My Fair Lady is one of those unassailable Hollywood blockbusters that is just too entertaining to ignore. The music score and lyrics are some of the best ever written for a musical, and the whole enterprise charms audiences with its melody and romance. In short, a fine, fine mainstream entertainment.
It happens every time. First we'll see the 1938 film Pygmalion, which is almost half the length of Jack Warner's roadshow colossus. Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard don't need the addition of music, and it's one of better romances ever made. Then a few years later we'll re-see My Fair Lady, and the music carries us away. The genius of George Bernard Shaw - making delightful social satire from class differences - is happily alive in both versions. The IMDB lists at least eight other film and television versions of the play, but these two are the ones that will dominate.
My Fair Lady was just the ticket for George Cukor, the aging talent pigeonholed as a 'women's director' yet possessing what it took to keep this oversized show on the rails. Jack Warner would not be an easy boss to work for, and with 12 million in 1963 money invested it's clear that anything short of knockdown success wouldn't do. The production rounded up the irreplaceable Rex Harrison (who sang his songs live instead of to playback) and cornered the right leading lady to guarantee success, igniting the biggest on-going debate ever about a Broadway star's replacement in a musical's movie version.
As it is, the film goes 80% of the way toward sublime perfection, and there's only a hint of canned singing to Hepburn's role ... and really only because we know she was totally dubbed by Marni (I sing for 'em all) Nixon. Otherwise Hepburn is every bit as appropriate to the role as Natalie Wood was for West Side Story, probably moreso.
My Fair Lady would be waaay too long at three hours if it weren't for the songs, every one of which is a classic. Just when things start to sag, another flight of melody comes along and carries us off again. Most of the picture takes place in Higgins' oak and leather bachelor pad, so Cukor and company make the most of outings to beef up the production and let loose the heavy design work. Prima donna designer Cecil Beaton's costumes and settings at the race track and the dress ball more severe than his earlier work for Minnelli's Gigi, the show he clearly wanted to top. But they fit in well with the constant wit of the wisely-retained Shavian text. 2
There's not that much more to be said. The bigger this film gets, the more small-scale are its pleasures. We aren't as impressed by the stylized racetrack as we are the spot-on acting battles between Hepburn and Harrison, and even the bit roles become endearing. Warner wisely imported Stanley Holloway as well, and the grand old actor helps the show retain the spark of its satirical roots. Cukor is said to have shown a volcanic personality to everyone but his actors, but he keeps what could have been an overproduced monster of a movie light and frolicsome.
It's not the kind of picture that needs an introduction.
Warner's 2-disc DVD Special Edition of My Fair Lady builds on the bounty of an earlier disc release. On most sets, the hi-def transfer isn't going to seem much of an improvement. The quality probably benefits from improved encoding, considering that the feature has a disc to itself and doesn't have to share information space with the extras. The audio is where the real improvement can be heard, as this disc sounds much clearer than the first DVD. Although I understand some of the grousing from fans who now feel compelled to repurchase the show, it is noticeably different. It's also been over five years since the previous disc; only diamonds are forever. Don't worry, in 2009 or so it'll come back on HD DVD and we can go around the carousel a third time.
The first disc bears commentary from disputed creative contributors Gene Allen and Marni Nixon, along with much comment from restoration producers Harris and Katz.
Disc 2 bears the 1994 The Fairest Fair Lady docu from CBS. It's a pleasant blend of interesting facts, and puts to rest all the hubbub about Julie Andrews being snubbed and Marni Nixon criticized for publicizing her stealth performance in the film. The show is semi-hosted by Jeremy Brett, who bemoans the fact that he was dubbed as well. Plenty of time is spent with restoration czars Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who take us through the painstaking digital patch-up process. 1 Some of the before & after visual comparisons look a little dodgy, mainly because the flat video that represents the final, beautified 'after' isn't all that attractive. But it communicates the essentials quite well, and Harris doesn't dumb-down most of the technical explanations.
Also included are takes of the songs Show Me and Wouldn't It Be Lovely? synchronized to original unused Audrey Hepburn recordings, and a selection of theatrical trailers.
All of the above material is from the older special edition disc. Most of the following should be exclusive to this new set:
There's a wealth of unedited (and possibly rejected) newsreel footage. A production kickoff dinner shows a tired-looking Hepburn and Harrison listening patiently while Jack Warner blathers on at the microphone. In between self-styled Groucho Marx-like quips, Warner blames Europe for the lowering of moral standards in American movies. Of course, two Europeans are his guests of honor, looking on with grim faces.
The audio of George Cukor directing is mainly him coaxing a few lines out of an aged actress. A set of posters and other art has some Harrison radio spots behind it, but is marred with big time-code numbers. Another rescued clip shows Jack Warner accepting his producing Oscar. Harrison is alternately pained-looking and funny in a flubbed outtake of a clip meant to be shown in lieu of a personal acceptance of his Golden Globes win. There are also extended comments from Martin Scorsese & Andrew Lloyd Webber, who already are represented in the '94 docu.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Fair Lady rates:
1. We even get a quickie
appearance from well-known hands-on restorer-editor Mike Hyatt.
2. While pondering Higgins & Pickering living together and solving
intellectual problems with only a disapproving housekeeper to oversee them, I keep thinking that
perhaps Billy Wilder was trying to recapture some of this magic when he made his (initially
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Then again, if Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1913, maybe he was originally inspired by the home
life of Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest hero.