My Fair Lady
(United States, 1964)
Since I first saw it more than a decade ago, My Fair Lady has been my favorite musical. That probably places me in a distinct minority, since many critics consider it to be a good – but not great – motion picture. (The critical weight for Best All-Time Musical comes down on the side of Singin' in the Rain, which is also a distinguished member of my Top 100, although it does not occupy as lofty a position.) There's nothing about this movie that I don't like. The songs are wonderful, the costumes are imaginative, and the two leads are without peer. Watching My Fair Lady for the first time all those years ago, I finally saw the Audrey Hepburn star quality that had eluded me while viewing some of her other films (including the overrated Breakfast at Tiffany's). It helps that I have always been a sucker for Pygmalion, regardless of the version. My Fair Lady is a timeless romance, yet one that does not feature sex, kissing, or much in the way of physical contact. If ever there was a case of movie characters falling in love with their eyes, their mannerisms, and their verbal jousting, this is it. The pace is far less frantic than that of this decade's "musical revivals," but, for true lovers of the genre, the tone and length couldn't be more perfect. Like a crackling fire on cold winter's night, My Fair Lady brings light, warmth, and a touch of romance. What more could anyone ask of one of Hollywood's greatest all-time musicals?
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The basic storyline concerns Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), a poor Cockney from Covent Garden who is transformed into a lady under the tutelage of Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). When he first encounters her, an unwashed girl with a grating voice selling flowers, he forms an opinion: "A woman who utters such disgusting and depressing noises has... no right to live. Remember that you're a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech. Don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon." His conviction has not changed when, the next morning, she shows up at his house, asking him to teach her how to speak properly and be a lady. Although at first reluctant, Higgins, intrigued by the challenge of re-making a woman, agrees. "Eliza," he informs her, "You are to stay here for the next six months learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist's shop. At the end of six months you will be taken to an embassy ball in a carriage, beautifully dressed. If the king finds out you are not a lady, you will be taken to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls! If you are not found out, you shall be given a present of six and seven to start life with in a lady's shop. If you refuse this offer, you will be the most ungrateful, wicked girl, and the angels will weep for you." Higgins is ruthless in pushing Eliza. In addition to cleaning her up, teaching her how to behave in society, and instructing her about what to wear, he completely re-shapes her language skills. By depriving her of sleep and forcing her to repeat phrases like "The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain," he hopes to rid her of her ghastly accent. "Think what you're trying to accomplish," he tells her. "Think what you're dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it's the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds. And that's what you've set yourself out to conquer Eliza. And conquer it you will."
It could easily be argued that My Fair Lady is one of the richest and most intelligent romantic comedies ever produced. The dialogue, adapted by Alan Jay Lerner from George Bernard Shaw's material, is brilliant: a perfect amalgamation of well-honed wit and barbed satire. The verbal jousting between Eliza and Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison) is a delight, as is that between the various other characters. Not only does My Fair Lady feature an involving story with compelling characters, but there's not a dud to be found on the roster of more than a dozen songs, the best-known of which, "I Could Have Danced All Night," is familiar to almost everyone (even those who haven't seen the movie). Few genres of films are as magical as musicals, and few musicals are as intelligent and lively as My Fair Lady. It's a classic not because a group of stuffy film experts have labeled it as such, but because it has been, and always will be, a pure joy to experience. It's also one of a very few 3-hour films (actual length, 2:50) that justifies the seemingly long running time. Rarely have so many minutes in a theater been passed this enjoyably.
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