Fairly speaking, vintage Hollywood musicals don’t age well thanks to their tie-ins with ingrown fluffy affectation and sound-stage-bound artificiality, which doesn’t see eye to eye with the surge of an ever-finicky/skeptical modern audience. But mercifully, MY FAIR LADY, George Cukor’s Oscar BEST PICTURE title-holder, still can hold court and rivet viewers through its lilting numbers, tableaux vivants par excellence, and a barnstorming cast headlined by Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.
Cashing in on the popularity of George Bernard Shaw’s stage play PYGMALION and its subsequent musical iteration from Lerner and Loewe, this film adaptation is first and foremost, a well-intentioned crowd-pleaser and takes no prisoners in flagging up its swagger and grandeur, both interior and exterior, the story-line pits a cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) against Prof. Henry Higgins (Harrison), a misogynistic scholar of phonetics, who boasts that under his tutelage, within a six-month stint, he can transmogrify Eliza into a bona-fide duchess, to be presented in an embassy ball.
Making allowance for Henry’s make-up, he is way too snobbish to rope “that filthy, silly girl” into the deal, so it must be Eliza, who takes up the gauntlet of her own accord, with an impetus of bettering herself which attunes with the Edwardian time, when suffragettes are spotted parading on the streets of London. Abetted by Colonel Hugh Pickering (Hyde-White), Henry’s new acquaintance and a kindred spirit in phonetics (who also implausibly and conveniently, co-habits with the pair in Henry’s abode, indeed, their male bonding will grow chummier as a cross-current of the central gender spar, and reach its apogee in A HYMN TO HIM, WHY CAN’T A WOMAN BE MORE LIKE A MAN), a bet is struck and this folie-à-trois segues comically and tunefully through many mishaps and frustrations until Eliza magically expunges her cockney accent in THE RAIN IN SPAIN, under the spell of a patriotic rhetoric from Henry, and then is thrown into elation through Eliza’s I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT, alas! The biggest hindrance has been officially conquered!(suspended disbelief is critical to countenance this deus ex machina, subtlety and logic is given a wide berth here.)
A leitmotif is the paralleled contrast between the transformation of Eliza, her appearance/utterance along with her inner state elevated by it and the intransigence of Henry, who habitually treats Eliza as a guinea pig, and takes her efforts for granted, the climax comes not in the palatial ball, but after, when a simmering Eliza lets rip to a bemusing Henry, who still has no clue why she suddenly blows a fuse on their (him and Pickering’s) triumphant night, what an exasperating pedantic and egoist bore! Serendipitously, what trenchantly tones down Henry’s defective persona is Mr. Harrison’s invigorating elocution and a left-field approach of doing his numbers by speaking his lines in a singsong tone, pertinently deadens the schmaltzy impact of the material (I’M AN ORDINARY MAN) and leavens the hoary template, in the end of the day, Henry is the one who has learned a lesson, however unmerited he is, it is a cracking exemplar of a none-too-pleasant character salvaged by a transcendent show-stopper.
Needlessly to say, being dubbed in a musical by a splendid belter (in this case, the unsung star here is Marni Bixon) takes the shine off an otherwise wholesome and majestic performance from Ms. Hepburn (who replaced Julie Andrews from the original musical play, ironically the latter won an Oscar the same year for MARY POPPINS while the former was given a cold shoulder early in the nomination stage, albeit the movie was being doled out a magnanimous twelve nominations including that vexatious coattail one for the venerable Ms. Gladys Cooper, who is barely present and given nothing remotely concrete to act), not in her prime though (she was 35-year-young to play a 21-year-old damsel), her portrayal of a girl’s metamorphosis through her manner, accent and inward orbit is magnificent and isn’t being eclipsed by her gorgeous wardrobe and millinery accoutrements, her Eliza is a full-bodied character rising above her rite of passage as a winner refusing to take the short end of the stick (although the ending predictably but gingerly winks at a compromised happy-ending).
Stanley Holloway steals the limelight with his own voice in two merry pieces (WITH A LITTLE BIT OF LUCK and GET ME To THE CHURCH ON TIME) as Eliza’s bullheaded father Alfred, and is granted with a hard-earned Oscar nomination (au contraire of Ms. Cooper); a young, handsome and debonair Jeremy Brett (also dubbed in his singing by Bill Shirley) is a commensurate match for Ms. Hepburn, and a genteel Wilfrid Hyde-White drolly slums it in the singing-and-dancing sequences but captures an air of lassez-faire pulsating mostly on the sideline of this humdinger emblazoned with sparkling gender politics and chipper euphony.
referential points: Robert Stevenson’s MARY POPPINS (1964, 7.4/10); Gene Kelly’s HELLO, DOLLY! (1969, 7.3/10); Cukor’s DINNER AT EIGHT (1933, 7.9/10), LES GIRLS (1957, 6.1/10).