Christmas? Oh, come to think of it, there are a few movies that I associate particularly with Christmas. There was a time in my salad days when, after having watched it a couple of years in a row, I associated The Sound of Music with Christmas, since Danish television would show it every year without fail. A few years ago, after not having seen it for a long time, I felt it was time to take it on again, but, y’know, I couldn’t do it. After ten minutes or so, the saccharine overload forced me to turn it off. Yech!
Another movie I came to associate with Christmas many years ago is My Fair Lady. My family used to catch it on TV many a time, and it was always a success. Back around high school, I had the soundtrack and always liked it. Admittedly, I haven’t watched the movie much these past fifteen years or so. About five years ago I did acquire it on DVD, however, and have occasionally reminded myself ever since to see it again. As luck would have it, since last I saw it I have become rather more familiar with classic literature in general, not excluding the plays of George Bernard Shaw. It is of course common knowledge that My Fair Lady is based on Shaw’s supremely witty stage play “Pygmalion”, but I was not quite aware just how closely the movie followed the play. So when I finally decided to watch My Fair Lady again this Christmas, I first saw a proper version of Pygmalion, namely the rather excellent 1973 “BBC Play of the Month” version starring Lynn Redgrave (which at the time of this writing is only out on a Region 1 DVD) and also checked out the original text of the play online.
Thereafter having the exquisite pleasure of watching My Fair Lady again in all its splendor, I now know that it actually is a proper version of Shaw’s most popular play, with only minor alterations and some musical interludes added. Very much of Shaw’s dialogue is retained, with some of the cuts making reappearances in altered forms. Several of the songs are so good that they might have been written by Shaw himself, amounting to rephrasings of his lines. There are even a good handful of additional scenes inserted to bridge minor gaps in the plot, providing a more wholesome narrative (such as how Eliza’s father gets wind of her situation, and why Higgins makes the “silly joke” in the letter to the American millionaire). A few scenes have been shuffled around or compacted together, but it is no more than the minor cuts and bruises that are made more often than not in such cases. The one serious casualty of the original play, who is only a distant echo of herself in My Fair Lady, is Higgins’ mother. She’s close to a non-descript character in the movie, whiles in the original play she is a strong-willed and sardonic mother whose influence upon the person her son has become is very clear. Higgins is something of a mamma’s boy, and she is the only one who really knows how to handle him.
I am generally not much for musicals, but on a few rare occasions they really do work resplendently well. How do you improve on what may be the greatest play ever written by someone who isn’t Shakespeare? Why, you add a string of brilliantly melodious and brilliantly funny songs, performed with every imaginable range of gusto and cuteness. You also pick some seminal actors (British, of course), and inspire them to do career-defining work. This is just what George Cukor and his producers did, and they managed to transfer “the perfect musical” from stage to screen without missing a beat.
The story is as outrageous as it is charming. A couple of linguistics professors take it upon themselves to rescue a barbarously tongued lower-class flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, from the streets and make her their project. She in fact becomes the subject of a wager (yes, Trading Places owes quite a debt to Pygmalion!). They will cultivate her speech over the course of six months, and then present her to high society to see if she can fool everyone into believing that she has always belonged to the cultured and monied classes. So they begin by inculcating her with the correct vowel sounds, drilling her like a soldier, somewhat to Eliza’s dismay. Our male protagonist, Henry Higgins, is an avowed bachelor who couldn’t care less about polite manners and who associate women mainly with annoyance, while the older Colonel Pickering is something of his opposite, attentive and gentlemanly. They each pour their separate brands of expertise into young Eliza, who one night suddenly sees the light and discovers that she can speak like a lady: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”! Not “the rine in Spine styes minely in the pline”! So they take her to Ascot, where she meets Freddy (the wealthy son of a friend of Higgins’ mother’s), who becomes instantly infatuated with how well she practises “the new small-talk”, and pursues and courts her for the remainder of the movie. The climax, however, is when Eliza is presented at an embassy ball, and fools absolutely everybody. Higgins wins the wager, but unforgivably neglects to praise Eliza’s own part in the accomplishment. They then undergo a series of arguments, clarifying that even though Higgins treats everyone in the same rude manner and cannot change, both of them have also become so accustomed to each other that they cannot but remain friends. Shaw goes out of his way, however, to show that Higgins and Eliza will not marry each other – he even explains it in a “sequel” essay appended to his original play – and the obvious implication is that Eliza ends up marrying her devoted Freddy (played and sung very well by Jeremy Brett, whose brilliant accomplishments as Sherlock Holmes have earned him to right to be fussed over in any other role as well).
In comparison with the original play, written in 1912, the 1964 movie version seems at once more modern and more old-fashioned. Many of the more biting remarks about class differences have been removed in My Fair Lady (too much for American audiences?) and a further number of strong social jabs fall rather flat because of a dullish delivery, making up a production which is rather more bourgeois in its orientation than Shavian. Higgins is not quite as eccentric here as Shaw paints him in the play; Rex Harrison’s portrayal of him is loud and nonchalant, but ultimately rather too jovial. But it doesn’t matter, because Harrison’s charisma is scraping the stratosphere and he makes the role his own in a way that I wouldn’t want to change in the least. The movie comprises so deliciously theatrical and winning a production that I can find nothing of any import to hold against it, and I shouldn’t be surprised if Shaw himself would have felt the same way. My Fair Lady is the rare celluloid musical that doles out delight and regales us with radiant joy over the zestful acting, the uproarious lines, the gleefully joyous songs and the most beauteous production values that cinema can offer.
Now, that, fair ladies and gentlemen, is entertainment.
The DVD I have is the restored 2-disc Special Edition, marvelously crisp, and containing a wealth of extras on the second disc (commentaries on the first), incl. clips of Eliza’s songs sung by Hepburn herself. I have a hard time imagining how it could possibly be any better.
Director: Georger Cukor
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Jeremy Brett, Stanley Holloway
Runtime: 166 min