Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: My Fair Lady: Premiere Collection (1964)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - The loverliest motion picture of them all!

Best Oscar winner Rex Harrison reprises his signature stage role of Henry Higgins, the supremely assured phoeneticist who wagers that under his tutelage, cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle can pass for a duchess at the Embassy Ball. In one of her best loved roles, Audrey Hepburn plays Eliza. If ever there was a face the professor could grow accustomed to, it's hers.

Director: George Cukor
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfird Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, Theodore Bikel
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor-Rex Harrison; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Sound; Best Music. Nominated for Best Screenplay; Best Supporting Actor-Stanley Holloway; Best Supporting Actress-Gladys Cooper; Best Film Editing, 1965.
DVD: Widescreen 2.20:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Digital Mono; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 50 chapters; rated G; 173 min.; $24.98; street date 12/8/98.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by art director Gene Allen, singer Marni Nixon, restoration expert Robert Harris and James Katz; Behind-the-Scenes Documentary; Alternate Audrey Hepburn Vocal Versions of "Show Me" and "Wouldn't It Be Lovely?"; Production Notes; 4 Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | Pygmalion and My Fair Lady - George Bernard Shaw | Score soundtrack - Frederick Loewe

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/B-

Although I dreaded the stretch of Best Picture winning films that would subject me to four straight musicals, so far the experience has been fairly painless. First I saw West Side Story, which appeared fairly silly at times - all those singing and dancing gang members! - but offered a watchable and mildly entertaining experience.

Next up was 1964's My Fair Lady, a musical retelling of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Although this film suffered from some of the flaws inherent to musicals, I found it surprisingly enjoyable.

The story takes the old ugly duckling formula and turns it into a musical. Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) is a lower-class girl who sells flowers on the street for money. Elitist, misogynistic phonetics expert Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) encounters her as she plies her wares and decides to take a challenge from cohort Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White): to use Higgins' theories of how dialect and accents establish our places in life and make it possible for Eliza to pass for a "lady" in a few weeks.

As the time passes, Higgins works his magic and inevitably, Eliza starts to turn into a swan. This leads to some personal complications, of course, and mild friction and discomfort ensue that eventually lead to a fairly happy conclusion. It's not exactly a revolutionary plot but it still works well.

Virtually without exception, my least favorite parts of MFL involved the musical numbers themselves. Although some of the tunes were fairly catchy - I still have parts of "Show Me" running through my head - these segments really tended to bog down the story. As was the case with Oliver!, MFL includes an excessive number of production pieces, many of which last an exceedingly long amount of time. Actually, this tendency wasn't as bad in MFL as it was in Oliver!, which contained song and dance bits that just went on forever; the numbers in MFL are long but not that absurdly so.

Still, the movie could have used some judicious tightening. Too many of the songs exist just for the sake of plopping a tune into the show. For example, toward the end of the film we hear "Get Me To the Church On Time". This tune spotlights a very secondary character in the person of Eliza's father Alfred (Stanley Holloway) and it very nearly brings the whole affair to a screeching halt. As the romantic entanglements of the leads progress, the film suddenly brakes so we can spend a fair amount of time with a big production number starring a supporting character; this is very odd, and it in no way furthers the plot.

Frankly, if you lose the songs, the 170-minute running time of MFL would probably drop to about an hour. With better editing - and the omission of the less useful numbers - the movie should have run about two hours. That length would better suit the material, as the current incarnation simply goes on for far too long.

However, very long musicals seemed in vogue in the Sixties, a period during which an amazing four of the ten Best Picture winners were from that genre, and the shortest of the four (West Side Story) still filled more than two and a half hours. At least the songs of MFL were the most pleasant of those four films; I didn't particularly like any of the tunes, but they passed by innocuously, which is the best I can expect.

As for the remainder of the film, I found that MFL provided a nicely charming and entertaining mix of comedy and light romance. I was surprised just how underemphasized the romantic aspects were; although the pairing that will end the movie seems fairly inevitable, it's handled in an extremely gentle way that appeared quite refreshing. Some of the comedy seemed especially strong. I'm rarely amused by material in this sort of piece - the gags always appear forced and bland - but some of the bits in MFL were pretty good. For example, the scene in which Eliza "debuts" at the horse races is terrific; although she has the mannerisms of a proper lady, she retains her streetwise notions in the topics she discusses and the way she forms her sentences. It's great fun to watch Hepburn's mannered and awkward attempt to fit in with this group as she truly displays the letter of Higgins' teaching but not the spirit.

Really it seems to be the excellent cast that makes MFL work. Hepburn's casting as Eliza was controversial; she was picked over Julie Andrews, who played the part on Broadway, despite Harrison's endorsement of Andrews. (Julie rebounded nicely through her part in the same year's Mary Poppins, for which she won Best Actress in what must have been a rather politically-oriented competition.) Would Andrews have been better? Perhaps - at least she would have done her own singing, whereas Hepburn had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also did Natalie Wood's vocals in West Side Story). However, I think Hepburn does quite a good job in the role.

Some have also objected to Hepburn's casting because they feel she doesn't look common and unappealing enough during the early parts of the film. I disagree, as I was rather surprised to note how drab and grimy they were able to make the lovely Hepburn look; to my eyes, at least, the Eliza of the film's first 30 minutes or so in no ways resembles the beautiful creature she would become. Hepburn also doesn't offer the greatest Cockney accent, though it sounded good to me, probably because I'm fresh off Dick Van Dyke's atrocious attempt at one in Mary Poppins.

On the positive side, I felt Hepburn's beauty was an asset simply because she "cleans up" better than Andrews; while Julie was attractive, she never looked really gorgeous, and I think the impact of Eliza's improvements is greater through Hepburn. I also think Hepburn adds a surprising toughness and grit to the role that I can't imagine from a prim and proper type like Andrews. Granted, I couldn't imagine Hepburn doing this well either, so I shouldn't judge, but now that I've seen the movie, I can't think of anyone in the part but Audrey; perhaps this is because I don't care about the songs, which are the parts that would most benefit from the presence of Andrews, but I thought Hepburn did very well in the part.

Also terrific - and less controversial - is Harrison, who creates a very gruff and snobby Higgins. Harrison adds just the right dash of arrogance and elitist charm to the part; his egotism and aloofness make him believable in a tough role, and somehow he manages to provide enough charm to keep us from hating him. He can't sing to save his life - which is probably why he's dead - but his odd speak-singing works well enough to move along the story. Besides, I don't care about the musical numbers anyway, and since Harrison does nicely in the straight dramatic portions, he makes the part work.

While I can't say that I love My Fair Lady, I was very surprised at how much I like it. My negative feelings toward musicals run deep, so for me to actually enjoy one is pretty remarkable. The songs are many but fairly painless, and the parts that lack tunes are fun and charming, with the end result a winner.

The DVD:

My Fair Lady appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While it displays some flaws, overall the picture lives up to the movie itself and appears quite "loverly".

Sharpness seems consistently accurate and detailed for the most part; a few interiors feature mild haziness, but this never appears truly problematic, and the film mostly looks clear and crisp. Moiré effects and jagged edges occur on occasion, and I also noticed a moderate amount of artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws seemed fairly minor for such an old film. I noticed some white speckles and occasional blotches and nicks, but nothing extreme; for the most part, the film seems quite clean.

Colors appear nicely saturated and bright, with hues that look accurate throughout the movie. I noticed no problems with them in regard to bleeding or noise; they seem solid and bold. Black levels also appeared deep and rich, with shadow detail that looked appropriately heavy but not excessively opaque. MFL doesn't look perfect, and it shows its age at times - sometimes the image appears a little muddy due to the tendencies of the period's film stock - but it seems quite strong nonetheless and provides a fine visual experience.

Also terrific is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield seems forward-oriented but is very active. Not surprisingly, most of the action revolves around the music, which is well-produced here; the songs display strong stereo separation and also blend nicely to the surrounds, although the rears mainly provide light reinforcement of the score. Effects and quite a lot of dialogue also spread to the side speakers and sometimes pan between channels as well. The placement of the speech seems questionable at times; it can end up in a "neverland" between speakers that is somewhat distracting. However, this problem seemed minor as my overall impression of the audio was that it seemed nicely broad.

The quality is a little erratic but generally positive. As is typical for programs of the era, dialogue shows the most problems. For the most part, speech sounded clear and intelligible (discounting the severe accents we hear, as they should seem hard to understand) but it sometimes displayed harsh or tinny qualities, and some lines appeared a little distorted. Effects were largely clean and fairly realistic; some bits actually featured a little bass as well. The music itself - easily the most important aspect of this mix - was nicely crisp and bright, and it also displayed some adequate low end. The score showed some signs of age, as it lacked the dynamic range we'd expect of a more recent recording, but it seemed very good nonetheless, as did this mix as a whole.

If you've read my reviews of other Best Picture winners, you'll know how often I've bemoaned the fact most of their DVDs include very few supplemental features. Happily, My Fair Lady is an exception to that rule; it's not packed to the gills, but it does supply a few nice pieces.

First up is an audio commentary from art director Gene Allen, singer Marni Nixon, and restoration team of Robert Harris and James Katz. The three men were recorded together, while Nixon's comments were taped separately and then edited in amongst the rest of the track. Although the balance of the remarks tend toward the technical aspects of making the film, it provides a nice general look at the movie as a whole. Clearly Harris and Katz are very knowledgeable about MFL; they toss in some good information of their own and also nicely prod Allen for his recollections; I had some fears for this piece based on the commentary for Vertigo, which also features Harris and Katz, but this one works well. Nixon's parts contribute some excellent data about her side of things, especially in regard to the controversies. We definitely hear a lot about the problems of the restoration, but the whole piece flows nicely and gives us a fine look at the movie.

The DVD includes a nine and a half minute featurette called "The Fairest Fair Lady". This program comes from the period of the film's theatrical release and it completely focusses on behind the scenes details. The coverage seems sketchy, obviously, since the piece is so short, and it mostly admires the big quality of the production; for example, we learn that in this tremendously-complex undertaking, they had one woman whose sole job was to make sure that everyone wore their gloves! Woweee! The focus remains strictly promotional, but since the presentation differs from modern puff pieces, this one's somewhat fun.

One cool addition to the DVD presents two of the film's songs with Hepburn's original vocals intact. We hear "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "Show Me" with Audrey's voice instead of Marni Nixon's. I was honestly surprised to find something like this, since it has the potential to seem cruel. However, Hepburn didn't humiliate herself with her singing. Although she hits a fair number of flat notes and clearly wasn't a strong enough vocalist to carry the film, her performances aren't bad; they're simply mediocre, which isn't good enough for a big-budget production like this.

The MFL DVD finishes with some DVD basics. We find pretty biographies in the "Cast and Crew" section; it features listings for seven actors and five crew members. The disc also provides trailers for MFL plus fellow musicals Brigadoon, Gigi, and Camelot. Although the package doesn't compete with true special editions, the supplements are nice additions, and this DVD certainly outdoes the bare-bones efforts that typify Best Picture winning releases.

Warner Bros. produced a laserdisc boxed set of MFL back in 1994. It apparently included extensive supplemental features, most significant of which was a retrospective documentary produced at that time. Some of these extras - like the featurette and the Hepburn singing clips - appear here, but many don't. However, we do get some things that didn't appear on the LD - such as the commentary - that are exclusive to this DVD. Considering the nearly three-hour length of the movie, I won't whine too much about the missing supplements. It would be nice if Warner Bros. eventually issued a two-disc set that tossed in everything, but this package as a whole still seems very good.

The only significant negative I encountered on this DVD came from its main menu. When you select an item, the color changes very slightly to white instead of light yellow on a pale gold background. This can be insanely difficult to read; I often had almost no idea what section I highlighted. It all looks very pretty, but functionality went out the window.

Despite that mistake, I find myself in the extremely unusual position of recommending a musical. Although it has a number of flaws, enough of My Fair Lady was delightful and endearing for it to be worth watching. The DVD itself offers very good picture and sound, and it features a few nice extras as well. Fans of the genre will be most happy with a purchase of this winner, and others should at least give it a rental, as it provides a very charming and entertaining experience.

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