Top 100 Movie Review: No. 046 – My Fair Lady (1964)

Ranked 046 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).  Watched movie during May 2020.

Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Eliza Doolittle), Rex Harrison (Professor Henry Higgins), Stanley Holloway (Alfred P. Doolittle), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Colonel Hugh Pickering), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Higgins), Jeremy Brett (Freddy Eynsford-Hill)
Director:  George Cukor
My rating: 9.5 / 10

Plot
In Edwardian London, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) is a flower girl with a thick often unintelligible accent. The noted phonetician Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) encounters Eliza at Covent Garden and laments the vulgarity of her dialect (“Why Can’t the English speak English?”). Higgins also meets Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), another linguist returned from India, and invites him to stay as his houseguest. Eliza and her friends wonder what it would be like to live a comfortable life (“Wouldn’t It Be Lovely?”).

Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), stops by the next morning searching for money for a drink (“With a Little Bit of Luck”). Soon after, Eliza comes to Higgins’s house, seeking lessons so that she can get a job as an assistant in a florist’s shop. Initially reluctant Higgins wagers Pickering that, within six months, he could teach English so well she could pass as a duchess.

Eliza becomes part of Higgins’s household but struggles to adapt early on, especially the first day being forced to have a bath and her old clothes thrown out. Though Higgins sees himself as a kind-hearted man who merely cannot get along with women (“I’m an Ordinary Man”), to others he appears self-absorbed and misogynistic. Eliza endures Higgins’s tyrannical speech tutoring but she dreams of different ways to kill him (“Just You Wait”). 

Eliza’s father visits the household seeking money for Eliza.  Higgins threatens several times that he can take Eliza.  Eventually Alfred is given 5 pounds after rejecting 10 pounds as too much as you’d have to be responsible with so much.

Just as Higgins is about to give up on her, Eliza suddenly recites one of her diction exercises in perfect upper-class style (“The Rain in Spain”). Though Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper, insists that Eliza go to bed, she declares she is too excited to sleep after this success despite it being 3 am in the morning (“I Could Have Danced All Night”).

For her first public tryout, Higgins takes Eliza to his mother Mrs Higgin’s (Gladys Cooper) box at Ascot Racecourse. Eliza eventually shocks everyone when she forgets herself while watching a race and reverts to foul language, she does however capture the heart of Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett). Freddy calls on Eliza that evening, and he declares that he will wait for her in the street outside Higgins’ house (“On the Street Where You Live”).

Eliza’s final test requires her to pass as a lady at the Embassy Ball. After more weeks of preparation, she is ready. All the ladies and gentlemen at the ball admire her, and the Queen of Transylvania invites her to dance with the prince (“Embassy Waltz”). A Hungarian phonetician the Higgins trained, Zoltan Karpathy, attempts to discover Eliza’s origins. Higgins allows Karpathy to dance with Eliza to see if he can determine who Eliza is.

Intermission

The ball is a success; Karpathy has declared Eliza to be a Hungarian princess as no one born in England coul speak English so well. Pickering and Higgins revel in their triumph (“You Did It”), failing to pay attention to Eliza. Eliza is insulted at receiving no credit for her success, packing up and leaving the Higgins house. As she leaves she finds Freddy, who begins to tell her how much he loves her, but she tells him that she has heard enough words; if he really loves her, he should show it (“Show Me”).

Eliza and Freddy return to Covent Garden but she finds she no longer feels at home there. Her father is there as well, and he tells her that he has received a surprise bequest from an American millionaire due to Higgins accidental interference, which has raised him to middle-class respectability, and now must marry his lover. Doolittle and his friends have one last spree before the wedding (“Get Me to the Church on Time”).

Higgins awakens the next morning. He finds himself out of sorts without Eliza. He wonders why she left after the triumph at the ball and concludes that men (especially himself) are far superior to women (“A Hymn to Him”). Pickering notices the Professor’s lack of consideration, and also leaves the Higgins house.

Higgins despondently visits his mother’s house, where he finds Eliza. Eliza declares she no longer needs Higgins (“Without You”). As Higgins walks home, he realizes he’s grown attached to Eliza (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”). At home, he sentimentally reviews the recording he made the day Eliza first came to him for lessons, hearing his own harsh words. Eliza suddenly appears in his home. In suppressed joy at their reunion, Professor Higgins scoffs and asks, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”  

What’s to Like
The music, the energy, the fun, the comedy, the costumes, the dialogue and emotions on display between Eliza and Professor Higgins.

What’s not to Like
The casual misogyny is reflective of a different time but at least is addressed in the last 30 minutes.

Thoughts
I must have seen this movie as a child as I recalled so many of the songs and even sang a long for a few verse.  This could also be because so much of this movie has either been copied or parodied.  I could see some parallel with the Julia Robert’s Pretty Women (1990) movie in that the male character actually learns a lot more from the woman he is saving.

While this movie is on the long side at 3 hours the time flies by as you can captured by the songs.  The surprise to me was how funny and enjoying Eliza’s dad Alfred Doolittle was as he sings about with ‘a little bit of luck’ you don’t have to work and later ‘get me to the church on time’.  Unlike some musicals the conversations are just as good if not better, the barter between Eliza and Professor Higgins, and Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are great.

Both Eliza and Higgins are strong willed people with egos, more obvious with Higgins but it’s there with Eliza as well.  Eliza has a lot of agency across the entire movie, she is the one who sets the movie going by seeking out Professor Higgins and calling him on his earlier boosting that he could train Eliza to be thought of as a duchess.  It is also Eliza who leaves Professor Higgins when he does not acknowledge her role in successfully being thought of as a duchess or princess.

While Hepburn didn’t sing her own songs her range of speaking street English to the Queen’s English is remarkable achievement to believe the total range as real. A winner of eight well deserved Academy Awards.

Eliza pushes against the class system she was born into, and against those trying to take advantage of her or disrespecting her. Her words to Higgins putting him in his place and isn’t as important as he thinks was great:

They can still rule with land without you. 
Windsor Castle will stand without you. 
And without much ado we can all muddle through without you.

A thoroughly enjoyable movie.  

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Rex Harrison) – winner
  • Best Director (George Cukor) – winner
  • Best Cinematography, Colour – winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour – winner
  • Best Costume Design, Colour – winner
  • Best Sound – winner
  • Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment – winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Stanley Holloway) – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Gladys Cooper) – nominee
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Alan Lerner) – nominee
  • Best Film Editing (William H. Ziegler) – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries in this amazing world. https://nathanburgessinsights.com/travel/
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