This posting is my contribution to the Funny Lady blogathon being organised by the Movies, Silently blog. Please do visit and read the postings on a host of actresses from different eras.
If there’s a film moment that sums up Margaret Rutherford’s screen personality, it is probably the opening glimpse of her in David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s great comic play, Blithe Spirit. She is seen on her bicycle, doggedly riding up a hill as her cape billows out around her. Somehow the image is both hilarious and poignant, and it gives the essence of the character she plays in this movie, one she originally created on stage, eccentric medium Madame Arcati.
Rutherford does not get top billing in this film and isn’t given all that much screen time, even though she makes such a vivid impression. The star with his name above the title is Rex Harrison, who plays Charles Condomine, a crime author looking for a sensational new story idea. He invites the village mystic to his cosy Home Counties cottage, assuming that when she organises a séance the whole thing will be a con trick, and provide him with a generous helping of material.
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.