Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

George Cukor's My Fair Lady

The hat, the dress, the lady who wore them, and the man behind her.
My Fair Lady's composer, Frederick Loewe,
and Alan J. Lerner, screenwriter and lyricist.
It was hard to title this one. Normally, when I deal with a mo-tion picture masterpiece, I give top billing to the director, which is the case in this case. However, I could just as easily have given top billing to producer, Jack L. Warner, or the musical team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who so flawlessly blended their talents to bring to life George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. And what would My Fair Lady be without Rex Harrison as Pro-fessor Henry Higgins? I won't get into the controversy as to whether Julie Andrews should have been brought to Hollywood to retain her starring Broadway role or whether Audrey Hepburn made a better Eliza Doolittle. Suffice to say no one I can think of could have replace Stanley Holloway as her father. Hollywood saw to it Andrews got her Oscar for Mary Poppins while Audrey Hepburn was not even nominated. My Fair Lady garnered eight of the coveted golden statuettes including one for best picture of 1964. Cukor earned the Best Director award, and Rex Harrison was named Best Actor.

The artists at Warner Bros. art department had a field day promoting My Fair Lady.
The most popular fell to the one on the far right.
Audrey Hepburn's Eliza, mistaken
for a Hungarian princess.
Hollywood thought screen mogul, Jack L. Warner was out of his mind paying the record price of $5-million for the screen rights to Lerner and Loewe's Broadway hit musical. Worse than that, he could retain them for only seven years before they would become the property of CBS (which owned the Broadway rights). As if to confirm their suspicions as to his mental state, Warner directed another seventeen million Warner Bros. dollars into the production budget. Conventional wisdom had it that even if the film was an astounding, unmitigated success, the company would suffer an unmitigated loss. No movie musical in history had ever earned that kind of money. Today, the film has grossed some $72-million. By way of comparison, Disney shot Mary Poppins about the same time for a total of $4.4-million, to see it gross a total of $102-million since then. Quite apart from the hoopla regarding the casting of the leading ladies, the two films are quite comparable in many other respects as well. However, when it came to theater broadsides, My Fair Lady (above) wins, hands down. The same goes for the costumes (above, right)by Cecil Beaton.

A Cockney flower seller becomes a British high society lady the hard way--by enduring the gross insensitivities of England's premier expert on diction, grammar, and elocution.
In case you've never seen My Fair Lady, or need your memory refreshed, the film might be summed up by saying it's about the "makeover" to end all makeovers. Beyond that, it's the story of a wager between two Edwardian English gentlemen, one Professor Henry Higgins and his house guest, Colonel Pickering, who bets him the cost of his "experiment" on the girl neither of the care much about, that he cannot pass her off as a lady. Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn), hoping only for free lessons to improve her speech enough that she might work in a ladies' flower shop, somewhat reluctantly agrees, not realizing that far more than her lower-class accent is also about to change. Beyond that, maybe the still shots from the movie, or the film's "trailer" (bottom) will provide a clue as to why virtually everything about this undertaking rises to near perfection.

How to make a lady in 170 musical minutes.
Professor Henry Higgins (below) sees himself as an "ordinary man"; and despite the fact he's not much of a singer, chooses to reveal himself by talking his way though a song or two. When not singing, brilliant as he may be in his field, Higgins has all the subtlety and sensitivity of a bulldozer, inexplicably combined with the patience of a saint. A few months ago there was talk of a My Fair Lady remake with George Clooney as Higgins. Nothing ever came of it. Clooney was deemed too charming for the role. Eliza Doolittle is not quite what you'd term a "quick study." But once she begins to understand the terrain and precipitation in Spain, she begins to come around. Her father, Alfred Doolittle, played on Broadway and in the film by Stanley Holloway, comes around too, in search of a bit of remuneration for his daughter's efforts. He asks only five pounds, refusing any more, lest he risk becoming "respeckable." The man is also a thief. He steals every scene he comes near.

Professor Henry Higgins in his two-story library lair.
Despite his signature song, there's nothing ordinary about him.
Just get him to the church on time.
Cartoonist, Al Hirschfield's take on the Ascot sequence.
Besides the gregarious Hollo-way (above), his character opposite is Higgin's friend from India, Colonel Hugh Pickering (below, left). Played by Wilfrid Hyde-White, the Colonel is an admirer of Higgins as well as his eager partner-in-crime, responsible for Eliza's physical makeover following her sudden linguistic breakthrough. The two men decided to dress up their newly-refined, doll-like play-thing and "try her out" by taking her to the races on the Ascot opening day. On top of his spectacular, formfitting, ribbon-bedecked, frock and ludicrously elaborate millinery creation, worn by Hepburn, costume designer, Cecil Beaton, pulled out all the stops in satirizing turn-of-the-century British tastes in high fashion.

Eliza discovers small talk, wealthy friends, and a boyfriend.
Will she marry Freddy?
Eliza's hilarious horserace outburst "Move you're bloom-in' arse!" marking the end of the Ascot segment, also marks roughly the half-way point in the movie. The rest deals with Eliza's eventual triumph, her "handler's" self-congratulations, and her grad-ual realization that she has been changed to such a degree that she no longer fits in the world from which she arose nor that in which she finds herself. The grand ex-periment has wrought chan-ges far deeper and broader than even Henry Higgins could have imagined. Has he fallen in love or simply "Grown Accustomed to Her Face?" Cukor, Warner, and Lerner wisely resist the urge to tie up all the loose ends topped with an outsized, Cecil Beaton black and white bow. Were they hoping for a sequel? No, they simply refused to choose or pursue any of the myriad possibilities. Will she marry boyfriend, Freddy? Or perhaps Higgins? Maybe the Colonel will set her up with her own flower shop. The only thing certain is, nothing will ever be the same.

George Cukor and his cast, before, during, and after My Fair Lady.
For more details on the movie, click the video below:

The movie's official trailer:


No comments:

Post a Comment