I was a little surprised to discover that the running time for My Fair Lady was nearly three hours, and while that had no impact on my determination to see it, I had a slight concern about The Boy and The Flower. Slight, but not much, since they embraced Gone With The Wind, and when The Boy and I saw Lawrence of Arabia we both agreed we could turn around and see that again. (The latter film is coming around again this year—I don’t know what the contrived anniversary is, maybe Claude Rains’ 130th birthday?—and I imagine we’ll all see and enjoy it again.) But while I’ve seen this movie once thirty years ago on a 20″ TV, it became an instant favorite and the music is largely seared—seared!—into my memory.
Watching it this time, I got why: The most iconic songs are very simple, sometimes with only two verses that are repeated over and over (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), but always with a catchy hook (“Get Me To The Church On Time”, “With A Little Bit Of Luck”). I remembered a whole lot given how long ago I last saw it. There’s probably a lesson there for aspiring show-tune writers.
There’s a kind of odd frustration for me here: I love Rex Harrison’s performance but I feel like we’re missing out on some great melodies because he speak-sings them all. And I have mixed feelings about Marni Nixon dubbing Audrey Hepburn. I think it makes sense, probably, but I’d take an alternate track on a DVD where Audrey’s singing is there just for the experience. (She recorded all or most of the songs before they called in Marni.) Audrey (35) is too old for the role, and Rex (58) is positively ancient, but none of that matters. (The Flower pointed out that Audrey looking a bit older helps bridge the gap, because Rex would look like 20-year-old Hepburn’s grandfather.)
This, if you don’t know, is the story of a linguist who takes a common flower girl and, by the power of changing her accent, passes her off as a lady at the highest circles.
Henry Higgins (Harrison) is pretty much a monster throughout this movie. He’s arrogant in the extreme, and cold, though when it comes to it he’s actually sort of offended if anyone responds to him in kind. At the end of the movie, he’s slightly less awful, but not a lot.
This is a recurring theme we’ve noticed lately: Characters are flawed, but rather than being destroyed or shunned, people reach out to them. It’s not a thing in modern movies. This is one of the more extreme examples. Higgins is not mildly disrespectful of poor Eliza Doolittle, he refers to her as a “creature”—he very much objectifies her. And about all you can say for him is that he kind of does it with everyone, to varying degrees. The ending is oddly optimistic: You know Higgins is going to be a bastard but he’ll bad and make it up to her, eventually.
The Flower said, “Wow, between this and The Music Man, ‘The Family Guy’ ripped off everything.” It’s true. Stewie’s actually based on Rex Harrison. I think a mix of him and Hannibal Lecter.
The second act crisis is near archetypal perfection. The plan has been a complete success, everything’s gone off without a hitch, and Eliza is increasingly alienated by Higgins’ self-congratulatory celebrations and failure even to recognize her own contributions to this. So at the height of material success, the movie reaches its emotional nadir. And the forlorn former flower girl wanders around her old haunts realizing she can’t really go back to that way of life and her new way of life is oriented around women who could be little more than trophies. (I’m a little vague on the state of her young suitor. Apparently he has no money of his own, so I guess either he would be disowned for marrying her or he was from one of those lordly descendants who had only family connections and no money.)
He loves her, though. And she would work to support him. Something about this feels disastrously like her fathers’ many relationship but, more importantly, she doesn’t really love him however taken with his kindness she is.
The Flower gasped at a few of Audrey Hepburn’s gowns. And the excesses of the ’60s are tempered by the desire to create a “gilded age” impression, so some things work startlingly well, like the very mod-styled Ascot race with all the fancy clothes in black-and-white.
The Flower said she had a little trouble imagining Julie Andrews in the role but of course Andrews made the role…and then ended up winning the Oscar for Mary Poppins that year. I think they were planning for Cary Grant in the Rex Harrison role but he said he wouldn’t even go see the movie if they didn’t use Harrison, at least per Ben Mankiewicz.
Well, no one complained about the length. It’s really a very tight movie, for all that. Everything serves a purpose and shows some aspect of character or plot. And it ends up with a very epic feel for all the intimacy of the story.