Some stories are surprisingly sturdy, they’re bulletproof entertainments built upon solid foundations and strong characters. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion transmutes across genres into this Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, one of the titans of musical theater. This 1964 film version is a crown jewel of director George Cukor’s consistently elegant and graceful body of work, and the film that finally nabbed him the Oscar.
Even at three hours long, My Fair Lady is one breezy, fun piece of mainstream movie-making. Pity that so many can’t view the film for what it is and not for the film that wasn’t made. For many, My Fair Lady’s greatness is skewered to favor a decades old grudge that Julie Andrews was passed up in favor of movie star Audrey Hepburn, except no bad blood ever existed between the stars. Yes, Andrews would have nailed the role by transferring her Broadway success to the big screen, but the movies are an entirely different business, and Andrews was an unproven commodity at the time. Don’t cry for her though, she appeared in Mary Poppins this same year, snagged an Oscar, and went on to form her own iconic career.
Which leaves us with this well-known story of two titanic egos sniping at each other, and it’s one of the great movies. By this point George Cukor was a veteran director, and his work here is that of a master at the height of his powers. He doesn’t place the musical in a recognizably realistic world, nor does he place it in a heightened artificial reality, instead mixing the two into a unique result. We view the story from a remove, as famous scenes like the Ascot Gavotte or the grand ballroom that feature the various players posing for the camera before moving about their normal business. The effect is that of a moving fashion shoot, and it provides an already stylish movie with enough flourishes and icing to satisfy several people’s sweet tooth.
Then there’s the ensemble that Cukor has assembled, each of them turning in work ranging from the solid to the sublime. Rex Harrison reprises his Broadway role to great success here, refusing to blunt the edges or snarl of his misogynist Henry Higgins, and he creates great adversarial chemistry with Audrey Hepburn. Wilfrid Hyde-White is consistently daft, yet endearing as Colonel Pickering, Higgins’ sidekick and Eliza’s benign helper. Gladys Cooper is nicely haughty as Mrs. Higgins, and her sisterly solidarity with Eliza throughout is nicely felt, especially a late scene in which she snaps at Henry to behave and takes Eliza’s side in the argument. But one supporting player clearly steals the show, and that’s Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s conman father with a penchant for purple verbal prose. Holloway is clearly tapping into the satirical roots of the play, and every time he appears the energy in My Fair Lady increases.
Now let me go to bat for Audrey Hepburn’s sublime portrayal of Eliza Doolittle. Yes, her dubbed singing is a large knock against the film as her voice and Marni Nixon’s vocals are utterly incompatible, yet Hepburn has no one to double her dramatics, and she nails every nuance of Eliza. After years of playing coquettes and impish pixies, or entirely refined ladies, Hepburn is clearly enjoying the wild antics of her Cockney flower girl in the first half. She throws herself into these situations with wild abandon, and her Eliza is a spitfire, a stubborn, prideful woman who wants better for herself by moving up the class ranks through improved speech. Her ego is no less gargantuan than Higgins is, and her consistent verbal putdowns and needling remarks to him are quite pleasurable in slowly deflating his bloated ego. And Hepburn is completely heartbreaking in a scene where Eliza returns to the streets where she used to sell flowers, now foreign to her and her posh accent.
It’s deeply refreshing how so much of the plot revolves around Eliza’s decision and wants. Higgins bets Pickering her could train a girl like her to pass off as a grand dame in a matter of months, but Eliza takes the initiative to set the plot rolling forward. She continues throughout, never playing the damsel-in-distress or second fiddle to any of the male characters, balking every time they treat her like a prop or less-than. Eliza’s ambitions and dreams are the backbone of My Fair Lady, and to reduce it to a love story is a disservice to her. Yes, the ending is weird here, but does anyone really believe that Eliza is acting out of anything other than her own self-interest and self-preservation in returning to Higgins? Never forget the maniacal glee with which she belts out “Just You Wait,” during which Hepburn’s natural singing voice peaks through.
My Fair Lady’s score is one of the impeccable creations in musical theater. Ever song is a classic, and if you don’t believe me let me rattle off a few of the songs featured: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Without You,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” That’s only six of the roughly twenty-five songs in the score. Each of them is a perfect blend of character development, plot business, humor, and emotional engagement.
Class warfare has never looked as sumptuous as it does in My Fair Lady. It keeps much of Shaw’s smart, funny criticism of the British class system, and only adds in a series of wonderful songs, beautiful costumes, and gorgeous sets. This is a triumph, the kind of film that shouldn’t need a long dissertation or defense, it’s freaking My Fair Lady! After this deliciously tart pastry of a film, the movie musical would begin to deflate, the victim of increasing budgets and decreasing ticket sales. My Fair Lady is one of the final, elegant swan songs of the era, and a great movie for all-time.