Filmsite Movie Review
My Fair Lady (1964)
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My Fair Lady (1964) was experienced director George Cukor's film musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play Pygmalion that had played successfully on Broadway from March 15, 1956 to 1962. Shaw's plot was derived from Latin poet Ovid's story (in the Metamorphoses) about a character named Pygmalion who fell in love with a beautiful ivory statue of a woman. In later Greek tradition, his prayers to Venus that the beloved statue - Galatea - would come to life came true so that they could marry.

The non-musical version of the play, from Shaw's own screenplay, was first filmed in Britain in 1938 by co-directors Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard (who also co-starred with Dame Wendy Hiller). The tale is about a 'guttersnipe' Cockney flower girl heroine (Hepburn), who is trained by a misogynistic, bachelor linguistics expert (Higgins) to speak properly within six months - the result of a daring challenge and bet. During her elocution lessons, her unrepentant, calculating drunk father (Holloway) appears for handouts, and she makes an embarrassing first appearance at the opening day Ascot Races, but she catches the eye of high-born but poor Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Although she experiences personal triumph within high society at the Embassy Ball, and wins her teacher's love, she storms off after being transformed - only to return by film's end.

Warner Bros.' musical romantic comedy was expensive-to-produce (at $17 million) - their most expensive film to date, partially due to the fact that the studio had to pay $5.5 million for film rights to the popular Broadway hit. It turned out to be one of the top five most successful films in 1964 - a combination of clever lyrics and singable tunes, with a great lead and supporting cast, and lavishly-designed theatrical sets and costumes. Alan Jay Lerner, who was responsible for the screenplay, co-wrote the music and lyrics with Frederick (Fritz) Loewe. Producer Jack Warner's will prevailed and the Cockney flower vendor character played by little-known Julie Andrews on Broadway was replaced by well-known, non-singing 'Cinderella' actress Audrey Hepburn (whose voice was dubbed by Marnie Nixon although Hepburn sang her own tracks) - to guarantee greater box-office business.

Ironically, Julie Andrews was awarded a Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Disney's competing film Mary Poppins, and Hepburn failed to receive a nomination for her part. [During her acceptance speech, Andrews thanked Jack Warner "for making this possible."] Rex Harrison reprised his legendary stage performance on celluloid as the linguistics professor with a unique 'non-singing' vocal style. Lerner and Loewe's score for the musical includes some of the best known songs and lyrics ever: "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "I'm Getting Married in the Morning," "With a Little Bit of Luck," and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

George Cukor, a veteran 'women's director,' made a sumptuous, glamorous, brilliant Technicolor film with well-loved tunes - it was honored with twelve Academy Award nominations and eight wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Director (Cukor's only Best Director award in his career), Best Color Cinematography (in widescreen 70 mm), Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score (Andre Previn), and Best Color Costume Design (Cecil Beaton). The four losing categories were Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Stanley Holloway and Gladys Cooper), Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Film Editing. In the decade of the 60s, My Fair Lady joined two other highly praised, big box-office films when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture (as did West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965)).

The Story

The title credits and musical overture from the film are accompanied by colorful, dazzling close-ups of spring flowers - which happen to line the stairway of the Covent Garden Opera house. Elegantly-dressed, high-society opera-goers are leaving after a performance and heading for horse-drawn cabs and motorized vehicles. They begin bustling about to find shelter when rain begins to fall. Street vendors cover their wares in the marketplace. Young Freddy 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 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 - she defends herself as a "respectable girl," arguing 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."

Eliza is even more startled when Higgins identifies her birthplace in "Lisson Grove" - she bursts into tears:

I'm a good girl, I am!

After thoughtfully predicting that Pickering is from "Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and er - India," Higgins explains his perennial search for British dialects and his talent for knowing speech patterns and their corresponding locations - he is a phonetics expert: "Simple phonetics. The science of speech. That's my profession, also my hobby. Anyone can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue, but I can place a man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets." And he brutally criticizes Eliza's ugly "detestable boo-hooing" and crude pronunciations:

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.

While she indignantly belly-aches at his insults with loud, grating utterances such as "Ah-ah-aw-aw-oo-oo!", he delivers a well-aimed tirade at the deterioration of the English language. To the snobby, intolerant Higgins, ignorance, inarticulateness, dialects and unrefined language produce a "verbal class distinction," much the same way as money ensures advantages and a higher class of living, in "Why Can't the English Learn to Speak":

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutters
Condemned by every syllable she utters
By right she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue...
This is what the British population
Calls an elementary education...
It's 'ow' and 'garn' that keep her in her place,
Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now, should be antique.
[To Pickering] If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do,
Why you might be selling flowers too...

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
Norwegians learn Norwegian, the Greeks are taught their Greek
In France every Frenchman knows his language from 'A' to 'Zed' -
The French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.
Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning.
The Hebrews learn it backwards which is absolutely frightening.
Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak.
Oh, why can't the English -
Why can't the English learn to speak?

So the Professor makes an initial challenge toward Pickering which becomes the cornerstone of the film's plot. He wagers with the Colonel that within six months, he can teach Eliza Doolittle to speak articulately so that she will be transformed into a pure-speaking lady, so that no one will suspect her Cockney origins when she is passed off as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. She will become a proper, aristocratic lady just by being taught proper English:

You see this creature with her curbstone English. The English that will keep her in the gutter till the end of her days. Well, sir, in six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. I could even get her a job as a lady's maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English...[To Eliza] Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf. You disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns! You incarnate insult to the English language! I could pass you off as, ah, the Queen of Sheba.

The Colonel ("the author of Spoken Sanscrit"), as it turns out, has journeyed from India to meet "Henry Higgins, author of Higgins' Universal Alphabet." Now acquainted with each other after their chance meeting, Higgins invites Pickering to his home at 27A Wimpole Street and they wander off speaking about the 147 "distinct languages" or Indian dialects. Among the other street vendors, Eliza has had her interest piqued in becoming a lady. With her untutored manner, she sings and dances with them about her dreams in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?":

All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air.
With one enormous chair; Oh wouldn't it be loverly?
Lots of choc'late for me to eat; Lots of coal makin' lots of heat.
Warm face, warm 'ands, warm feet, Oh wouldn't it be loverly?
Oh, so loverly sittin' abso-bloomin'-lutely still!
I would never budge 'til Spring crept over my window sill.
Someone's head restin' on my knee; Warm and tender as he can be,
Who takes good care of me; Oh wouldn't it be loverly?
Loverly, loverly, loverly, loverly.

Early the next morning, Eliza's hard-drinking, disreputable, scruffy-looking father Alfred (Stanley Holloway) is looking for his daughter in the Covent Garden market area - boasting to his friends Jamie (John Alderson) and Harry (John McLiam) that he deserves a paternal handout:

I give her everythin'; I give her the greatest gift that a human being can give to another: life. I introduced her to this 'ere planet I did, with all its wonders and marvels. The sun that shines, the moon that glows, Hyde Park to walk through on a fine spring night. The whole ruddy city o' London to roam around in, sellin 'er bloomin' flowers. I give 'er all that, then I disappears and leaves 'er on 'er own to enjoy it. Now, if that ain't worth half-a-crown now and again, I'll take my belt off and give 'er what for!

Although at first, Eliza resists giving her father any of her hard-earned money: "Y'ain't gonna take me hard-earned wages and pass 'em on to a bloody pub-keeper," she relents. Because of her "bit o' luck" the previous night when Higgins generously threw coins into her flower basket, she gives her father a half-crown. After Eliza hears the church bells peal, she is reminded of Higgins' appraisal that she is condemned by every syllable she speaks, and his equally promising words about how he could transform her speech differences under his tutelage.

In Higgins' study at his residence on Wimpole Street, the professor and his houseguest are studying vowel sounds produced from a vibrating tuning fork taken from a rack full of tuning forks. They also listen to a phonograph playing recorded phonetic sounds when Eliza appears at the Higgins front door. The maid Mrs. Pearce (Mona Washbourne) admits her into the study, thinking she is one of Higgins' subjects of "business" study: "Well, she's quite a common girl, sir. Very common indeed. I should have sent her away only I thought perhaps you wanted her to talk into your machine." But when Eliza makes her entrance, Higgins brusquely dismisses her: "Oh, no, no, no. This is the girl I jotted down last night. She's no use. I've got all the records I want of the Lisson Grove lingo. I'm not gonna waste another cylinder on that. Now be off with you, I don't want you."

Eliza begs to be taught to speak well enough to work at a flower shop. She announces that she has decided to hire Higgins to give her elocution lessons, but Higgins is very uninterested:

Higgins: Pickering? Shall we ask this baggage to sit down or shall we just throw her out of the window?
Eliza: Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo! I won't be called a baggage, not when I've offered to pay like any lady.
Pickering: What do you want, my girl?
Eliza: I want to be a lady in a flower shop 'stead of sellin' at the corner o' Tottenham Court Road. But they won't take me unless I can talk more genteel. (gesturing toward Higgins) He said he could teach me. Well, here I am ready to pay. I'm not asking any favor - and he treats me as if I was dirt. (Turning toward Higgins) I know what lessons cost as well as you do, and I'm ready to pay.

Pickering convinces Higgins that it would make an interesting challenge to actually teach Eliza how to speak - to change her from a drab 'guttersnipe' into a beautiful woman through language education:

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: (protesting) 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.

And Higgins optimistically predicts that she will become an attractive lady to the men in town: "By george, Eliza, the streets will be strewn with the bodies of men shooting themselves for your sake before I've done with you." When she resists his cold insults and stomps out, he tempts her back with chocolates: "Think of it, Eliza. Think of chocolates, and taxis, and gold, and diamonds!" And then to answer Pickering's questions about the six month "experiment in teaching" while she is in his hands, Higgins describes what will happen - tongue in cheek:

Eliza, you are to stay here for the next six months learning how to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist shop. If you're good and do whatever you're told, you shall sleep in a proper bedroom, have lots to eat, and money to buy chocolates and take rides in taxis. But if you are naughty and idle, you shall sleep in the back kitchen amongst the black beetles, and be walloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick. At the end of six months, you shall be taken to Buckingham Palace in a carriage, beautifully dressed. If the King finds out that you're not a lady, the police will take you 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, uh, seven-and-six to start life with 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. Now, are you satisfied, Pickering?

As Eliza is dragged upstairs to the bathroom to her uncertain fate by Mrs. Pearce, screaming: "If I'd known what I would've let myself in for I wouldn't have come here. I've always been a good girl, I have, and I won't be put upon," Higgins reiterates his confidence in the wager: "In six months, in three if she has a good ear and a quick tongue, I'll take her anywhere and I'll pass her off as anything. I'll make a queen of that barbarous wretch."

The unwashed Cockney girl is led into a fancy new bedroom, while a maid runs water into a bathtub in the adjoining bathroom. Mrs. Pearce admonishes: "You know, you can't be a nice girl inside if you're dirty outside." Eliza is overwhelmed and in awe of the fancy room: "It's too good for the likes of me. I shall be afraid to touch anything. I ain't a duchess yet, you know." Two serving girls and Higgin's housekeeper enter the bathroom, shut the door behind them, and wrestle Eliza to take her clothes off and plunge her into the steaming bathtub. Her screams of protest resound throughout the residence: "Get your hands off me! No! I won't! Let go of me!"

While the two maids carry off Eliza's clothes, Higgins is asked by the morally-responsible Pickering if he will take advantage of Eliza under the circumstances: "I hope it's clearly understood that no advantage is to be taken of her position...This is no trifling matter. Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?" The confirmed, aloof, hyper-logical bachelor/professor expresses his feelings about women in words and song: "I find the moment that a woman makes friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance. And I find the moment that I make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical. So here I am, a confirmed old bachelor, and likely to remain so." The snobbish professor contemptuously sings-talks that he is a "quiet living man" without the need for a woman in "An Ordinary Man":

I'm an ordinary man, who desires nothing more than just an ordinary chance,
to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants.
An average man am I, of no eccentric whim, Who likes to live his life, free of strife
Doing whatever he thinks is best for him, Well, just an ordinary man

But, let a woman in your life and your serenity is through
She'll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome
Then go to the enthralling fun of overhauling you
Let a woman in your life, and you're up against a wall,
Make a plan and you will find, she has something else in mind,
And so rather than do either you do something else that neither likes at all.

You want to talk of Keats or Milton, she only wants to talk of love
You go to see a play or ballet, and spend it searching for her glove
Let a woman in your life and you invite eternal strife,
Let them buy their wedding bands for those anxious little hands
I'd be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling, than to ever let a woman in my life...

In another line, he confirms his incorrigible bachelorhood and his impatience and distaste for creatures of the female sex: "Let a woman in your life and you're plunging in a knife. Let the others of my sex tie the knot around their necks, I'd prefer a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition than to ever let a woman in my life."

In Covent Garden after being thrown out of a pub, a besotted, lazy Doolittle and his friends ponder how to escape work. Eliza's father, a dustman and scoundrel, answers the question by singing: "With A Little Bit O' Luck", explaining in part, how he lives a life of unwedded bliss:

The Lord above gave man an arm of iron, so he could do his job and never shirk
The Lord above gave man an arm of iron but, with a little bit o' luck,
With a little bit o' luck, Someone else'll do the blinkin' work!

The Lord above made liquor for temptation, to see if man could turn away from sin.
The Lord above made liquor for temptation but, with a little bit o' luck,
With a little bit o' luck, When temptation comes, you'll give right in!..

Oh you can walk the straight and narrow, but with a little bit o' luck you'll run amuck.
The gentle sex was made for man to marry, to share his nest and see his food is cooked.
The gentle sex was made for man to marry but, with a little bit o' luck,
With a little bit o' luck, You can have it all and not get hooked!

An old Cockney woman calls out to Alfred from a basement-level window where Eliza used to reside (three days earlier) that he is a lucky man because his daughter is being 'kept' by a wealthy man:

You can buy your own things now, Alfie Doolittle, fallen into a tub of butter, you have...Your daughter Eliza...Moved in with a swell, Eliza has...this morning, I gets a message from her. She wants her things sent over to 27A Wimpole Street, care of Professor Higgins. And what things does she want?...Her birdcage, and a Chinese fan. But she says, 'Never mind about sending any clothes.'

Alfred celebrates his luck by finishing up his song: "A man was made to help support his children, which is the right and proper thing to do. A man was made to help support his children but, with a little bit o' luck, with a little bit o' luck, they'll go out and start supporting you!"

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