My Fair Lady - 40th Anniversary Special Edition Review
How different it could have been had the two actors originally slated for My Fair Lady actually been cast. Instead of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn sparking off one another with, for most of the film, barely concealed contempt, we would have had Cary Grant and Julie Andrews. Grant wisely turned down the part of Henry Higgins and Jack Warner passed on Julie Andrews taking Eliza Doolittle from Broadway to Hollywood - Andrews went off to Disney to make Mary Poppins instead - and so My Fair Lady will now forever be remembered for Rex Harrison's laughably arrogant Henry Higgins and Audrey Hepburn's earthy Eliza. Like Casablanca eventually being cast as it was, the magic simply wouldn't be there otherwise.
My Fair Lady opens outside a Covent Garden theatre in 1912 when noted linguist Henry Higgins overhears the uncultured Cockney squawking of Eliza Doolittle and, disgusted by the dropped H's, the twisting of 'A' into 'aye' and the lack of pride in the English language, Higgins bets that within six months, he could take an filthy, bedraggled flower girl like Eliza to a royal ball. As Higgins leaves with Colonel Pickering, another linguist just returned from India, Eliza appears at the door of Higgins' house with a shilling in her hand to pay for her English lessons. Despite dreading hearing Eliza's broad vowels in his own living room - hearing them in Covent Garden was quite bad enough - Higgins is intrigued by the challenge he set for himself and, after a bath and the purchase of a new wardrobe, sets about turning Eliza into a lady...
Famously adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, itself a commonplace tale in which an uncultured girl is groomed by a man of authority, with love following soon after, My Fair Lady was a key film from the time when movie musicals from the major Hollywood studios brought whole families into cinemas, turning ribbon-thin stories into blockbusters. Now, forty years after the release of My Fair Lady into the cinemas comes its release on DVD and following Warner Brothers' stunning two-disc release of Singin' In The Rain, it appears than an equal amount of care has been taken once again.
Wonderfully produced and made with all the resources that producer Jack Warner had at his disposal, My Fair Lady sits at the peak of the movie musical genre alongside Mary Poppins, Singin' In The Rain and The Sound Of Music. What it shares with these films is the feeling that out of the sum of their parts comes something magical about the entire piece, albeit heavily stylised but in each passing scene, there exists something to marvel at. Look, for example, at the static positions of the actors in building up the bustle of life in the markets at Covent Garden in the film's opening scenes, mirrored later as the upper classes prepare for the first race, itself notable for the strict black-and-white costume design that lifts each actor out from the rich set design of the racecourse. Elsewhere, the creak of Henry Higgins' London home is the perfect setting for the modern clash of personalities between the owner of the house and his tenant, with the amiable Colonel Pickering stepping in like between the bickering couple, not taking either side but nodding agreeably, fretting aloud and remaining skeptical about Higgins' chances of remaining free from the interference of a woman in his life as the feelings between him and Eliza become all the more obvious to everyone but each other. Pickering, as well as Higgins' mother, represents the conscience of the film, forever wondering if what Higgins is doing is, well, right. What Pickering leaves unsaid, however, Mrs Higgins is all too prepared to say to a son she feels is denying his feelings over being a grumpy, stiff-shirted bachelor who would struggle to commit beyond being honour bound to Queen and country.
As with so many grandly romantic stories, Pickering, Mrs Higgins, Higgins' staff and we, the audience, know exactly where the story of My Fair Lady is heading but which does not detract in the slightest from the pleasure at seeing the film concluded. Rex Harrison scowls throughout the film, archly raising his eyebrows at the confounded nature of Audrey Hepburn's playing of Eliza Doolittle, herself weary of being thought of as little more than an experiment, a game or, at worst, a toy for Higgins' amusement but even as the film ends, the freshness of the writing makes My Fair Lady a joyous film. Best of all is how My Fair Lady sums up in words what Frederick Loewe does in his lyrics. As Higgins walks through the avenues of London, finally admitting that he's grown used to Eliza Doolittle's face and that, actually, she's quite pretty, so My Fair Lady admits this will never be a Paulian conversion to love but a gradual and at times begrudging commitment to one another. Even as Higgins and Doolittle finally admit their love, it's done so matter of fact as though they were already a married couple, waking up the morning after a falling out. There's little in the way of a grand gesture, indeed the ending is almost subdued, but after the fireworks of their earliest days, My Fair Lady ends just as it should, at home, together and without the games and society charades with Eliza Doolittle finally finding in Henry Higgins what she had first wished for in Covent Garden in the words of Wouldn't It Be Loverly.
There can be absolutely no argument about this and nothing less than a 10 will suffice - My Fair Lady really does look astonishing. The commentary on the film makes clear the amount of effort that was put into making this film look as good as it has ever done and it was worth it - the picture is remarkably clean, the colours are rich and the clarity of the image cannot be faulted. Oh, should every film be treated in this way for its DVD release...
Disappointingly, My Fair Lady has not been transferred with its original mono soundtrack, with Warner Brothers preferring to issue this DVD with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track only. Whilst the French and Italian language tracks do get mono soundtracks, the option of having the original soundtrack would be preferable to what has been offered here.
Looking past this, My Fair Lady sounds wonderful with the music filling the room yet never losing any of the rich quality of the dialogue in preference of the music.
Despite the phrase 'Two Disc Special Edition' being bandied about more as an advertising term than an honest appraisal of the contents of the package, all credit to Warner Brothers for doing a superb job on compiling a superb selection of extras over the two discs on this set, described as follows:
Commentary: Beginning with an astonishingly detailed technical description of the process of remastering My Fair Lady, both to make it absolutely clear that it has been completely remastered as well as to explain the sheer effort that was required to make the film look as good as it does here, this soon lightens into a terrific commentary by Gene Allen, Marni Nixon, Bob Harris and Jim Katz. Bob and Jim were the restoration team brought in by Warner Brothers to prepare My Fair Lady for release on DVD and sit with the film's original art director Gene Allen, with singer Marni Nixon, who dubbed Audrey Hepburn's singing, speaking occasionally but recorded at another location and on her own.
More Loverly Than Ever: Making My Fair Lady (57m50s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): Beginning with George Bernard Shaw's writing of Pygmalion, this is an exhaustive documentary not only on the making of the film and the writing of the music but also on the restoration of My Fair Lady for this DVD release. At no time does More Loverly Than Ever ever offer anything less than a solid story of what happened both in 1964 and in 2004, with a fascinating series of links between the actions of the film and DVD crews only separated by the last forty years. Talking to everyone of note, including Marni Nixon, Julie Andrews and, offering his view on the importance of My Fair Lady, Martin Scorcese as well as archive footage of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, this is such a thorough documentary that it really does appear to leave nothing out of its telling of the story of My Fair Lady.
1963 Production Kickoff Dinner (23m19s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This is an interesting if unrestored piece of archive footage from a dinner held prior to the making of My Fair Lady. With what looks to be a television crew capturing the dinner on film as well as interviews with Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison and Jack Warner, who completes the dinner with a scattered and rambling criticism of European filmmaking, this is little more than a series of sketches and documentary style shooting of the dinner.
Audrey Hepburn Vocals: At least showing that she did attempt to sing whilst playing Eliza Doolittle, this bonus feature shows how successful she was and, contrary to what was implied by having her vocals dubbed by Marni Nixon, Hepburn does very well with her versions of the following songs:
- Wouldn't It Be Loverly (4m18s, 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo)
- Show Me (2m39s, 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo)
Show Me Galleries: Unsurprisingly for a production like My Fair Lady, there was an surfeit of still images, production sketches and publicity material accumulated during its making, some of which is included here:
- Sketches (9x Still Images)
- Black And White Production Stills (70x Still Images)
- Colour Production Stills (52x Still Images)
- Documents And Publicity (40x Still Images)
The Fairest Fair Lady (9m33s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This is a period promotional feature with a typically fawning voiceover, celebrating Warner Brothers' efforts in bringing My Fair Lady to the screen.
LA Premiere Footage (4m52s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): Doubtless made by the 1964 equivalent of E!, the satellite and cable entertainment and gossip channel, this offers archive footage of the stars of My Fair Lady and other celebrities arriving for the premiere of the film.
Rex Harrison's Golden Globe Acceptance Speech (46s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): We can assume this is only available as it opens with Rex apologising for not being able to make it.
37th Academy Awards (25s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This is Jack Warner's short acceptance speech on receipt of the 1964 Academy Award for Best Picture given to My Fair Lady.
Awards: This extra lists, over three pages of text, both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes Awards given to My Fair Lady in 1964 and 1965, respectively.
Trailers: This offers only two trailers, being a 1964 Theatrical Trailer (4m52s, 1.85:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo) and a 1994 trailer for the re-release of the film (3m31s, 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo).
Comments: This extra features two interviews with fans of the film, Martin Scorcese (1m20s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (1m06s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo), who talk through film restoration and working with screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner, respectively.
Showing both a great deal of thought and effort, Warner Brothers have ensured all of the extras on this second disc, though not the commentary on the first disc, are subtitled in a range of languages.
Despite efforts to the contrary, recent years have seen me falling in love with movie musicals, as though deep within this otherwise straight-as-a-die mind, there sits nest of gay genes that flicker to life on hearing characters bursting into song on film. Whether Calamity Jane, Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers or a self-dubbed version of Derek Jarman's Sebastiane scored to an Abba Greatest Hits collection, movie musicals are like bottles marked 'Aaawww' placed within easy reach.
My Fair Lady is amongst the best of the big movie musicals of the sixties and Warner Brothers have done a terrific job on this 40th anniversary release of the film on DVD. With the main feature having never looked better and a set of bonus features that make having a second disc worthwhile, this is a fine release, which lets the humour, music and sophisticated telling of an age-old story simply shine through.