As Henry Higgins might have whooped, "By George, they've got
it!" They've made a superlative film from the musical stage show My Fair Lady—a
film that enchantingly conveys the rich endowments of the famous stage
production in a fresh and flowing cinematic form. The happiest single thing
about it is that Audrey Hepburn
superbly justifies the decision of the producer,
Jack L. Warner, to get her to
play the title role that Julie
Andrews so charmingly and popularly originated on the stage.
All things considered, it is the brilliance of Miss Hepburn
as the Cockney waif who is transformed by Professor Henry Higgins into an
elegant female facade that gives an extra touch of subtle magic and
individuality to the film, which had a bejeweled and bangled premiere at the
Criterion last night.
Other elements and values that are captured so exquisitely in
this film are but artful elaborations and intensifications of the stage material
as achieved by the special virtuosities and unique flexibilities of the screen.
There are the basic libretto and music of Alan Jay Lerner and
Frederick Loewe, which were inspired by the wit and wisdom in the dramatic
comedy Pygmalion of George Bernard Shaw. With Mr. Lerner serving as the
screen playwright, the structure and, indeed, the very words of the musical play
as it was performed on Broadway for six and a half years are preserved. And
every piece of music of the original score is used.
There is punctilious duplication of the motifs and patterns of
the decor and the Edwardian costumes and scenery, which
Cecil Beaton designed for the
stage. The only difference is that they're expanded. For instance, the Covent
Garden set becomes a stunningly populated market, full of characters and
movement in the film; and the embassy ball, to which the heroine is transported
Cinderellalike, becomes a dazzling array of regal splendor, as far as the eye
can reach, when laid out for ritualistic emphasis on the Super-Panavision color
screen. Since Mr.
Beaton's decor was fresh and
flawless, it is super-fresh and flawless in the film.
In the role of Professor Higgins,
Harrison still displays the egregious egotism and
ferocity that he so vividly displayed on the stage, and Stanley Holloway still
comes through like thunder as Eliza's antisocial dustman dad.
Yes, it's all here, the essence of the stage show—the pungent
humor and satiric wit of the conception of a linguistic expert making a lady of
a guttersnipe by teaching her manners and how to speak, the pomp and mellow
grace of a romantic and gone-forever age, the delightful intoxication of music
that sings in one's ears.
The added something is what Miss Hepburn
George Cukor as the director has
been able to distill from the script.
For want of the scales of a jeweler, let's just say that what
Miss Hepburn brings is a fine
sensitivity of feeling and a phenomenal histrionic skill. Her Covent Garden
flower girl is not just a doxy of the streets. She's a terrifying example of the
elemental self-assertion of the female sex. When they try to plunge her into a
bathtub, as they do in an added scene, which is a wonderfully comical creation
of montage and pantomime, she fights with the fury of a tigress. She is not one
to submit to the still obscure customs and refinements of a society that is
alien to her.
But when she reaches the point where she can parrot the
correct words to describe the rain in Spain, she acknowledges the thrill of
achieving this bleak refinement with an electrical gleam in her eyes. And when
she celebrates the male approval she receives for accomplishing this goal, she
gives a delightful demonstration of ecstasy and energy by racing about the
Higgins mansion to the music of "I Could Have Danced All Night."
It is true that Marni Nixon provides the lyric voice that
seems to emerge from Miss Hepburn,
but it is an excellent voice, expertly synchronized. And everything Miss Hepburn
mimes to it is in sensitive tune with the melodies and words.
is most expressive in the beautiful scenes where she achieves the manners and
speech of a lady, yet fails to achieve that one thing she needs for a sense of
belonging—that is, the recognition of the man she loves.
She is dazzlingly beautiful and comic in the crisply satiric
Ascot scene played almost precisely as it was on the stage. She is stiffly
serene and distant at the embassy ball and almost unbearably poignant in the
later scenes when she hungers for love. Mr.
Cukor has maneuvered Miss Hepburn
Harrison so deftly in these scenes
that she has one perpetually alternating between chuckling laughter and dabbing
the moisture from one's eyes.
This is his singular triumph. He has packed such emotion into
this film—such an essence of feeling and compassion for a girl in an all
too-human bind—that he has made this rendition of My Fair Lady the most
eloquent and moving that has yet been done.
There are other delightful triumphs in it. Mr.
Harrison's Higgins is great—much
sharper, more spirited, and eventually more winning than I recall it on the
stage. Mr. Holloway's dustman is titanic, and when he roars through his sardonic
paean to middle-class morality in "Get Me to the Church on Time," he and his
bevy of boozers reach a high point of the film.
Wilfrid Hyde-White as Colonel Pickering, who is Higgins's
urbane associate, Mona Washburn as the Higgins housekeeper,
Gladys Cooper as
Higgins's svelte mama, and, indeed, everyone in the large cast is in true and
Though it runs for three hours—or close to it—this My Fair
Lady seems to fly past like a breeze. Like Eliza's disposition to dancing,
it could go on, for all I'd care, all night.
© 1964 The New York Times