My Fair Lady (1964) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

My Fair Lady (1964)

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My Fair Lady is, admirably, the shortest three hour film I've ever seen. The ebb and flow of the both gentle and rousing musical numbers is spot on, and I can't think of a time where I'd seen a film paced so damn well.

The most expensive movie ever made when it was shot ($17 million! Those were the days!), My Fair Lady is an exacting translation of the Broadway musical which was Noel Coward's play of Pygmalion with a few songs to tidy up the proceedings. Oh, and the ending was futzed with a bit too-- no one puts that much money into a downer, at least not in 1964.

Pygmalion, if I'm really stretching out a plot synopsis here, is the story of a man who takes a lower class woman and elevates her by way of teaching her proper pronunciation and manners. The only problem is that he's a mechanical clod and can't express his feelings, and she's all to eager to do so. In Pygmalion, these two people are driven apart by their inability to communicate (even though they both now speak perfect English-- irony!), and in My Fair Lady, uh, that doesn't really happen.

Spoiler alert.

Rex Harrison runs off with this picture in a fevered glee.

My Fair Lady is not a stylish or energetic musical in the tradition of Busby Berkeley or even Rogers and Astaire, but one that relies less on dance than the foibles and peculiarities of the English language for its audible delights.

This is Audrey Hepburn's second musical, and, perhaps a bit tellingly, her singing voice has been dubbed over. It's fairly obvious-- Hepburn has some fairly distinct mannerisms, after all-- and just another layer of artifice that is hung upon the proceedings.

It's an irony on some level that Harrison can't sing either. Not a lick! He sing talks his entire part. But since the part was written for him to sing talk, he can get away with it. In fact, his character is such a robotic and unfeeling bastard (a pre-Mr. Spock for the ladies to fawn for) that his lack of true singing ability fits his character perfectly. For All of his love of the language, for all of his derived pleasures from the sounds it can create, he can't shift them an octave in either direction. That is simply beyond him.

Regardless, Rex Harrison grabs this picture with both hands and drags the movie along with it. But now is it cruel to say that Hepburn overacts her cockney character? I don't really believe there is anyone who has lived who is as cockney as she is at the start of the film. Additionally, I've seen her in a few dozen pictures now and she's rarely been so tone deaf before with a character: Eliza Doolittle, while hilarious, rarely seems as real. I suppose she's as much a caricature as Harrison's Professor Higgins, but Hepburn just doesn't modulate as well.

There sure are some fun outfits in this film.

Stanley Holloway plays Hepburn's drunken and disreputable father who's willing to sell Eliza off for a fiver to blow on some gin. One amusing note: Hepburn and Holloway were actually in two movies prior to this, The Lavender Hill Mob and One Wild Oat, though they shared no scenes in either.

There's one other thing I really liked about this film, and I touched upon it before: besides the story being about miscommunication, it's also about the artificiality of British society, a world where the proper manners and speaking rhythms are more useful than all the wealth or power there is. This illustration of the falseness of the British class distinctions is underlined by the set design for the film, which is shot entirely on a soundstage and really, really looking it. This isn't real London, but fake London, which fits all of its characters like a glove.

There are downsides. A few songs stink and Hepburn plays the film too broadly at the top, but it gets better and better as it goes. I hadn't seen this film in probably fifteen years before I sat down to write this review, and I am, at the very least, pleasantly and exuberantly surprised.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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Posted by Danny

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