My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964)

Audrey Hepburn

My Fair Lady has one of the greatest scores of any musical, by Lerner and Loewe, with many songs which have become standards, such as With a Little Bit of Luck, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and On the Street Where You Live. It is also one of the most gorgeous musicals to look at, making full use of Super Panavision, with its dazzling Cecil Beaton costumes and colourful sets. It wasn’t filmed on location in London, but Covent Garden flower market and the dingy back streets look convincing enough to me, while scenes like the Embassy ball and Ascot have all the visual flamboyance you’d expect from director George Cukor, aided by art director Gene Allen. Yet this celebrated film was allowed to deteriorate into a sorry state and needed full-scale restoration by the mid-1990s. The DVD I have, part of an Audrey Hepburn box set, features the restored print, looking great, plus several special features – and there are also a couple of different two-disc special editions available, as well as a region 1 Blu-ray. But what I’d really like would be to see this on the big screen some day.

This was one of the first musicals that I came to love, as a child of the 1960s. But the version I knew back then was the soundtrack of the Broadway show, starring Julie Andrews as Shaw’s Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whose life is transformed when eccentric phonetics expert Henry Higgins decides to teach her to speak “like a lady”. My mother had a copy of the LP which someone had brought back for her from America (it wasn’t allowed to be sold in the UK at that time, presumably for copyright reasons), and we listened to it endlessly. So when I hear anyone else singing those songs, I still always have Julie’s voice in the back of my head somewhere.

Over the years I’ve seen several stage productions , including the 1979 West End revival, which I remember as a magnificent spectacle. But it took a while for the movie version to grow on me, mainly because of the big problem which everyone brings up as soon as this film is mentioned – the casting of the heroine. Julie Andrews was hoping to reprise her Broadway role along with leading men Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, but, instead, Audrey Hepburn was brought in and her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also provided Deborah Kerr’s vocals in The King and I and Natalie Wood’s in West Side Story. I think in Britain in particular there was a feeling that Andrews had been robbed and had her part given to a Hollywood star. (She soon hit back with Mary Poppins.) Reportedly, Rex Harrison nearly lost the part of Higgins too – producer Jack Warner was keen to cast Cary Grant, which would have been an odd choice given Grant’s erratic accent! Grant famously replied to Warner: “Not only will I not play in it, but if Rex Harrison doesn’t do it, I won’t even go to see it.”

However, it really isn’t fair to hold it against Audrey Hepburn that she was cast instead of Andrews – and her fine acting performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Cukor tended to be known as a “woman’s director” from the 1930s onwards, a label he himself resented, but in this film it is certainly true that he puts Hepburn in centre stage and allows her personality to shine through. She brings a wistful quality to Eliza in those opening scenes which is all her own, and also convincingly portrays her growing, sometimes mischievous self-confidence through the later scenes. Hepburn had already played a similar role in another Pygmalion story, Funny Face, and has the same kind of poignancy in this part, with the flower imagery running all through the film, from those shots of flowers during the overture onwards, to show how she cautiously starts to blossom. And her waifish beauty sets off the Cecil Beaton gowns to perfection.

The big difference between My Fair Lady and the earlier film is that Hepburn was allowed to do her own singing in Funny Face – and, listening to her fragile but charming performance of Gershwin’s How Long Has This Been Going On, you do feel that she could have managed Lerner and Loewe’s songs too, especially if the key had been slightly lowered to suit her voice. According to Donald Spoto’s biography, Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, she had been told that her own singing voice would be used in the film except for occasional high notes, and was devastated when in the end almost all the songs were dubbed, with her own voice only being used for part of Just You Wait. There are painstakingly re-created videos on Youtube which restore her own vocals for four songs, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, Without You, I Could Have Danced All Night and the whole of Just You Wait – and, while her voice may be less polished than Nixon’s, it does express the emotions of the songs beautifully and fits in well with Rex Harrison’s dry, half-speaking style.

Having said all this, Nixon does give a fine performance of the songs herself, similar to that of Andrews on Broadway, with every high note sounding perfect – and, after being overlooked for so many years, it is good that she has now received some recognition for her many contributions to some of the greatest movie musicals. I’ve seen an interview with Nixon where she argues that she should be regarded in the same light as a stuntman, and nobody should worry about who it is singing, but just about the film. “As Shakespeare says, the play’s the thing,” she comments.

So what about the play? Shaw’s Pygmalion was a smash hit on stage in its own right, and is still frequently revived to brilliant effect. Shaw didn’t want to see his play turned into a musical and insisted that it had its “own verbal music”. I am an admirer of the play and have seen it performed several times, and to me, anyway, My Fair Lady in the main stays true to that verbal music. It keeps a lot of Shaw’s own dialogue and strongly satiric flavour, and shows the extent of the class divide in Britain at that time. Maybe the portrayal of Eliza’s drunken father, Alfred Doolittle, is somewhat softened through the great comic songs performed by Stanley Holloway, such as I’m Getting Married In the Morning – but this is still a man who is prepared to sell his daughter to a stranger for £5.

Ascot Gavotte

I don’t really think the character of Higgins is softened at all between Shaw’s play and Lerner’s screenplay – he is still just as fiercely irascible and determined to win every argument, and the patter songs, reportedly written with Harrison’s instantly recognisable voice in mind, are full of brilliant but often cruel wit. I do think Harrison and Hepburn make a rather strange couple on film, with the 21-year age gap between them – plus the fact that he doesn’t really look like a movie leading man. Hepburn and Jeremy Brett, playing the lovelorn Freddy Eynsford-Hill, make a much more glamorous couple. (Brett’s singing voice was dubbed too, but nobody worried about that!) You can understand why Jack Warner was tempted to replace Harrison simply on the basis of his age and looks.

But, of course, Higgins and Eliza are meant to be an odd couple – and the way they are dressed through much of the film, with Eliza in her beautiful gowns and Higgins in his old jacket, certainly accentuates that. The film really brings out the fact that, although Higgins thinks he can train Eliza to pass in “society”, he himself is just as out of place there as she is – his mother is horrified when he turns up at Ascot because he is wearing the wrong clothes, and he offends all her friends every time he opens his mouth. I’ve seen the film described as a “misogynist’s dream”. It is certainly true that Higgins has many hurtful lines and indeed two whole songs sneering at women – I’m an Ordinary Man and A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?). But I’d say the saving grace here is that both these songs rebound and really end up satirising Higgins rather than women – he is clearly anything but an “ordinary man” who never flies into a rage, and devoted friend Colonel Pickering (Hyde-White) constantly has the task of calming him down.

Jeremy Brett as Freddy

Nevertheless, it’s a strange thing that in a film usually regarded as a romance so many of the songs are about hate rather than love. Even Higgins’ only love song, I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, is full of angry imaginings about how he’d like to see Eliza suffer for leaving him – and she in turn imagines a dire fate for him in Just You Wait, before triumphantly and sarcastically vowing her independence in Without You.

I do find the happy ending, adapted from one reluctantly written by Shaw himself for the 1938 film of Pygmalion, rather hard to take – why would Eliza go back to Henry so soon after vowing that she will never do so? Shaw’s original ending with Eliza planning to marry Freddy is more believable, if less romantic. Instead, she comes back as Higgins is listening to his recording of her voice – and, rather than embracing her, he coolly asks where his slippers are. Behind the infuriating chauvinism, in effect Higgins is inviting Eliza to throw the slippers at him again, as she did earlier. You get the feeling that any married life for this couple will be extremely lively, to say the least.

This review originally appeared as part of the Musical Countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website.

Stanley Holloway as Alfred Doolittle

PS… As an extra treat, as well as the links to Audrey Hepburn’s vocal takes in my main piece, here is a Youtube video featuring Julie Andrews’ version of I Could Have Danced All Night, accompanied by stills taken from her performance on Broadway.

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10 thoughts on “My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964)

  1. John Greco

    Okay, my big confession! I have not seen this film. Believe it or not I have recorded it on my DVR twice and deleted it twice due to lack of space before watching it. One reason I have fought watching it may have to do with the fact how much I love the Leslie Howard film PYMALION (I agree about the ending) and fear this film will not match up. I have heard the original Broadway Cast Album multiple times and the music, and Andrews, are exquisite. Just about everyone from our generation knows many of these songs.
    I like Nixon’s comments about “nobody should worry about who it is singing, but just about the film. “As Shakespeare says, the play’s the thing. So true, the final results and how smoothly and seemlessly it is accomplished is what is important.

    Fantastic review, really enjoyed it.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, John! There are plenty of films I’ve recorded and then deleted unseen as time and space ran out, so I can sympathise – but as you will have gathered I am a big fan of this one. The combination of Shaw’s witty dialogue with elements of costume drama and musical is irresistible for me. I have seen the 1938 film but quite a long time ago – I’m not a big fan of Leslie Howard, but should really give it another try before too long.

  2. ellenandjim

    Lots of qualifications within qualifications, Judy. It’s revealing that the film-makers could not find anyone to substitute for Stanley Holloway — or they might have tried. Rex Harrison was irreplaceable too — so I felt. I’m listening to Julie Andrews (your last YouTube) — I like the original play and this musical very much — all the while agreeing the ending doesn’t make sense — the musical reverses explicit and underlying themes of the play. I’ve not seen the film either — probably because at the time I had listened so often to the Broadway cast album (which I now own in a CD form). I’ve not seen many Audrey Hepburn films either but one I did, Robin and Marion with Sean Connery about the famous couple grown old I did love. Perhaps one could make the same kinds of discourse about the film of the great musical, _West Side Story_ where the “wise” film-makers also substituted different people who were then not allowed to do their own singing. A disjointed indirect reply … .

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Ellen, somehow it had never struck me that, of course, the Broadway cast album would be available on CD! I will get a copy and enjoy hearing it all again. I do recommend the film but love the stage musical just as much, or even more. Although I forgot to mention this in my review, I have read somewhere that Jack Warner did actually want to replace Stanley Holloway with James Cagney, which would be a very strange thought – much as I love Cagney, I really don’t see him in this role and can’t imagine him doing a Cockney accent. He refused to come out of retirement for it, anyway, and Stanley Holloway was able to reprise his stage role.

      I do agree with you that Robin and Marian is a wonderful film, very poignant and one I’d like to see again. And yes, I agree there were similar problems with the casting of ‘West Side Story’, though I do love the film despite that. Thank you very much for your comment.

  3. Sam Juliano

    Oh I well remember this review Judy (ha!) and had voiced quite a bit of agreement. Yes, Hepburn is often unfairly maligned because of all the hoopla around Jack Warner passing over Julie Andrews (who got the last word when she won the Oscar that same year for MARY POPPINS). The dubbing of her voice of course will always get disparagement, much as some of the dubbing in WEST SIDE STORY. But Marni Nixon has a beautiful voice, and one should look for this kind of authenticity with the fantastical essence of the form methinks. MY FAIR LADY (bluntly referred to my site site colleague and friend Allan Fish as MY UGLY LADY) is a delightful musical that takes full advantage of a ravishing Lerner & Loewe score (I believe it’s their best) spirited performances (again I had no problem with Harrison as so others do) and the visual eye candy generated by the art direction and costume design. That’s a GREAT point you make about so many of the songs being about “hate” rather than love in a this defining romantic film. I will definitely hed over to listen to Hepburn’s voice in some of my favorite songs Judy!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      This is probably my favourite score of Lerner and Lowe’s too, Sam, though their songs in ‘Gigi’ are fantastic too, of course. I do think it is a shame that the dubbing issue seems to overshadow this film so much, although many other actors were also dubbed in a host of musicals, but I suppose it really was inevitable given the row over the snubbing of Andrews. Hope you enjoy hearing Hepburn’s take on the songs – her voice isn’t all that strong but her personality does come across and I especially like her version of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ (though Andrews will always be my favourite in all of these songs.) Thank you very much, Sam!

  4. Grand Old Movies

    I actually saw this film as a kid shortly after it came out, and its color, costumes, and music made a vivid impression on me; I recall mouthing to the songs when listening to the cast recording. I suppose Julie Andrews wasn’t cast in the film because she was at the time relatively unknown to movie audiences, though the controversy that raged around the choice certainly changed that. Harrison played the role of Higgins in stage revivals well past his 60s! (If he looks too old in the film, goodness knows what he must have looked like later on.) Jeremy Brett, who seems so callow and gauche in this film, went on to play one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes ever – I think he would have been an interesting Henry Higgins later in his career, if he had ever decided to do that part; he had the right acid touch by then. Thanks for such a terrific, thought-provoking post.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      G.O.M., it must have been great to see this at the cinema on release, and I’m sure it would have made a strong impression. I hadn’t realised Harrison went on playing the role for so long, but have to suspect he could get away with his age better on stage since he wouldn’t be seen in close-up – the screen is much more unforgiving in that regard. Brett is almost unrecognisable in this as the same actor who played Holmes so brilliantly, isn’t he? I like your idea that he would have made an interesting Higgins – Jeremy Irons did have a try in a recording of the score, but never actually played the character on film. A digression… there have been reports of a film remake coming up next year with Carey Mulligan and Colin Firth, which sounds like fascinating casting though I don’t know what either of them is like as a singer – Firth didn’t sing in ‘Mamma Mia’ as far as I recall! Thanks very much for the nice comment.

  5. Danny

    Interesting comments! I’ve recently been reacquainted with the movie when I watched through all of Hepburn’s movies, and was taken about with how much fun this one is. The London here is stylized to a remarkable degree, with the day at the races attaining some sort of heightened sterility that’s remarkable to watch. I’m okay with the ending, personality– nothing like a wry smile– but I can see why it would put people off, and I’ve even heard people absolutely infuriated about it. But I’ll be darned if this isn’t the fastest 3-hour film out there.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      That’s an interesting observation about London being stylised, both the high society and the working-class scenes – and I also agree that the film goes very quickly considering its running length. There are still quite a few Audrey Hepburn movies I need to see, so am interested to hear that you recently watched all of them – I do like her a lot and hope to do the same in time. Thanks very much, Danny!

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