My Fair Lady, that wittiest and wisest of movie musicals, opened at New York’s Criterion Theater this week 50 years ago, on its way to cleaning up at the box office and winning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director.
Over the years, it has become something of a fashion for certain film buffs to bemoan the big-screen adaptation of the 1956 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Perhaps my favorite movie blogger, “Self-Styled Siren,” even includes it on a list of the 10 Worst Best Picture Oscar winners.
I have to part company with her (and the by-no-means-inconsiderable cohort she represents), though. Within a minute of watching the film, I’m smiling and laughing; days after watching it, one of its magnificent melodies still linger in my mind. In short, it fulfills what has to be one of the functions of a movie: it moves me, in the most direct (and, in this case, joyful) way.
Why does it succeed? I’ve boiled it down to these reasons:
*Its libretto. Even many of the best of the Golden Age of Musicals in Hollywood forced viewers to endure tissue-thin stories and characters for, say, a half-hour’s worth of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in all their glory. This was not a problem for any show based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1913), which furnished some of his most pungent reflections on class. Yet no less than Oscar Hammerstein II, generally regarded as the greatest librettist in Broadway history, had been unable to translate this into a musical, agreeing with partner Richard Rodgers that the cold intellect of Prof. Henry Higgins wouldn’t translate well into a musical. it took librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner to use the same strategy for Broadway (and, later, film) gold that John Huston had used to create his version of The Maltese Falcon when three earlier versions had failed: i.e., use the dialogue that’s already there.
*Those songs—ingenious, funny, beautiful. “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, “Just You Wait,” “Why Can’t the English?”, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and my favorite, “The Street Where You Live.” I’ve run through only half the show’s titles, and I’m sure someone will tell me I’ve missed a great one. How much better can it get than this?
*Sure-handed direction. Critics often speak of the Best Director Oscar won by George Cukor for My Fair Lady as a consolation prize for the movies he should have won it for (e.g., David Copperfield, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib). But this underestimates both the obstacles he faced and the style with which he brought the whole thing off. For all the money spent ($17 million—a record for a Warner Brothers musical up to that time), Cukor shot the film on time and economically, steering the massive project through a male star (Rex Harrison) who had almost destroyed the confidence of his leading lady (Julie Andrews) on Broadway; a current leading lady (Audrey Hepburn) annoyed that she wouldn’t be allowed to sing the songs she had trained months to do; a costume designer (Cecil Beaton) constantly bent on getting his way; and a studio head (Jack L. Warner) who kept bumptiously interfering with production. As a molder of acting talent, he may have had his own take on this retelling of the tale of Pygmalion: “Anyone who looks at something special, in a very original way, makes you see it that way forever,” he told friend Gavin Lambert. That, in a sense, becomes what Higgins does with Eliza.
*The bounteous production design. Beaton’s costumes were indeed stunning—so much so that the crew burst into applause upon seeing Hepburn in Eliza’s costume for the ball for the first time. But art director Gene Allen influenced the stylized look of the movie even more so—notably through the Ascot sequence, in which trompe l'oeil sets convey how outsider Eliza might see the race and its onlookers.
*Rex Harrison. “Sexy Rexy” could be a royal SOB when not appearing before an audience, as I discussed in a post on the centennial of his birth. But his charm was such that he was one of the few actors who could have made it remotely possible that Eliza would not walk away forever from her bullying, insensitive teacher.
*Audrey Hepburn. Warner insisted that Andrews, who originated the role of Liza on Broadway, would not have the requisite box-office pull to help the film recoup its investment, so he offered the role to Hepburn. That turned out to be a mistake when Warner was forced to hire Marni Nixon to dub his star’s voice. The revelation of that resulted in one of the great snubs in Oscar history: though the film earned 12 nominations, Hepburn’s name was conspicuously missing. Yet this was deeply unfair to the actress: Academy Award voters, before and after, have nominated other performers who had their voices dubbed (Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams) and even presented statuettes to actors who were clearly lip-synching (Jamie Foxx in Ray, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose). Hepburn’s acting, dubbed vocals or not, was characteristically marvelous.
*Stanley Holloway. In one of the great might-have-beens in film history, James Cagney turned down the role of Eliza’s father, coalman Alfred P. Doolittle. The power of the actor in that supporting role might have been such that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Warner hadn’t been tempted to retitle the project Cockney Doodle Dandy. But, three years into retirement from the silver screen, Cagney was having too much fun painting to go before the cameras again—especially if it meant more work with Warner, who had subjected him to countless bruising contract suspensions while the actor was with the studio. That opened the door to Stanley Holloway, who got to repeat his show-stopping role as Mr. Doolittle on Broadway.
Even more than most films, My Fair Lady was filled with all kinds of drama. But one of the most astonishing tales associated with it came at its premiere. Warner was set to escort the daughter of CBS Chairman Bill Paley (who had sold him the rights to the musical) to the event. But when she became sick, he enlisted the services of a call girl working the bar at the hotel where he was staying. The story goes that, Higgins-like, he passed the working girl off as “Lady Cavendish.” The ploy worked.
That anecdote would, on the surface, sound too impossible to be believed. But Warner was a womanizer, and crass. Moreover, in Hollywood, it’s always best to keep in the back of the mind this proposition: No matter how preposterous a story is, there is an at least 80% chance that it it true.