Everything that movies nowadays are not, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964) was in spades; the lyrical mastery of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (impresarios, responsible for Brigadoon, Gigi and Paint Your Wagon), augmenting playwright, George Bernard Shaw’s highly literate gemstone, Pygmalion into an even more lustrously articulate bit of Edwardian romanticism, teeming with chic good taste in all things. In accepting the challenge to make a movie from this elegant and popular stagecraft of its generation, mogul, Jack L. Warner hit a few snags – mercifully, almost all of them in preproduction; virtually none showing up on the screen by the time, My Fair Lady had its world premiere in Los Angeles. Warner’s marketing campaign for this night of nights likely could have financed another movie entirely. It remains nothing short of impressive; lauded in the press as the event of the decade; its attendees turning out, immaculately quaffed and perfumed; the parade of A-list stars, enough to make the likes of even a showman like Michael Todd blush. In the intervening decades, many have chipped away at Jack Warner’s reputation, labeling him as crass, unyielding, impenetrably thick-headed and idiotically stubborn. Maybe so, but there is no denying Warner his place in the sun as a wily merchant of shadow and light who, unlike virtually all his contemporaries, managed to remain in power longer than any other mogul in Hollywood. I’ll give it to Jack. He knew his business, even if he occasionally meddled in everyone else’s.
Early in My Fair Lady’s incubation, Warner made it clear Julie Andrews would not be considered for the part of Eliza Doolittle. While Andrews had made a stunner of the show, she equally remained a virtual unknown to movie-goers, and in the volatile and cash-strapped sixties, Warner was quite simply unwilling to take such a gamble with his leading lady on a multi-million dollar production. Besides, at a staggering cost of $5.5 million, merely to secure the rights to produce it, Warner needed not just a hit, but a cultural touchstone and box office leviathan to save face. He couldn’t take that risk on an unknown. Even so, his seven year contract with CBS, at the end of which all rights would revert back to them as the custodians of this property, is a deal no mogul in his right mind would concede to today. While many could see the logic in Warner’s refusal to cast Andrews, his initial choices elsewhere were met with immediate resistance. Jack had sought Cary Grant and James Cagney for the parts of Prof. Henry Higgins and Col. Pickering respectively. To each actor’s credit, both nobly bowed out; Grant going so far as to inform Warner that unless Rex Harrison was hired to reprise his role in the film, not only would he boycott the studio’s future output, but he would never again even consider appearing in a Warner Bros. picture.
The reasons for Warner’s change of heart – or perhaps, change of mind – have been muddled through time. Perhaps, Jack reasoned all had been forgiven in the eyes of the public where Rex Harrison was concerned. Two decades earlier, Harrison had been one of 2oth Century-Fox’s rising male stars; an incomparable dramatic actor with an enigmatic screen personality, exercised in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). His American movie debut only served to augment a reputation already well ensconced in his native Britain as a disreputable ladies man – dubbed ‘sexy Rexy.’ However, in the interim, Harrison had become romantically entangled with studio starlet, Carole Landis, who, on July 29th, 1948, committed suicide – later speculated, to spite Harrison for their explosive and failing relationship. At the same time, Fox released Unfaithfully Yours (1948), Preston Sturges’ rather ghoulish comedy about a composer (played by Harrison) who takes a rather fiendish delight in torturing his on-screen paramour; at one point, in a dream sequence, accusing her of infidelity and slashing her throat with a straight razor. To the movie-going public, art had queerly – and rather distastefully – mimicked life and thus, studio-interest in Harrison’s career over at Fox quickly cooled, then soured. Overnight, he had become a pariah.
But then came Harrison’s reprieve; his first bite at 1956’s Broadway incarnation of My Fair Lady. No one could have foretold of its momentous success, the play eventually setting a record as the longest running in U.S. history. While the bulk of Harrison’s fifties tenure would remain committed to Lerner and Loewe’s melodic masterpiece, as well as other roles on the stage; steadily, film offers began to surface: Harrison appearing to good effect in Vincente Minnelli’s deplorably underrated, The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Only the year before My Fair Lady’s movie premiere, Harrison had capped off his filmic repertoire with a stunning incarnation of Caesar in Fox’s infamous Cleopatra (1963). Even as the pall and thud of this lumbering and truncated epic had left the reputation of its director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz in tatters, Harrison’s cache remained virtually untarnished. Now, he leapt at the opportunity to reprise Henry Higgins for this filmic ‘fair lady’. Interestingly, while Broadway’s show had established a fairly balanced exchange between Eliza and Higgins, the cinematic reincarnation would heavily rely on Harrison’s presence; even as his co-star, Audrey Hepburn, managed to establish herself as one of movie-land’s most gracious and luminous stars. Much has been made of the fact Hepburn did not warble her own vocals in the movie: too much, in fact; the revelation exacerbated by Warner’s feeble endeavors to keep professional dub queen, Marni Nixon under wraps until after the Academy Awards. But this backfired for all concerned and arguably cost Hepburn even the nomination as Best Actress.
At the time of its debut, My Fair Lady was not so much a movie as a near religious pilgrimage, the public clamoring for tickets, the critics eager and ready with their hatchets to tear it down as Warner’s folly. The theaters nevertheless were sold out for months in advance, the picture playing for two years straight in some venues. From London, to Rome, to Broadway, Lerner and Loewe’s show of shows once again became a runaway smash, this time breaking all box office records previously set by Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I. My Fair Lady’s triumph did come at a price, however - chiefly in preventing even Jack Warner from jumping onto its bandwagon to produce it until the end of its ‘run of the show’ contract. Alas, during this interim the business of making movies had irrevocably changed. Thus, in hindsight Warner’s chutzpah is to be even more generously commended. By 1964, musicals were no longer guaranteed money makers. Even worse for this ‘fair lady’s’ prospects, in 1958, MGM producer, Arthur Freed had circumvented the stalemate of producing My Fair Lady for the movies by slyly hiring Lerner and Loewe to adapt Broadway’s Gigi instead. The results so closely paralleled the circumstances depicted in My Fair Lady that Gigi (1958) was dubbed 'Eliza Goes to Paris', New York Times’ critic, Bosley Crowther astutely pointing out “There won't be much point in anybody trying to produce a film of My Fair Lady for a while, because Arthur Freed has virtually done it with ‘Gigi’!” Thankfully, the filmic 'fair lady' was still a good six years away, allowing Gigi's popularity to fade – though, arguably, never to be forgotten.
As a movie, My Fair Lady required a gentle guiding hand and considerable cash flow to surpass its Broadway roots. It received both and then some as Jack Warner’s personally supervised project. However, as previously mentioned, the deal eventually ironed out between CBS and Warner Bros. did not include an outright purchase of the property – rather, a loan out with rights to lapse and be periodically renewed, but only if CBS agreed to the terms; an arrangement, later to plague and complicate all future screenings and home video releases. As ‘home video’ could neither be conceived, nor even dreamed upon in 1963, Warner’s deal of the decade was something of a minor coup; one that repaid the wily ole-time mogul handsomely with its immediate returns and accolades. In adapting the play for the screen, director, George Cukor ever so slightly tweaked Lerner and Loewe’s narrative structure while remaining religiously committed to its Broadway origins.
If My Fair Lady has a single failing, it remains Warner’s lack of foresight to cast Julie Andrews. However, the actress would hardly go home empty-handed. As rival mogul, Walt Disney had admired Andrews opposite Richard Burton in Broadway’s Camelot he just as quickly snatched her up to star as his ‘practically perfect’ British nanny, in Mary Poppins (released the same year as My Fair Lady). Poppins would unequivocally prove (as though proof were required) that Julie Andrews was every bit a movie star of the first magnitude as Audrey Hepburn. Yet, it must be said, the filmic My Fair Lady never suffers from Jack’s oversight, his replacement star almost as good – though not without her controversy. Although long considered standard practice in Hollywood to dub vocals in movie musicals for stars lacking the ability, the substitution of Marni Nixon's singing pipes for the screen’s Eliza Doolittle created a minor stir. Arguably, it cost Hepburn the Oscar nomination; a brushoff compounded when Andrews took home the Best Actress statuette for Walt’s movie instead. In her acceptance speech, Andrews had the minor – if good-natured – cheek to thank “a man who made a wonderful picture – Mr. Jack L. Warner”; a playfully flippant jab that brought down the house and mildly amused even Warner besides.
For the rest, My Fair Lady emerged as a Teflon-coated and inspired exercise in old-fashioned film-making – justly winning 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, with a long overdue statuette afforded to director, George Cukor. In retrospect, it very likely remains the best of all Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrids – and not simply those achieved throughout the 1960’s; its’ score imbued with a sumptuous displace of philosophical, romantic and scholastic overtures that perfectly extol Shaw’s literary genius, while adding a patina of eloquence, distinctly in, of, and, about the musical theater from this certain rarefied vintage a la the exceptional lyricism of Messers Lerner and Loewe. Unlike many movie musicals produced in the sixties, succumbing to their big, bloated road show engagements and ultimately destined to spell disaster, faintly reeking of formaldehyde, while eliciting panged longings for their Broadway origins, as a motion picture, My Fair Lady has all but overshadowed its roots.
Credit for the picture’s endurance as a fan favorite over the many years since must continue to reside with George Cukor’s exceptional pacing. The period trappings are theatrical to begin with, and, virtually no attempt has been made by either Cukor or his production designer, Gene Allen, to ‘open up’ the stage experience by moving even a portion of its action to exterior locations or even credible outdoor sets. Everything takes place within the confinements of a soundstage (or, in the case of the now legendary ‘Ascot Gavotte’ – two stages opening back to back, the breadth of their expanse filled to the rafters with extras sporting stunning period recreations, designed by renowned costumier and portraiture, Cecil Beaton. At the start of the picture, Cukor and Beaton were old friends. By the end, they were barely speaking to one another; Beaton’s insistence on photographing Audrey Hepburn in virtually all of the gowns he had designed (and not just the ones worn by her character), frequently delayed Hepburn’s appearance on the set, holding up Cukor’s schedule and thus, incurring the director’s considerable displeasure.
The plot of this Edwardian fairytale is largely sustained by Lerner and Loewe’s musical articulation of Bernard Shaw’s thorny dialogue. Curiously, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III had first endeavored to transform Pygmalion into a musical in 1950. After some consternation, they announced to the press it simply could not be done. While Rodgers and Hammerstein were hardly slouches when it came to adaptation, their difficulty seems to have stemmed from pursuing a literal translation of Shaw’s prose. Pygmalion extols thoughts and ideas - not emotions; the latter, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s forte. In picking up the gauntlet, Alan Jay Lerner astutely recognized that a great singer should never play Prof. Henry Higgins, ‘an ordinary man’ of extraordinary wit, culture and courtly – if barbed – insults. Rather, a consummate actor might and should. In hiring Rex Harrison, Lerner and Loewe effectively spearheaded Shaw’s verbose byplay by casting one of the greatest living actors of his generation. Initially, Harrison feared the songs would be his undoing. Admitting to Lerner he was not a singer, the composer nevertheless encouraged Harrison to speak the songs on pitch. For some years thereafter, this would become fashionable when casting non-musical talents in movie musicals; though usually registering as a grotesque bastardization of songs not written in a style befitting this concept. But in My Fair Lady’s case, Lerner and Loewe had expressly evolved a structured and seamless cadence between their songs and Shaw’s borrowed dialogue, with Higgins’ divinely inspired ‘music’ the purest extension of his literate thoughts.
For months, Jack Warner’s wardrobe department toiled on a litany of exquisite costumes designed by Cecil Beaton, who would eventually share a screen credit with Art Director, Gene Allen. Beaton, one of the world’s preeminent photographers, among his many other accomplishments, very quickly proved a minor nuisance to both Allen and George Cukor, claiming credit in several prominently featured magazine articles for the picture’s costumes and set design (the latter he decidedly had absolutely nothing at all to contribute). Tensions ran high elsewhere too. As Rex Harrison insisted he could never lip-sync to his own tracks, Cukor had the sound department ingeniously rig a hidden microphone sewn into Harrison’s cravat to record his vocals live. Told her singing would be dubbed, Audrey Hepburn stubbornly insisted on doing several pre-recordings herself, lip-synced to picture to prove a point. Cukor catered to Hepburn’s request, but remained firm, reminding his star of Marni Nixon’s commitment, whereupon Hepburn simply walked out in a minor huff. But, ever the lady, Hepburn contritely recanted her belligerence the very next day, apologizing to all and doubly investing herself thereafter.
Viewed today, My Fair Lady is so obviously a peerless example of Cukor’s formidable expertise; balancing the stagecraft’s ‘theatricality’ with the unique requirements of a movie musical; his camera effortlessly floating in and out of each scene with the trick and the wonder of it all that My Fair Lady never comes across as stilted, stiff or uninspired. Cukor knows exactly how to punctuate every moment in Super Panavision, exploiting Gene Allen’s designs for Kensington Court and the like as sanitized representations of Edwardian English stoicism, the likes of which to be more at home at Disneyland rather than London. Nevertheless, the artifice is in service to the story; never drawing undue attention to itself and somehow always proving an effortless compliment to this courtly clash of manners and mores. Cukor gives us all the elements that made the stage show a grand entertainment, his camera sparingly reframing for close-ups.
And when all else fails to convince, as it rarely – if ever – does, we have the likes of Rex Harrison, Wilfred Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, and, Mona Washburn to remind us we are in a reasonable facsimile of ‘merry ole England’; their inbred propriety and decorum infusing the piece with a stately grandeur that is a sheer delight to behold. Having performed the role of Higgins some 2,717 times at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, Harrison on celluloid is the quintessence of Shaw’s prickly phonetics expert, a characterization he clearly understands from the inside out and can safely take the actor’s place as an inscrutable alter ego. Harrison’s early solo, ‘Why Can’t The English?’ is a tour de force, as is his later declaration, ‘Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?’; each expelled as only a verbal inquisitor and ‘confirmed old bachelor’ like Prof. Higgins can express with caustic and flavorful wit. Yet, the firebrand of Harrison’s own excoriating tongue is everywhere to be had throughout these wonderful rhymes and couplets; his supremely infectious contempt for those who bastardize the language, as ‘the Scotch and the Irish leave (him) close to tears.’ “There are even places where English completely disappears,” Harrison’s Higgins condescendingly concludes with relished delight, “Why, in America they haven’t used it for years!” And as enormously satisfying as these moments are, the coup de grâce for Harrison and the film remains his intrinsically adversarial relationship with Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle; the ‘deliciously low’ and ‘uncommonly dirty’ guttersnipe Higgins undertakes to transform into a lady of stature through a refinement of her speech.
Despite all the brouhaha about not casting Julie Andrews, the film is as immeasurably blessed to have Audrey Hepburn in her stead. Hepburn’s uncouth flower girl is a joyously rambunctious creature of, as Higgins might profess, ‘cotton, hay and rags’, equally as capable to put on the dog as pull off a spectacular ‘lady’ in his presence. The repetition of a single line of dialogue proves what a fine ‘second’ choice Hepburn is as the screen’s Eliza. When Higgins first meets Eliza, she is as unkempt as we might expect, although emphatically declaring with a boastful sense of slum prudery, “I wash my hands and face before I come, I did!” Very near the end of our story, this single line is repeated; Eliza, now sufficiently transformed into exactly the sort of woman Higgins has come to admire, slowly approaching her discarded ‘lord and master’ – after previously reproaching him in his mother’s study – but this time, without his knowing of her presence; softened as she witnesses Higgins wistfully listening intensity to that earlier made recording of her former self. At precisely the moment when the aforementioned line ought to be uttered, Eliza instead quietly switches off the device, receipting it from memory and imbued with an overwhelming tenderness for her mentor.
Hepburn gives us a genuinely sincere Eliza, having grown a woman’s heart for Higgins, despite his scholastic astringency. Feminist scholarship has often viewed the relationship between Higgins and Eliza in a negative patriarchal light; the polished stalwart and this unschooled waif of no account; the latter made whole, only by his constant, often corrosive badgering to do better. Yet, this view completely sidesteps the point of both the play and the movie; that far from being made over in Higgins’ own image, Eliza’s diligence and willingness to rise above, results in her own miraculous betterment. In the end, she proves more than a match for her mentor and in some ways far greater than his equal, and not merely at his behest either; rather, because her resolve has proven Higgins’ wrong, using his own rhetoric as both weapon (to make him see things her way) and as the catalyst for this Cinderella-like transformation. While it remains debatable how much of Higgins’ influence is crucial to this conversion (arguably, browbeating is never the impetus for building character), what remains for certain is, by the end of Cukor’s movie, Higgins has gone from being ‘an ordinary man’, unwilling to ‘let a woman in his life’, to someone grown acutely aware of what has been missing these many empty years; having inexplicably ‘grown accustom to (Eliza’s) face’ and a good deal more. It is therefore, Eliza’s transformative quality that comes to bear on this steadfast bachelor. She has changed him, not the other way around.
My Fair Lady opens with a sumptuous feast of carnations and gardenias beneath its main title sequence, all of it superbly orchestrated by André Previn. From here, Harry Stradling Sr.’s cinematography dissolves to a lush display of proper young ladies attending the theater; regal mannequins of some social stature and etiquette. An impromptu thunder shower frees them to behave as they might otherwise chose, shedding their societal constraints with kittenish aplomb and scurrying into waiting cabs and carriages. In the crowd is the matronly Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Isobel Elsom) who sends her congenial son, Freddy (Jeremy Brett) to fetch a taxi. Instead, he encounters, and accidentally knocks over, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), while selling her violets pilfered from the castoffs of legitimate sellers at Covent marketplace. Lerner and Loewe’s construction during this opening sequence intricately weaves both the premise and the prerequisite introductions of our essential characters into a superb plum pudding of comedic errors. Enter Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a phonetics professor collecting ‘dialects’ for his latest study of speech patterns. Informed by a passerby that someone is taking down her every ‘blessed’ word, Eliza suffers an embarrassing breakdown, pleading with Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White) to protect her from Higgins, whom she erroneously presumes to be a Scotland Yard detective.
Making his intensions bluntly known to all, Higgins berates the cockney liar into silence, sneering with smug superiority. Realizing who Pickering is, the two men become instant chums, striking a bargain to transform Eliza into a woman of culture. It seems impossible. In fact, neither Higgins nor Pickering has taken the dare seriously – not yet. However, the next afternoon, Eliza arrives at Higgin’s Kensington Court address to begin her tutelage. Growing more amused by the moment, Higgins boastfully declares he will make a duchess of the guttersnipe. He orders his housekeeper, Mrs. Pierce (Mona Washburn) to remove ‘the baggage’ to an upstairs washroom, to be properly scrubbed and tubbed and put to bed before the first morning’s training can effectively begin. What follows is an arduous trial by fire, Higgins forcing Eliza to enunciate tongue-tangling poetry while placing a series of heavy green marbles upon her soft palette. After some frustration, the poor girl actually swallows one of the marbles; Higgin’s now approaching his cure by hooking up Eliza to a series of archaic and quaintly barbaric apparatuses, meant to eradicate her cockney accent and properly retrain her speech patterns.
As teaching Eliza has proven somewhat more of a challenge than Higgins initially anticipated, he is even less concerned when her father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), a common dustman, playfully hints at an improper sexual relationship between him and the girl, while suggesting a bribe would satisfy him in allowing their ‘relationship’ to continue. Higgins tips Alfred for his efforts, but then writes American poet, Ezra Wallingford to suggest he has just found England’s most original moralist. In fact, Alfred is the devil-may-care sort who has little desire to elevate his own stature beyond that of a shiftless bum. Meanwhile, Higgins' tutelage of Eliza progresses at an excruciatingly slow pace. He browbeats her with lessons and put downs; perceived as harmless mistreatment systematically designed to wear her down and break her of all those bad habits she has thus far cultivated over a lifetime. After several weeks, Eliza shows definite signs of improvement. But she is more the trained puppet than cultured lady; her premature debut at the Ascot races bearing out her inexperience, as she slips from obviously rehearsed dialogue into her old impassioned ways, hollering after one of the race horses, Dover,“Come on…move yer bloomin’ ass!”
Higgins’ mother (Gladys Cooper) is disheartened by the notion her son intends to continue conducting his experiment on the girl. But Higgins is steadfast in his resolve, particularly after he realizes Eliza’s spontaneity at Ascot has captured young Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s impressionable heart. It could be such a lovely match for Eliza too; except she is disheartened by her own performance; moreover, begun to harbor uncharacteristic affections toward Higgins, despite his completely obliviousness toward her presence, outside of his own perceived Svengali-esque molding of her character. Pickering has also grown weary of their ‘experiment’, particularly as the Embassy Ball is fast approaching. The plan to debut Eliza at the ball as a distant relation, incurs Pickering’s anxiety; somewhat quelled after Eliza descends from her upstairs bedroom in an immaculate white-sequined gown, looking every inch the lady one might anticipate. But will this be enough to pull off the charade?
Even Higgins is not entirely certain, dashing into his study for a quick glass of port. At the ball, Eliza makes a formidable first impression on the courtiers, catching the eye of phonetics specialist, Zoltan Karpathy (Theodore Bikel) who has made it his stock in trade to bribe pretenders to the upper classes. Higgins is confident however; at least, enough to allow Karpathy a waltz with his protégée, especially after the gala’s guest of honor, the Queen of Transylvania (Baroness Rothschild) declares Eliza to be ‘quite charming’ and makes it known her son would like to share a dance. Pickering fears Eliza will be found out, but instead, Karpathy spreads the rumor Eliza’s English is so good it clearly indicates she must be of foreign extraction – possibly, Hungarian. Having fooled the world into believing the impossible, Higgins and Pickering retire to Higgin’s study to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
They completely ignore Eliza’s contribution, causing her to fly into an angry tirade, hurling Higgins’ slippers at his head before storming out of the house. Awakening the next morning to discover Eliza gone, Higgins hurries to his mother’s atelier to gain some insight into the feminine perspective. He is frankly shocked to discover Eliza already there; moreover, mildly perturbed to learn she has no intention of returning to play the part of his grunt in their experiment. Higgins is incensed, determined to let Eliza make the biggest mistake of her life by marrying Freddy. However, Eliza is not about to sacrifice herself upon the altar for any man. In the meantime, Alfred’s nonchalant lifestyle has been elevated with ‘a little bit of luck’ and Higgins’ own meddling; given into middle class morality and the respectability of a considerable stipend from Ezra Wallingford. Alfred must now assume his responsibilities to Eliza’s mother by making an honest woman of her. Returning to his Kensington home, Higgins mourns the loss of his pupil. He gradually realizes what Eliza has meant to him – far more than he could have ever imagined, ‘her highs, her lows, her ups, her downs’ second-nature to him now – ‘like breathing out and breathing in.’ While reminiscing alone in his study, listening to the gramophone recording of Eliza’s initial visit, Higgins is suddenly stirred to realize he is not alone. Eliza has come back to him. Or has she? Certain they can pick up where they left off, Higgins cocks his hat over his eyes, slumps into his favorite chair and declares, “Eliza…where are my slippers?”
On Broadway, My Fair Lady was exemplary stagecraft. On film, it evolves into an even more richly refined tapestry. The results of Jack Warner and Cukor’s best endeavors are irrefutably a class act, yet to be followed (although rumors abounded in 2008 of a remake in the works). Try as she might, Audrey Hepburn is every bit 'the lady' even when she makes a valiant play to be the uncouth flower girl. Yet, Hepburn's performance is far from flawed. In fact, she is so earnest in everything she does, it is easy to overlook this ‘shortcoming’ - also, being dubbed - and simply treasure her performance for the myriad of joys it provides. Rex Harrison is, of course, incomparable. His Higgins remains one of the all-time iconic and faultless bits of movie acting; his closest rival, likely Robert Preston’s incarnation of Prof. Harold Hill in 1962’s The Music Man. George Cukor's direction sustains the essential flavor of Lerner and Loewe’s stage hit. We never leave the soundstages at Warner Brothers and yet there is a distinct 'English feel' to the piece. Gene Allen's remarkable sets and Cecil Beaton's gorgeous costumes evoke the Edwardian period with artistry and aplomb. In the last analysis, My Fair Lady remains lush and masterful: a film-maker’s nightmare in the planning, but an absolute daydream in its execution. Here is the epitome of that bygone era in American movies when class could still out and the Hollywood artisans understood the strength of sentiment without veering into abject sentimentality.
Regrettably, the movie deal Jack Warner struck with CBS only afforded him film rights until the end of the decade. Perhaps, unable to perceive ‘resale value’ in any film property after its initial theatrical run, particularly in the era prior to ‘home video’ and ‘cable television’, all of the 70mm film stock on My Fair Lady was handed over to CBS in 1969, later to become a subsidiary of Fox, and even later, of Paramount Inc. There, it continued to languish, was allowed to deteriorate and fade almost beyond repair, until 1989 when restoration experts, Robert A. Harris and James Katz were called in to work their magic on these tired camera negatives. The photochemical fruits of their hard-earned labors were nothing short of a miracle then, the re-emergence of a very ‘fair lady’ given a limited theatrical reissue and a big build up on LaserDisc in 1994 under the old CBS/Fox Home Video banner. In 1994, digital film restoration was in its infancy and much of the technological wizardry brought to bear on My Fair Lady took place in the analog world with a grueling frame-by-frame inspection of approximately 700lbs of existing 65 and 70mm original camera negatives. Parceling off, the storage of these fragile elements some sent to vaults at Warner Bros., AMPAS and Pro-Tek; Harris and Katz quickly deducing the critical volatility of this treasure-find; the original negatives cut and edited in Techniscope; the original splices, literally falling apart and suffering from severe color fading and tears. Additionally, the four-track magnetic and six-track original stereophonic soundtracks had begun to get vinegary. With a then staggering cost of roughly $50 per frame, My Fair Lady’s remastering effort proved one of the most arduous and expensive. In the case of the audio, the final results would be a composite of carefully inspected elements corralled from third and fourth generation sources – hardly ideal – but nevertheless, given the utmost critical care.
Alas, Harris and his team quickly discovered other ominous signs My Fair Lady was on the brink of extinction. For starters, the archival 65mm separation masters made in 1964 were riddled with optical holes. Also, the original ‘floral’ prologue and main titles had been junked long ago. To restore this sequence, Harris turned to Imagica USA, a company on the cutting edge of digital and analog remastering. By the time My Fair Lady had its new premiere, Harris had spent nearly two years amassing, restoring and re-cutting the film’s original camera negative to create a new 65mm inter-positive as a protection element. Without the benefit of present-day digital alignment, the original separation masters could not be precisely recombined. Nevertheless, the results achieved by Harris and his experts then, were nothing short of a revelation. With the advent of Blu-ray one might have anticipated, My Fair Lady to be destined for even bigger and better things. Regrettably, CBS/Paramount’s first bite at the hi-def apple in 2008 proved anything but award-winning.
To quote Professor Higgins, and a goodly number of the picture’s ardent fans, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!’ Undaunted, CBS officially announced a new effort in the works; then, set an impossible date of 2014 to re-issue the Blu-ray and mark My Fair Lady’s 50th Anniversary. To the considerable outrage of most fans, the release was first pushed back; then, indefinitely suspended. Now, almost a year later, My Fair Lady: 50th Anniversary has resurfaced for its 51st milestone. The results are not only spectacular, but have been well worth the wait. Here is the lady as she always ought to have been, or rather likely, as she has never been before – not even on her opening night in 1964. Calling on virtually all the technological advantages gained in the last twenty-one years, with Robert Harris brought in once more as a consultant on this new restoration, My Fair Lady emerges in hi-def as a startling bird of paradise. Not only have the original ‘refurbished’ elements been given a ground-up new 8K scan conducted by Fotokem, but for this latest incarnation Audio Mechanics – a leader in audio remastering and engineering, has employed a delicate procedure to resuscitate My Fair Lady’s original six tracks sources, previously unavailable for consideration. Over 12,000,000 examples of dust, scratches, dirt and debris have been digitally removed for this latest clean-up; the visuals color-corrected in 2K, and registered for quality control in 4K. The results of this formidable team effort speak for themselves: the lady not only looks the part, she sounds utterly magnificent in a newly created 7.1 audio mix. So, prepare yourselves for a revelation. My Fair Lady has never looked or sounded this good before – arguably, not even when projected in its’ original 70mm format.
Even better still, CBS/Paramount has gone back to remaster a litany of extra features previously made available on both Warner Bros. long defunct 2-disc DVD and their own flubbed first Blu-ray release; in addition, adding a few tantalizing extras not seen in more than fifty years. Up-rezzing the vintage documentary, ‘More Loverly Than Ever’ to 1080i has truly given this comprehensive back story a new lease on life. Here is a superb ‘making of’ and ‘restoration’ featurette running just a little under an hour and hosted by the late Jeremy Brett, with meaningful reflections from surviving crew, critics, Robert Harris, and, of course, the many admirers of the film. We also get the original 1963 Kick-off Dinner in HD, featuring Jack Warner, Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, shortly before My Fair Lady went into production. Footage of the various celebrities arriving for the Los Angeles Premiere remains in fairly rough shape, but the British Premiere has been remastered in HD too. Ditto for Audrey Hepburn’s reinstated vocals for two of the movie’s songs, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ and ‘Show Me’. We also get audio excerpts of George Cukor directing Bina Rothschild, and, Rex Harrison’s radio interview. Alex Hyde-White, Wilfred’s son, serves as MC for a series of Production Tests featuring make-up tests performed on his father.
CBS/Paramount has taken the utmost care to preserve several fascinating featurettes in HD; these were produced at Warner Bros. to help promote the movie back in the fall of 1963 and include ‘Story of a Lady’, ‘Designs for a Lady’ and ‘The Fairest Fair Lady.’ Other intriguing tidbits to digest: Rex Harrison’s BFI Honor, his Golden Globe acceptance speech, and, highlights from the Academy Awards ceremonies. Finally, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original introduction recorded for the 1994 reissue is preserved herein, as are a series of step-through galleries showcasing Cecil Beaton’s costume sketches, B&W and color production stills and other sundry press and promotional materials. Last, but not least, we get virtually all of the various trailers used to promote the original theatrical engagement and its’ ’94 reissue, all of them in HD. Bottom line: My Fair Lady is a crown jewel among movie musicals. CBS/Paramount’s 50th Anniversary Blu-ray is a peerless example of the sort of quality treatment all movies deserve in hi-def, but far too few actually receive. This disc is an absolute must have, reference-quality collector’s dream to be treasured by anyone who loves movies as much as I do, and, very likely for many generations yet to come. Now isn’t that ‘loverly’?
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)