24 January 2015

My Fair Lady (1964)

Directed by: GeorgeCukor
Music: Frederick Loewe
Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison,
Wilfrid Hyde-White, Stanley Holloway,
 Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, 
Christopher Hewett
I watched this film in Lido (or was it Rex?) in Bangalore, on the eve of my Maths board exams. My mother was appalled. My father, who had bought the tickets for the re-run of this film, was of the opinion that if I hadn't learnt any Maths during the year, I certainly wasn't going to make up for it in the few hours before the examination. Besides, the film wasn't going to be playing a week later. We watched the film, my father and I. (And I scored 97% in my Boards, thereby taking away from my mother the pleasure of saying 'I told you so'.)

My Fair Lady is one of those films that are satisfyingly complete. When Hollywood does a musical well, they do it very well indeed. Of course, it helps that the source material is George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and that it was adapted into a very successful Broadway nearly eight years earlier. With Rex Harrison reprising his role from stage, and Audrey Hepburn stepping in for Julie Andrews, this was a film which had excellent dialogue (adapted from the original by Alan Lerner), wonderful songs, and leads who could, and did, spar wittily and intelligently, adding their own sparkle to Shaw's/Lerner's pithy dialogues.

Most of you must, like me, know the story like the back of their hands. But if you have not watched this for some time, here is a refresher. 
My Fair Lady opens on a rainy night in London, specifically Covent Garden, where patrons of the opera are huddling under the arches while they wait for cabs or their own motor cars. Soon, there are sounds of altercation. A young cockney girl, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), is trying to sell her pitiful little posies of violets, when her basket is knocked down by an impetuous young man rushing to catch a cab for his mother. She is soothed by an older gentleman who buys a posy from her, but is soon angry again - a costermonger points out that a gentleman has been copying down every word she has uttered so far.
The gentleman, however, is unabashed. He teaches phonetics, he tells the crowd, and he can identify a person's origins from by their accent. He even demonstrates his expertise. 
He turns to the older gentleman and rues the fact that people are condemned to their positions in life because of their accents. In fact, he boasts to the older gentleman, "You see this creature with her curbstone English? The English that will keep her in the gutter till the end of her days? Well, sir, in six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. I could even get her a job as a lady's maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English." Eliza's ears perk up.
Meanwhile, the older gentleman and the boastful phoneticist have introduced themselves to each other. The former is Colonel Pickering (William Hyde-White), a linguist who studies Indian dialects and the latter is Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), whose pet hobby is the Higgins Universal Alphabet. They have much to discuss with each other, and Higgins invites the Colonel to stay with him in London. Eliza, who has been listening to them with great interest, has much to ponder over. As they leave, she dreams of what it would be like to work be rich, and live a more comfortable life.
The next morning, at Professor Higgins', Colonel Pickering and Higgins are animatedly discussing vowels when Mrs Pearce (Philippa Bevans) comes in disapprovingly - there is a young woman to see him, and she has the most ghastly accent. Higgins is not interested, but Eliza pushes her way in. He said he could make her a shop girl and that is exactly what she has come for: "I want to be a lady in a flower shop instead of sellin' at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won't take me unless I can talk more genteel." When Higgins still demurs, she tells him "I know what lessons cost as well as you do, and I'm ready to pay." Colonel Pickering is amused. He is so sure that Higgins cannot make good his boast of turning a flower girl into a duchess at the embassy ball that offers to pay for Eliza's lessons himself. 
And so, Higgins takes her on...

Meanwhile, Eliza's father, a no-good dustman named Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), is finding out (yet again) that one needs money to pay for one's little luxuries. But he is nonchalant. With a little bit of luck, he is sure, he will get along just fine. And sure enough, he finds out that Eliza has left her room and 'moved in with a swell'. The canny man decides there is a bit of money to be made out of the situation. He presents himself at Wimpole Street, filled with moral outrage - Professor Higgins is compromising his daughter's virtue (and he wasn't gaining from it). 

Though amused by the man's bluster and his colourful accent, Higgins is not the man to fleece. He cordially offers to let Eliza go with her father. But that is not what Doolittle wants. He strikes a bargain: if the professor would give him £5, then he would 'allow' Eliza to live there and take lessons. (And he knows the professor's intentions are entirely honourable, he says; if he thought they weren't, he would have asked for £50.) Taken aback, yet amused at the man's  total lack of morals, Higgins agrees. 

After some initial hiccoughs (much to her disgust, she is forcibly bathed, and her old clothes are burnt), Eliza's lessons have begun the day she arrived.
And then begins hours and hours of (to her) torture... repeating her alphabets, and then as she 'improves', saying 'In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen' and 'The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.' Unfortunately, she keeps dropping her Hs. Hours, days, go by and a frustrated Eliza even dreams of ways in which she can kill Higgins for the torture he is putting her through. 
Colonel Pickering feels sorry for her, but Higgins is adamant. By God, she will learn to speak properly! 

But even he is ready to give up after a long day; just as he admits failure, however, Eliza suddenly speaks with perfect enunciation. Professor Higgins has won the wager, but Pickering is equally delighted. It's a triumph! Eliza is delirious with happiness. Mrs Pearce, hearing the hullabaloo, comes scurrying down to admonish them. Even though the men agree that they are tired after the day's exertions, Eliza stays back. She cannot hide her excitement. 
Now it is time to try Eliza out - in public. Higgins chooses the Ascot Races as her debut, and persuades his mother (Cathleen Nesbit) to introduce her to polite society. Eliza has been warned, he tells his disapproving mother, to stick to two topics - health and the weather. Eliza, attired in a striking gown and hat, makes her debut quite well. 
Unfortunately, it doesn't last long. She soon falls back into her cockney slang, and her vulgarisms shock those gathered. Mrs Higgins is disapproving, but Higgins cannot hide his laughter. And Eliza has captured the heart of at least one person from among those assembled - that of the amiable Freddie Aynsworth-Hill (Jeremy Brett). Eliza is not in the least interested, but Freddie, having tracked her down to where she lives, is content to wait, as long as he can wait on the street where she lives.
Now, Eliza is in for weeks of preparation. After all, Higgins cannot afford to fail again. But Eliza is a willing student, and Higgins decides to risk a gamble - he takes her to the Embassy Ball, given in honour of the Queen of Transylvania. And along with her is her son, Prince Gregor, and the slimy Zoltar Karpathy (Christopher Hewitt), an obsequious, name-dropping 'language expert'. He is Higgins' first (and according to him, 'best') student, and is delightfully condescending to Higgins.
And though Pickering and Mrs Higgins are hesitant about exposing her to Karpathy for fear that he will expose her, Higgins allows Eliza, nay, encourages her to dance with him. It is the night of Eliza's triumph. Karpathy, having tried every trick in his book to discover Eliza's origins, is happy to proclaim her a Hungarian princess. Elated, Higgins and Pickering take a happy Eliza home. But once there, the men, intent on congratulating each other, ignore Eliza's contribution completely, much to her distress and anger. 
When she lashes out at Higgins (she shies his slippers at him), he is stung by her accusations. Surely she is not suggesting that he has treated her badly? A distraught Eliza leaves the house only to find Freddie still drooping over the railings. He rushes up to her and swears undying love, but Eliza is in no mood to listen.  She's tired of words, and in any case, she is not in love with Freddie.
All she wants is to go back to where she belongs, but where exactly is 'home'? Eliza realises very quickly that she doesn't fit in Covent Garden any more. Where is she to go? What is she to do? 

Audrey Hepburn's Eliza is a delight - she has guts, she has pride, and she has agency. It is she who drives the plot. She wants lessons, she is not willing to take 'No' for an answer, and she is ambitious - she wants to sell flowers in a shop and she has taken Higgins' boast to heart. It is her insistence that persuades Pickering to place that bet with Higgins - he will pay for her lessons if Higgins will transform her speech and turn her into a lady. 
Hepburn, moving easily between cockney slang and received pronunciation, mastered the tricky dialogues peppered with wit; she plays her Eliza well, turning in a flawless performance and changing quite believably during the course of the film from a dirty, Cockney flower girl to an elegant, well-spoken upper-class lady. It was not just the language, the clothes or the looks; it was her whole demeanour and her way of carrying herself.  
Hepburn's performance is fiery, and there is not a moment when one does not sense that passion that lies so close beneath the surface. It all breaks out in one final flourish in the scenes preceding the climax - when she lashes out at Higgins for using her as an experiment, and when she tells him sadly that he had changed her for the worse: "I sold flowers, I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else." Her self-reliance is her greatest strength, and that is evident when she realises, much to Higgins' discomfiture, that she can do without him after all. At the end of the movie, she assures Higgins that '...we will all muddle through, without you.' 
The part of Eliza Doolittle had been performed by Julie Andrews on stage, but the studio bypassed her because Hepburn was a greater box-office draw. Rex Harrison was apparently quite miffed at Hepburn being signed. He is reported to have told a reporter, "Eliza Doolittle is supposed to be ill at ease in European ballrooms. Bloody Audrey has never spent a day in her life out of European ballrooms." Yet, when he accepted his Oscar for Best Actor, he dedicated it to 'both his fair ladies' (Julie Andrews on stage and Audrey Hepburn in the film) and called Hepburn (in My Fair Lady) his best co-star.

The fact that she took a part that was 'meant' to be Andrews' and that she did not sing her own songs (Marnie Nixon dubbed for her) were reasons enough to overlook her performance - at least for the critics of the day. And the Academy. When My Fair Lady came up for the Oscars with a whopping 12 nominations (it won 8), Hepburn was not even nominated for Best Actress. (Incidentally, Julie Andrews won that year for Mary Poppins.

Audrey Hepburn was herself very unhappy about her songs being dubbed. It is said that she stormed out of the sets when she learnt that all her songs were being re-recorded. (Gracious as she was, she did come back the very next day, apologising for her 'wicked behaviour'.) For some rare recordings of Hepburn's renditions, listen here, here, and here.

Hepburn was not the only actor whose singing voice was dubbed; Jeremy Brett was also put out to discover that his singing voice was to be dubbed over by Bill Shirley. What made it even more egregious was that Shirley was an American (Brett was English), and more importantly, Brett's singing voice was very good. What is also interesting is that even the actors who did sing their own lines were lip-syncing to prior recordings. It was only Rex Harrison, reprising his role of Professor Higgins from Broadway and London, who sang live. He had a marked dislike for singing to playback.

Rex Harrison nailed the egotistical and misogynistic Higgins. When Eliza assures him that she can do without him, she will survive by teaching others what he had taught her, he is furious: 'There's not an idea in your head or a word in your mouth that I haven't put there.' Harrison marks his performance with such disdain for most of humanity (he refers to Eliza as a 'squashed cabbage leaf from Covent Garden' and 'a pernicious insect'), and he is taken aback at the thought that he might actually like Eliza more than he thought. 
One would like to think that he might have taught her how to speak and behave, but that she's taught him to be human. While he begins by saying (to Pickering, when the latter challenges him) "You know, it's almost irresistible. She's so deliciously low. So horribly dirty," he ends by admitting that he's 'grown accustomed to her face, her voice', and is aghast that she doesn't care to come back to him. 'The question, he tells Eliza, 'is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you've ever heard me treat anyone else better.' And he's almost human when he confesses sadly to Eliza at the end, 'I cannot turn your soul on.'

But Higgins is also a very guarded man, and even as the curtain falls, you are unsure whether Higgins and Eliza will get together. After all, though Higgins happily slips back into his usual character ("Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?"), we are not privy to her reply - does she give them to him or throw them at him? (Thankfully, they did not re-write Shaw's original ending to give us a Hollywood-ised 'happily ever after'.)
The supporting cast is excellent, even in the tiniest of roles. Wilfrid Hyde-White brings the kindly Pickering to life; he is eager to see the result of Higgins' 'experiment' just as much as the latter, but he is also very supportive of, and respectful to, Eliza. When Higgins first agrees to take Eliza on, and treats her with contempt, Pickering asks him bluntly: 'Does it occur to you, Higgins, the girl has some feelings?' And as Eliza tells Mrs Higgins later in the movie, "I shall always be a common flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a common flower girl, and always will. But I know that I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering, because he always treats me like a lady, and always will.
And of course, where would the movie be without 'the most original moral philosopher in the world'? Alfred Doolittle was so refreshingly of the lower classes; indeed, when he becomes 'respectable' and 'middle-class' thanks to Higgins' 'meddling', he is morose and woeful. He's the classic ne'er-do-well, living off others' generosity, and quite willing to wheedle money even from his own daughter (who is definitely not that better off). 'A man was made to help support his children,' he tells his friends, 'but with a little bit of luck, they will go out and start supporting you!' The part, originally offered to James Cagney, was reprised by the inimitable Stanley Holloway who had made this part his own on stage.
Holloway was not the only cast member who was not the original choice for their roles - Rex Harrison, who had played Higgins on stage, was also not the original choice for the film. The role had been offered to Peter O'Toole and Cary Grant, while Rock Hudson, Michael Redgrave and George Sanders had all been considered for the role. While O'Toole was nixed because his price was too high, Cary Grant refused the role on grounds that his spoken English was closer to Eliza Doolittle than Professor Higgins. Besides, he is said to have told Jack Werner that if Harrison wasn't cast in Higgins' role, then he wouldn't go watch the film either.

You can't talk about My Fair Lady without mentioning how visually stunning the sets and costumes were. (The film was shot on the back-lots of Warner Bros. studios.) While art director Cecil Beaton took home an Oscar, it is said that his involvement with the film was restricted to the designing of the women's dresses. He and director George Cukor had had a falling out, and Beaton had been banned from the sets. However, his contract stipulated that he get complete (and sole) credit for costumes and art direction, and so George Allen, who, in fact, designed the sets was left uncredited.
My Fair Lady has often been described as the 'perfect musical'. Filled with a plethora of wonderful songs (other than the ones mentioned above, there's I'm an ordinary man, Get me to the church on time, Why can't a woman be more like a man?, Without you, I've grown accustomed to her face - their lyrics are amazing!), My Fair Lady would still have been a wonderful film without them. And that is because the dialogue (Alan Jay Lerner) is sparkling and witty (he retained a lot of the Shaw's original dialogues), and the cast take their parts, chew it and spit it out with relish. Think about this one, for instance (Pickering telling Higgins that he holds himself responsible for Eliza): 
Pickering: 'Tell me, Higgins, are you a man of good character where a woman is concerned?' 
Higgins: "Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?"

Or this (when Pickering calls up Scotland Yard to report Eliza missing): "What the girl does here is our affair. Your affair, is to get her back so we can continue doing it!"

Or this exchange:  
Higgins: 'Are you saying that I have to put on my Sunday manners for this thing I created out of a squashed cabbage leaf from Covent Garden?'
Mrs Higgins (to Eliza): However did you learn good manners with my son around? and later (to Higgins): 'I suggest you stick to two topics: the weather, and your health.' 

If you have watched it already, and I don't know too many people who haven't, perhaps it is time for a re-watch. And if you haven't, please do...

...and don't forget to drop a line saying what you thought of it.

p.s. Because I can't resist: here's a photo of Jeremy Brett, long before he became Sherlock Holmes (the most definitive Holmes, in my opinion; I just cannot see anyone else in the role that Brett made his own.)


  1. It's been so long since I watched this - I remember watching it perhaps when I was about 12. Loved everything about it, except that I personally thought Rex Harrison too old for his role (yes, callow pre-teen and all, no? If I were to watch it now, I don't think I'd mind. Especially as I remember his acting being very good. And, oh, I love the songs. My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music are the only two films of which I can sing most of the songs - they're all so super. :-) Thanks for reviewing this, Anu - I think I should watch it again.

  2. (yes, callow pre-teen and all, no?
    Heh. I was 14 when I watched it. And I remember walking out of the theatre feeling slightly put out that Eliza didn't end up with Freddie. Higgins was just too old!

    I watched it again, and was thinking that misogynist or not, Higgins was a darn sight more interesting than Freddie. Talk about perspectives changing over time. :) :)

  3. You must have been on top of the world ! What with getting 97% in math AND got to watch one of the best musical ever ! I saw it the first time in Delhi in Sheila which boasted the first wide CinemaScope screen. They even handed out souvenirs, I think my mom got a hair net. I have seen it a couple of times since and thoroughly enjoyed it, but then give me any movie of Audrey Hepburn, I am happy. I specially enjoyed Mrs. Higgins taking Eliza's side when the men are too busy gloating on THEIR success. It's supposed to snow agin tomorrow, perhaps will cozy up with coffee and Ms. Eliza !

  4. "feeling slightly put out that Eliza didn't end up with Freddie."

    Hehe! Same here. :-) And I really did like Jeremy Brett in this (plus, I agree with you: he is Holmes. The only Holmes).

  5. Heh, if I hadn't scored that high in Maths, my father would have tanned me! As it is, his first question after I got the marklist was, 'What happened to the other 3 marks?' :)

    I love Audrey Hepburn, and can watch many of her films over and over again. This one, particularly, because apart from being able to watch her, the songs were glorious, the plot was delicious, and the acting excellent. I don't think I can find any flaw in this film. It is one of those films that are like comfort food. Actually, tonight and tomorrow are great days to revisit the film. Do watch.

  6. My fav film!
    Somewhere I have an audio cassette with the whole film on it. i used to listen to it quite often.
    Basically I think that this is a story about a gay guy and his fag-hag.
    sorry for being gone for such a long time.

  7. Harveeeee... where have you been?! Welcome back!

    'gay guy and his fag-hag?'

    Harvey, harvey, harvey! What an deeply unkind thing to say!

  8. "What happened to the other 3 marks" :) You know I was thinking exactly the same thing but did not express it.
    Same with this movie being comfort food, I wrote it then deleted it, because it sounded like I stole the expression from dustedoff ;), though I often think of old movies I like as comfort food.

  9. Didn't have much time lately. Sorry.

    It is just experience, which made me come to the conclusion.
    Apparently they don't have much of romance running between them.

    Higgins: Pickering and I are at it from morning till night. It fills our whole lives. Teaching Eliza, talking to Eliza, listening to Eliza, dressing Eliza.
    His Mother: You're a pretty pair of babies playing with your live doll.

  10. :) Everything today is painted with that broad brush, isn't it? It was quite possible then for two crusty old bachelors or two spinsters (a word that is non-PC today) to set up house together without the stigma of being gay. Unfortunately, the 'stigma' of homosexuality is a very real thing today. And I think both situations are bad. :(

  11. I usually don't care for musicals but I make an exception for this film. It is indeed a complete film with sparkling dialogues, superb songs and wonderful performances. I've a soft corner for the song "I'm an ordinary man" which I often sing for my wife's benefit. Needless to say it does not go down well. Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway steal the show. I'll dig up the dvd and watch it again.

  12. I also saw this movie in Delhi in Sheila! I spent all of yesterday wondering if it was Sheila or Mayfair (in Lucknow) and finally realized it was in Delhi when I remembered that it was in the 10th, and we went from school. We learned the song, All I want is a room somewhere ... in Music class and we were crazy over this movie. I remember one of my friends making a poster of this movie, with Eliza in her Ascot costume. Our school even took us to the movie a second time later in the year!
    I saw it again with my parents and then a couple of times over TV. I don't have any snow but would love to watch it again, if I can find it on Youtube, maybe I will also watch it again!

  13. I can't imagine I'm an Ordinary Man going down well with any woman! :)

    Welcome to my blog, Soumya. And than you for commenting.

  14. :) I think HIndi films being 'comfort food' is something that all we lovers of Hindi films, especially old Hindi films say. And this is perfect Hindi film, don't you think?

    Madhu's article was so apt, don't you think?

  15. Lalitha, if you want snow, please do come here. We had 33 blasted inches - there is no place to put the dashed thing once we shovelled it - I was literally picking up shovels full of snow and then having to lift them over my head to throw it off the path onto our yard - right now, our path up to the front door looks like it's a tunnel, with 5ft walls of snow on both sides!

    But if you want to watch it on YouTube, here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2TH8jOxVoM

  16. I didn't say, that Higgins and Pickering were a couple.
    There is not much running in that street too. If any running is being done, then it is on the Eliza-Freddie street.
    As for stigma, I could go on and on, but don't have time for that now. C U!

  17. Thanks for that link, Anu! And I hear there is more snow headed your way soon, so the wall is going to grow a little taller! I will be thinking of you!

  18. Just thinking of me? You aren't coming here to help shovel? Ah, woe is meeee! :)

  19. I am confused. :) Perhaps when you have more time, you will explain. :)

  20. Anu,
    Excellent review as usual. I saw the movie long ago, and I didn't know that Jeremy Brett was also in the movie - probably I didn't know Jeremy Brett then. Entirely agree with you he is the definitive Sherlock Holmes. The new generation is ga-ga over Benedict Cumberbatch version on the BBC. I just couldn't relate to him. I am going to watch My Fair Lady again to look for Jeremy Brett. :)

    It is interesting that Audrey Hepburn should have been denied Oscar on being discovered that she didn't sing her own songs. Referring to this incident, Neepa Majumdar writes in her article "The Embodied voice" (in Wanted Cultured Ladie Only!) that the authenticity of the singing voice emanating from the screen star was a concern in Hindi films too in the 1930s and 40s, but by the 50s when Filmfare Awards were introduced, this duality was accepted and the 'deception' didn't pose any moral dilemma. I often find that foreign writers on Bollywood still haven't got to terms with 'lip-synching'.

  21. Thanks, AK. I didn't know who Jeremy Brett was, when I first watched the film either. Sherlock Holmes debuted on Indian television long after I'd watched My Fair Lady. It was only during a subsequent viewing of the film that it suddenly hit me - hey, that's Holmes! :)

    I agree with you about not being able to relate to Cumberbatch. I couldn't relate to Downey. Jr either (in the film). I think, our generation, having grown up on Brett as Holmes, would find it very difficult to see anyone else in the role. Especially since the original series was so well-taken. It is the same with Poirot - I cannot imagine anyone other than Suchet as Hercules Poirot.

    Yeah, I find a lot of people up in arms about the lip-synching. The fact is, even when Hollywood made musicals, the actors lip-synched - sometimes to their own voices, sometimes to others. (My Fair Lady is a case in point.) It was very rarely that they sang on the sets. I don't understand the condescension.


Back to TOP