My Fair Lady, released in 1964, is hailed as one of the greatest films ever made and I had the opportunity to watch the remastered 30th anniversary edition for the first time while spending Christmas at Yosemite National Park.
The film is based on the story Pygmalion (1912) by George Bernard Shaw (the name refers to the King of Cyprus who fell in love with a statue of his own making). Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is an English Linguistics Professor who takes on Eliza Doolittle (a beautiful Audrey Hepburn) under his tutelage to change her from an unrefined flower girl with a Cockney accent to a genteel who brings forth the majesty and grandeur of the English language (which hasn't been used in America for years) with every utterance. Higgins is a misogynistic bachelor who pushes Eliza day and night, while wondering why a woman can't be more like a man, so she can learn to speak properly. Riding on Eliza's success is a bet Higgins makes with his friend, Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White), wherein Higgins claims he will be able to pass Eliza off as a Duchess in six months. As Eliza and Higgins train together, they become accustomed to each other even though it is an abusive relationship on Higgins' part. Finally the inevitable confrontation occurs: Eliza has surpassed the teacher's expectations, but the teacher still considers her a common flower girl. How does one move forward in such a situation?
The script, by Alan Jay Lerner, retains Shaw's acerbic wit and delicious irony and succeeds for that reason. Both the dialogue and the song lyrics are crafted extremely well. The music itself has a few high points but there are plenty of low ones as well. The acting is impeccable: Rex Harrison's role as a happy-but-cynical misanthrope (his excuse for treating Eliza badly is that he doesn't treat anyone any better) is played out extremely well. Audrey Hepburn's transformation from a common girl to a cultured lady is extremely convincing, particularly in terms of her accent (although her songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon). The supporting cast is excellent: Eliza's father Alfred P. Doolittle is played in a irreverent and charismatic manner by Stanley Holloway who gets some of the coolest lines in the film and was my favourite character; Jeremy Brett shows a bit of the talent that would later come in handy when he played Sherlock Holmes; and Gladys Cooper as Henry Higgins' mother also gets to deliver a few barbed lines of her own ("Henry, what a disagreeable surprise").
Even though the film's tongue is firmly in its cheek, the degree of social commentary that occurs amidst the happy songs and the straight-forward story is amazing. The film comments about the British class system, class systems in general, and the notion of language being the reason for there being a class division (an almost Universal concept prevalent in any culture). Further the movie addresses the virtues of being "civilised" (when Eliza becomes a lady, all she can do is sell herself), the virtues of morality when one has nothing to left to lose (as Eliza's father says, he can't afford it), and the repressed nature of British society in general.
The direction by George Cukor is amazing: the use of pausing characters, the fantasy of Eliza thinking about Higgins' death, the detached race track scene (with the classic "move your bloomin' arse" line), and the use of novel devices to measure Eliza's speech, which is a tangent on its own and done as a throwaway, are brilliant. The remastered audio and video brings the film to a vibrant life, with the latter presenting an extremely colourful and bright Technicolour look that is not seen in movies today.
I still think Higgins gets away too easily considering the poor way he treats Eliza, reflecting the mentality of the era the movie was made. At about three hours, the movie is a little too long, but is great to watch with a date or as a group event. I highly recommend it.