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.
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.
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.
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.