘Queen of Transylvania’, so you pitchfork wieldlers can draw your own curl of disdain from that one.
* Along with the British Invasion that year, for some reason in ’64 musicals of varying worth were breaking out all over: along with My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins were the good, bad and ugly of A Hard Day’s Night, Bikini Beach, Get Yourself A College Girl, Wonderful Life, Muscle Beach Party, The Pleasure Seekers, Robin And The 7 Hoods, Roustabout, Kissin’ Cousins, Viva Las Vegas and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.
** “Oil’b be ‘arsh as ‘Iggins ‘ere. Called as seen. We’d let MFL keep its statue for Adapted Score. Best Actor belonged to Peter Sellers Dr. Strangelove. By far the most impressive Art Direction and Costume Design of the year belonged to The Fall Of The Roman Empire. Cheyenne Autumn deserved Cinematography. Cukor’s career nod for Direction should have gone to either Stanley Kubrick for ‘Strangelove‘ or Guy Hamilton for Goldfinger, which also should have claimed MFLs Sound. Best Picture? C’mon—better pictures that year include the nominated ‘Strangelove‘ and Becket, the un-nominated Goldfinger, The Night Of The Iguana, A Hard Day’s Night, Seance On A Wet Afternoon, From Russia With Love, Zulu, The World Of Henry Orient, Seven Days In May, The Train. As for the dismissed ‘nobody’, Julie Andrews, when she accepted her Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins, she thanked “Jack Warner, for making it all possible.”