Was there ever a better movie musical than My Fair Lady?
I don’t think so. This is the kind of film that has everything you could possibly want – terrific songs, a great story, witty humor, romance, pathos, superb actors, social commentary and a thought provoking ending.
The 1964 film version of My Fair Lady was a full-blown Hollywood production, directed by the famed George Cukor, who helmed earlier movie musicals like A Star is Born (1954) and Can-Can (1960). As it turned out, he was the perfect choice for this production, which was the pinnacle of his career.
My Fair Lady, the film, was based on a 1956 Broadway musical of the same name with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. In addition to My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe were responsible for other enduring musicals, including Brigadoon (1947), Paint Your Wagon (1951), Gigi (1958) and Camelot (1960).
Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, in turn, was based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, one of the cleverest critiques of the British class system and a great portrayal of women’s growing independence. With the exception of the ending, the musical’s story line is mostly faithful to Shaw’s original plot.
At the beginning of the film, we meet two professors of phonetics – Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison) and his friend Colonel Hugh Pickering (played by Wilfird Hyde-White). Higgins bets Pickering that he can take a working class flower girl they see in London’s Covent Garden, and pass her off as an aristocrat if he can teach her to speak proper upper class English.
Pickering accepts the wager and Higgins convinces the girl, whose name is Eliza Doolittle (played by Audrey Hepburn), to move into his house where he puts her under an intensive program to teach her proper speech and manners. After much hard work and frustration, they make little progress.
Eventually, however, Eliza’s speech, manners and general demeanor gradually improve to the point that Higgins and Pickering take her to an upper class ball where she is utterly convincing as an aristocrat, allowing Higgins to collect on his wager.
Although Higgins is a lifelong bachelor who has great difficulty expressing emotional vulnerability, he becomes attached to Eliza although he can hardly admit it to himself, much less to Eliza, taking her for granted and treating her arrogantly and dismissively.
Eliza, on the other hand, who has gained tremendous confidence and a real desire for independence as she’s climbed the social scale, tires of her subservient role in Higgins’ household and decides to marry a lovesick upper class ne’er-do-well named Freddy Eynsford-Hill (played by Jeremy Brett), much to Higgins’ dismay.
At this point, the story significantly diverges from Shaw’s original play when, in the classic song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” – a masterpiece of rage mixed with deep tenderness – Higgins at last begins admitting to himself that he has feelings for Eliza.
The film’s final scene, which follows this song, is a masterstroke of ambiguity. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is a pitch perfect ending for a great film, opening up some intriguing possibilities and questions about Higgins and Eliza.
Although Shaw saw the relationship between Eliza and Higgins as a kind of intellectual romance, not a traditional love story, the film is infused an intensely romantic feeling due to the beautiful songs, the very real chemistry between Harrison and Hepburn, the fairy tale quality of the story of a working class girl’s transformation into something very much like a princess and the film’s colorful, evocative sets and costumes.
My Fair Lady could have been a very different film with one important casting change. As in the original Broadway musical, Rex Harrison played Higgins, but the original Eliza was none other than Julie Andrews. When it came to make the film version of the musical, however, Warner Brothers wanted a bankable star with a track record to play the leading lady. Andrews, though extraordinarily talented and charismatic, had no film experience. Thus she lost the role she created on stage to Audrey Hepburn, who was at the height of her popularity.
My Fair Lady’s loss, however, was Walt Disney’s gain, when Andrews took the lead role in the great classic Mary Poppins (1964), in production at the same time as My Fair Lady. Deservedly, both pictures were big winners at the box office and at the 1964 Academy Awards. My Fair Lady won the Oscar for Best Picture while Julie Andrews received the Best Actress Oscar for her first film performance, launching a memorable and highly successful movie career.
Since the studio opted not to hire Julie Andrews, it now had to work with Audrey Hepburn, who had nowhere near the same singing ability as Andrews. Hepburn was not a bad singer, as she proved with her touching performance of “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but her range was too limited for many of the songs in My Fair Lady.
As a result, most of Hepburn’s singing, in My Fair Lady, was dubbed by Marni Nixon, a highly in-demand playback singer who sang for less vocally talented actresses in numerous musicals. When you hear the high notes in songs like “I Could Have Danced All Night,” you’ll see that the studio’s decision to use Nixon’s vocal virtuosity was a wise one.
Rex Harrison was even less of a singer than Audrey Hepburn, but in all of his My Fair Lady songs, it is his own voice that you are hearing. This is because he had a unique style of talking through a song, and Lerner and Loewe specifically wrote Henry Higgins’ songs with Harrison in mind when they were preparing My Fair Lady’s original Broadway stage production. Few actors own their songs the way Harrison owns his songs in My Fair Lady. Indeed, while both Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn were wonderful as Eliza, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Henry Higgins.
Before closing, I’d be remiss to not mention My Fair Lady’s wonderful supporting cast. Above all is Stanley Holloway, the beloved British music hall comedian, who plays Eliza’s father Alfred. It’s hard to beat his delightful performance in “With a Little Bit of Luck.”
Equally stellar is his turn at “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
So many wonderful songs. What delights!
The wistful “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”
The joyous “The Rain in Spain.”
The totally besotted “On the Street Where You Live.”
The feisty “Show Me.”
And there’s much, much more.
No, it doesn’t get better than My Fair Lady.
Rent it, buy it, borrow it, even steal it if you can avoid getting caught, but no matter what you do, see it. You will never regret it.
Paul is a writer, editor and radio broadcaster with wide ranging interests including film, literature, politics, travel and history. Currently, he is managing editor of Washington Restaurant & Lodging magazine and produces and co-hosts the weekly DineNW radio show on Tacoma's KLAY AM. Additionally, you can hear him twice a week on New York Radio Korea where he explains U.S. politics to a Korean audience. He lives in Washington state.