A recurring image in George Cukor’s 1964 film version of the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady shows a crowd of splendidly dressed aristocrats in procession. The camera lingers on them en masse, exiting the opera, moving toward the race track, arriving at a ball. They are decoration; the film is not particularly interested in them. In fact, the whole point of the story is that anyone can fake an upper-class pedigree with the right coaching. But the camera’s fascination with opulent fashion says a lot about the attitude this film embodies, an attitude that’s representative of Old Hollywood and by extension America. We’ll take the benefits of wealth and status when we can get them, thank you very much. But our hearts are with ordinary folks. We speak for the little guy. Charitably, this is a paradox; uncharitably, it’s cant.
So here’s My Fair Lady, a movie I’ve loved most of my life. As with all things when one is a child, I didn’t necessarily have reasons for picking this musical at the expense of others; it was simply a positive choice. Over the years, the reasons accumulated. Today, I probably have as many reasons to love this movie as I ever will. However, in choosing this movie as one of my all-time favorites I find myself taking an attitude very similar to the one I just described. My heart is (or ought to be) with the movie brats of the New Hollywood who put an end to the old studio system with its musty filmmaking and social irrelevance. Isn’t this film, in retrospect, nothing more than a stodgy transliteration of an excellent stage musical? A musical based on an earlier play, itself based on a Greek myth — isn’t the film a copy two or three times removed from inspiration? Perhaps, but it’s also very, very pretty. Nothing more was needed from an old pro like Cukor than the ability to faithfully reproduce what made the play so special. If there was nothing more to this film than a hint of what attending the musical in its first run would have been like, that would still be something. But I think there’s at least a little more to it.
The first, most obvious thing that sets the film version apart from the original is generally considered a debit in the film’s column. Warner Bros. saw Audrey Hepburn as a safer box office bet than the original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews. Andrews would have almost certainly been better in the role — there are times when Hepburn’s approximation of a Cockney accent is rather grating, and of course her singing was dubbed by the prolific ghost-singer Marni Nixon. On the other hand, My Fair Lady was the perfect vehicle for Hepburn’s grace and style. One thing the Old Hollywood knew how to do well was worship its stars, and this film is one of the last great examples of that. But here I must confess something: I’ve always found Hepburn more fetching in Flower Girl Mode than Hungarian Princess Mode. This isn’t quite an “Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club” situation — Hepburn is still Hepburn. I do think the movie is on my side, though. It’s no coincidence that the most satisfying moment of the film’s second half comes when Eliza regresses at Ascot, or that the most heartbreaking moment comes when she returns to Covent Garden and no one recognizes her. Her position then — caught between two worlds, not fitting in anywhere — has always resonated with me. It elevates the film above all the romantic comedies that follow in which a gorgeous actress plays an ugly duckling who requires outside assistance to turn into a swan.
The one thing the film could do that the play couldn’t, besides pulling in the camera for close-ups, was cut up its images into interesting patterns. Two musical sequences stand out. The first is the aforementioned “Ascot Gavotte,” in which William Ziegler’s editing coincides with the phrases of the song. Each resulting tableau presents different faces, all equally blasé despite the singers’ protests to the contrary. It’s a hilarious parody of aristocratic formality. The second song is “Get Me to the Church on Time,” in which the elliptical editing carries us through the wonderful experience of Eliza’s father Alfred’s pre-wedding bender. Match cuts repeat the same action in two different places and times, culminating in an explosion of Technicolor. Alfred (played, as on the stage, by Stanley Holloway) enlivens the film through the force of his personality alone, so this sequence is a definite highlight.
That’s all I’ve got. Everything else that’s great about the movie can be replicated on the stage. The story, which bangs the drum for education and the English language even while it lampoons intellectual arrogance, is a constant delight. The May-December romance is a bit icky, but there’s enough ambiguity in the relationship between Eliza and Professor Higgins (played, as on the stage, by Rex Harrison) to cover up that problem. Sure, there are a few casual jokes about sexual slavery. On the other hand, by the end of the film Eliza has become a living rebuke to the professor’s cheerfully obtuse misogyny. A character like Henry Higgins is much more palatable when he can express himself through song, and the songs of My Fair Lady are all excellent, with character-driven lyrics and soaring melodies. Simply put, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” “Show Me,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are some of my favorite songs ever. Freddy Eynsford-Hill may be a total dork, but “On the Street Where You Live” is almost enough to convince me that Eliza should marry him. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe are the true creative force behind the film.
Time hasn’t been too kind to the “roadshow” musicals of the 1960s. In some ways, they were the ultimate achievement of the studio system, earning record-breaking profits and winning a lot of Oscars. But you don’t get to the World Series on home runs alone, and by the end of the decade both the studio system and the musical genre were effectively dead. So it’s easy to see a film like My Fair Lady as a final act of hubris by the old guard. I love it anyway. Still, Hollywood produced better musicals in its heyday. Given the choice between “Moses Supposes,” with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s lightning synchronicity, and “The Rain in Spain,” with Wilfrid Hyde-White bopping about like an idiot, I don’t have to think very long.