Thursday 30 May 2013

1,001 Films: "My Fair Lady" (1964)

My Fair Lady dates from the final days of the Hollywood studio system, an era when kindly paternalist studio bosses like Jack Warner still thought they were doing good work in resurrecting old George Bernard Shaw texts to teach we, the plebs how to speak English proper(ly). In an enfant sauvage narrative, professor of phonetics Rex Harrison plucks "squashed cabbage leaf" Audrey Hepburn, with her squalling hair and mouth, out of a gutter in Covent Garden; soon enough, the poor little flower girl is blossoming, the door to her birdcage is thrown wide open, and the symbolism is being laid on as thick as the icing on a wedding cake. 

It's not unfair to say that George Cukor's film now resembles a stage-bound relic, one that takes care to namedrop Demosthenes just before the entr'acte and proves heavily reliant on the notion Woman Needs Man. (You'll note the title isn't A Fair Lady or This Fair Lady; something of that possessive article lingers in every scene.) There's also that little white lie of having Hepburn's singing dubbed by Marni Nixon, a presumably Warner-induced state of affairs that does nothing much for either woman, depriving Hepburn of her voice (Nixon's just too posh singing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?") and her interlocutor of what might have been a starmaking role. It's difficult to say whether Julie Andrews' cut-glass vowels would have rendered any more convincing the proling-down asked of Hepburn, though you do feel Andrews was better off going to Mary Poppins, which looks positively avant-garde compared to this.

Still, as with its scarcely less problematic predecessor Gigi, it'd be a very hard heart that didn't warm to some, or even most, of My Fair Lady: the overall experience is akin to being given a stern finger-wagging by a man wearing a beige cardigan, and thus hard to take too seriously. (Three hours of voice-coaching!) The songs - even unofficial stalker's anthem "On the Street Where You Live" - are pretty much unimpeachable, and some pleasing ambiguity persists in the brusque, dismissive tone of Harrison's performance: just how much of that is the role, and how much a veteran actor's natural response to the bounded stuff and nonsense of the source material?

My Fair Lady is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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