"Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?" - Professor Henry Higgins
I'll admit from the get-go, I'm a huge Audrey Hepburn fan, but My Fair Lady is one of my least favorite films she starred in. It's just too stuffy and too overstuffed. Though there are a lot of things I like, there is also plenty I could do without. Strangely, it's also the Hepburn film I've probably owned the most copies of--two different VHS releases and now three DVD releases. Jane, stop this crazy thing!
Directed by George Cukor in 1964, My Fair Lady was based on the popular stage musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, which was itself based on the George Bernard Shaw version of Pygmalion. Rex Harrison stars as Professor Henry Higgins, a linguistic expert and insufferable blowhard who makes a bet with his colleague, Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), that he can take a lowly cockney flower girl and turn her into a Duchess within six months. Audrey Hepburn plays the girl, Eliza Doolittle, a scrappy kid who isn't afraid to take care of herself. Higgins puts her on a rigorous course of practicing her vowels and working to obliterate her accent. His desire is to prove that language is the key to smart society, that a woman who speaks properly can be accepted anywhere, even Buckingham Palace.
This is one of many Cinderella stories that Hepburn starred in. In fact, it's the most fully fleshed riff on the theme, a dirty girl who toils in the gutter turned into a fake princess who even turns the head of a Transylvanian prince. (Alas, he's not Dracula.) She even eventually runs away and has to be tracked down! Hepburn is very funny as Eliza, hamming it up with the exaggerated accent, and clearly enjoying all the screaming and yelling in the first act. She and Rex Harrison make a good pair, firing back and forth at one another with gleeful spite. The actor was never better than he was here. It's a testament to his natural magnetism that he is so good at making Higgins so hateful, and yet he still comes out of it as Prince Charming.
My Fair Lady is a gorgeous film to look at. With production and costume designs by the great Cecil Beaton, who won two of the eight Oscars that went to this picture, it's a grand spectacle of flowers and ribbons and bows. The day-at-the-races sequence is unforgettable, which is why it's usually the part publicity stills are drawn from. Beaton decks out the society crowd in black-and-white, saving most of the color for the gorgeous bouquet he places at the top of Eliza's hat. Cukor films the introduction of the race scene as a staged tableau, the stopping and starting rhyming with a similar introduction to the street life that Eliza has come from. And, of course, the sequence is capped by the funniest scene of the movie, with Eliza slipping back to her old ways and shouting out for her horse to move 'is bloomin' arse.
It's kind of too bad, though, that it's always the race gown that gets the most notice from My Fair Lady's wardrobe. I actually prefer the shimmering gown Eliza wears to the embassy ball and the pink number she dresses in for the final scenes. She has won the bet for Higgins by then, and she carries herself like the lady she has become. It's also when Higgins' neglect causes the rift between them, the one that causes his somewhat unconvincing transformation into a man in love. Hepburn's performance hints at her feelings throughout the film. Cukor allows her several glances in her teacher's direction that lets us know that he's winning her heart while he's altering her vocabulary. Higgins never has any such moments, and he is, after all, the man who sings of the virtues of bachelorhood in the slightly horrifying he-man-woman-hater's anthem, "I'm an Ordinary Man." Part of the point of the movie is precisely that he never did pay attention, but I could have used with a little more hint that Eliza has gotten under his skin or at least proved herself invaluable to his household.
While I'd have liked to see more in the love affair, I would have been just fine with less elsewhere. For instance, they could have dropped the Freddy character (played by Jeremy Brett), Eliza's supposed suitor. The subplot yields very little, and his signature song, "On the Street Where You Live," is the most bland number in the film. I could have also lived without the two songs sung by Eliza's father. Stanley Holloway's performance as Alfred P. Doolittle is hilarious when he's talking people's ears off, but his musical numbers, "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time" go on forever.
Now that I think of it, the songs are probably the thing I like least about My Fair Lady. I find most of them too overblown, excepting maybe "Wouldn't It Be Luverly" and, of course, the one bonafide classic from the songbook, "I Could Have Danced All Night." For me, the musical interruptions just drag the movie out. I'd have much preferred to see Hepburn and Harrison in Shaw's Pygmalion, or maybe a souped-up comedy version of the same. I realize that this is blasphemy, that the Lerner and Loewe tunes are practically sacred ground, but I do think that they are what cause My Fair Lady to drift for me. It's a movie I always start off enjoying, but to get through its near three-hour running time, I always end up checking in and out a little. Tonight I did my dishes while Freddy cornered Eliza in the street. Had it gone on much longer, I might have started vacuuming.
The last DVD edition of My Fair Lady was released in 2004 as a double-disc edition with a really nice book-style case and slipcover; this new version is a single-disc DVD in a regular plastic keepcase with an outer sleeve. The Bob Peak illustration from the original poster that adorned the 2004 cover has now been replaced with the far more ordinary and predictable photo mock-up, which is pretty much the same as on a bunch of the older releases dating back to the VHS days. To make matters worse, while the outer sleeve is shiny and nice looking, the actual interior cover, despite being the same image, is softer and washed out. It looks like they scanned an old cover and printed it on their home printer, I kid you not. The movie has shifted studios in the last five years, going from Warner Bros. to Paramount/CBS, and just on the basic packaging, it's clear which studio cared more.
(By the way, check out DVD Savant's 2004 review, in which he accurately predicts that this movie would be getting another edition in 2009!)
In terms of video quality, I have to say that moving this movie down to one disc and making it share the space with special features has not helped at all. I chose to compare one of the racetrack scenes, as the color scheme was more duotone and I thought we could see some real contrast.
2004 (Click for larger version)
2009 (Click for larger version)
The resolution and the brightness of the image is vastly different, with the 2004 job being far superior. The lines are sharper, the colors more vivid--the new disc looks dull by comparison.
I also decided to compare the intermission title cards, thinking they'd make an easy scene to time for the screenshots, and I'm quite surprised by what I found.
Note how much brighter the colors are on the old shots, and how much more clear the petals. And what is the deal with the "Entr'acte" stills? Why are the flowers and the font different?
In a move that is sure to disappoint the audiophiles out there, Paramount has downgraded from the highly lauded 5.1 soundtrack that was available on the Warner Bros. disc and has opted for a standard stereo track. It still sounds pretty good, with no noticeable drop-outs, glitches, or hiss, and everything rings through crystal clear, so there is a good chance you won't really notice, but even so.... Also gone is the French mono track, and the English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Now the only subtitle options are Brazilian Portuguese and English Closed Captioning (the latter also available from Warners).
There are a handful of extras on the new Paramount DVD, though all of them are repeats from the Warner Bros. disc and there is actually one main feature missing: the documentary "More Loverly Than Ever," an excellent history of the film made to celebrate the 1994/30th anniversary restoration. Also missing are the production galleries with stills, publicity materials, and design sketches. This alone is enough to make me hang on to my Warner Bros. version.
Carried over from the old edition are the following items:
* Audio Commentary with art director Gene Allen (whose contribution was minimal), singer Marni Nixon (who dubbed Hepburn), and the restoration producers
* Six vintage featurettes, all dating back to the release of the film, including footage from a dinner given to start production, an audio track featuring George Cukor directing, a 10-minute promo piece called "The Fairest Fair Lady," footage from the premiere, and Golden Globes and Oscar pieces.
* Two songs featuring Audrey Hepburn's original vocals
* Two trailers: The 1964 original and the 1994 re-release [Note: The 2004 disc had more trailers from other Lerner/Loewe-penned movies, too]
* "Comments on a Lady": extended clips of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martin Scorsese sharing thoughts on the movie, which are actually larger versions of interviews in the missing "More Loverly Than Ever" documentary
* A short radio interview with Rex Harrison played over some lobby cards and publicity material, which is rather annoying marred by large timecode numbers.
Skip It...? Could I possibly? Yes, I have to. How can one say skip My Fair Lady? At the very least, I thought I would give it a "Recommended," maybe knock it down from "Highly" on this triple-dip because of missing extras, but the loss of bonus material is not the only change here. With such a noticeable loss in quality in the a/v department, why would anybody ditch their old disc to buy this one? In 2009, the material is supposed to look better, not worse. (I would have thought this reissue would have been timed with Blu-Ray release, but no....) The Warner Bros. 2-disc edition is still around and I think can be found relatively cheap; grab that, and give this Paramount version a pass.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.