AFI Countdown Challenge #91: My Fair Lady

I did once see a stage production of My Fair Lady, a small, local production where a friend of mine had a chorus role.  It was fine.  I’ve read the original play by George Bernard Shaw.  It was also fine.  But I had never seen the classic film version with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Hamilton.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I checked the DVD case and saw it had a running time of nearly three hours.

That’s a lot of musical.

Granted, the movie shows close-ups of flowers for a full minute as it starts before we even see the title, and there’s another five minutes before anyone even speaks.  The movie takes its time.  That’s fine.

What isn’t fine?  Professor Henry Higgins.

Here’s the scenario that is fairly well-known on its own:  Professor Henry Higgins (Hamilton), a professor of elocution and phonetics, takes a bet with his friend and colleague Colonel Pickering that he can make a cockney flowergirl named Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) into the facsimile of a highborn lady, a good enough illusion that she can attend the Ambassador’s Ball in six months time without anyone figuring out she’s a working class girl.  And he’s successful.

So, what’s the problem there?  Well, the plot deals with the two coming together romantically at the end, as is expected in movies in general and musicals in particular, but why the living hell should they?

Higgins takes Eliza in and then trains her to speak, a long, arduous process that causes the servants to sing about “poor Professor Higgins,” who is having a real headache dealing with this stubborn, lowborn woman.  Also, from where I was sitting, it sure looked like Eliza was the one suffering, so maybe the servants meant it ironically.  Plus, Eliza is played by legendary beauty Audrey Hepburn, so even in her dirty flowergirl phase, she’s hardly unattractive.

She’s…hideous?

So, really, I get what Higgins eventually sort of sees in her though merely being “accustomed to her face” is hardly the most romantic declaration ever.  It’s the reverse that baffles me.  Higgins takes all the credit for Eliza’s successful passing as a lady.  Higgins can barely offer a word of praise for the entire movie (he once barely refers to her as attractive under the “right” circumstances), isn’t remotely nice to her, and seems to expect her to be grateful to him.  When the bet is completed, Eliza realizes she’s essentially been used, and Higgins just does not see it.

And it’s not like there aren’t other potential suitors for Eliza.  In fact, there is one, a rather dumb but sweet wealthy young man named Freddy.  Instead, she goes back to Higgins, the one man who can’t be bothered to be kind to her as he seems to have no concerns that she may have swallowed a marble or want a strawberry tart.  Colonel Pickering, the housekeeper Mrs. Pierce, even Higgins’ own mother treat Eliza with concern.  And yet…Higgins gets the girl and doesn’t change his ways one iota.  In fact, he ends the movie by giving her more instructions while he lounges in a chaise.  Jackass…

Maybe Eliza doesn’t have the sort of self respect a woman should in these sorts of situations.

This is why I can’t get into Grease…the subtext of that musical tries to wallpaper over serious flaws in the narrative with happy songs that say being yourself isn’t the answer, but just to be the same sort of “bad” girl as everybody else.  Here, Eliza needs some self-respect to find a guy who will treat her right and not expect everything his way without complaint.  Boo!

That’s something of a shame.  There are some great songs in this story.  We may know where the rain in Spain falls, or when people may be getting married, or even if Higgins has indeed grown accustomed to Eliza’s face, but it comes in the service of a story that pushes a woman’s worth down.

Though I will say:  this movie clearly went all-out.  The sets often look huge, the extras numerous, and there’s a horse race that isn’t made up of stock footage.  Director George Cukor doesn’t have a lot of name recognition today, but his work will return as we work our way through the list.  No matter how I feel about Higgins and Eliza, musicals like this are the reason the genre was invented for the big screen in the first place.

Then again, there’s also this:

 

NEXT UP:  It’s another one I haven’t seen before, and this one is a doozy.  Not only is it the first fully sound movie, it has a lot of blackface in it as far as I know.  And by “a lot,” I mean that many of the images I found of the movie on Google showed it.  Come back soon for The Jazz Singer.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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