Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
In "My Fair Lady," which is the best stage musical of all time and one of the most loved romances, no one ever gets kissed. The most the leading man can concede about the heroine is that he has grown accustomed to her face. His rival is invited into her house, but would rather just stand outside on the street where she lives. And both her father and the man she loves consider marriage to be an abomination which they have been fortunate to escape.
There is, furthermore, no false sentimentality about the rags to riches rise of Eliza Doolittle, an unwashed Cockney who is plucked from Covent Garden and transformed into a "lady" by Professor Henry Higgins. "I may have sold flowers but I never sold myself," she tells him. "Now that I'm a lady, that's all I have to sell." Eliza returns to Higgins in the end not because he has reformed his attitudes, but because he has defended them. ("The question is not whether I have treated you rudely, but whether I have treated anyone else any better.") The play's famous last line ("Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?") is a demonstration of his perversity.
And yet "My Fair Lady" is one of the most joyous musicals ever written. Most of the songs are simply about being happy. What the story celebrates is not romance but intelligence - about being liberated from ignorance and set free to realize your potential. This story is so powerful that every age has embraced it; it began as a Greek legend and was retold in Elizabethan and Victorian times and reached its present form as George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" (1912), with its clear-eyed dissection of the British class system.
When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe chose Shaw's play as the story for "My Fair Lady," it must have seemed unlikely material.
Certainly today no one would invest a dime in it. But by wisely keeping much of Shaw's barbed and articulate dialog and marrying it with wonderful songs, they created a masterpiece. George Cukor filmed it in 1964, with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in the leads, and for the film's 30th anniversary it has been restored by Bob Harris, the same man who rescued "Lawrence of Arabia." I saw the restoration as it was meant to be seen, in wide screen and stereo sound, and although it is being re-released primarily for the home video market, if you can get anywhere near a theatrical presentation, try to see it. Not only don't they make movies like this anymore - they can't. The movie industry is no longer interested in musicals about adults, let alone adults with ideas.
The story is well-known. Eliza (Hepburn) is first insulted for her accent by the famous linguist Higgins (Harrison), and then offers him a shilling a lesson to teach her to speak like a lady.
Higgins and his friend Col. Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White) make a bet on the outcome, and Higgins transforms Eliza in six months. The supporting characters, who are all given major screen time and spirited Shavian speeches, include Eliza's father (Stanley Holloway) and Henry's mother (Gladys Cooper). Only poor lovestruck Freddie (Jeremy Brett) doesn't have a brain in his head: Shaw, impatient with romantic plotting, sticks him in when he needs him and then drops him without another word.
The story expresses boundless optimism. You can see it reflected in the decor of Henry Higgins' home, which is packed with the latest mechanical gadgets for teaching people how to speak better. (Including an ingenious gas flame that leaps up when Eliza pronounces her H's correctly.) You can see it, too, in Shaw's notion that if accent is the marker of class, then change your accent, and you can change your class. This was a revolutionary (if dubious) message in England in 1912, and is still thought-provoking.
As Higgins and Pickering train Eliza, a subterranean love story develops, and explodes with "The Rain in Spain," a song in which all three celebrate their success: Eliza at last can speak properly! Her solo, which follows, is "I Could Have Danced All Night," and it begins by referring to their dance of joy, and then subtly makes it clear that it is Henry Higgins in particular that she could have danced with. (It is one of the best-known bits of movie trivia that Hepburn's songs were dubbed by Marnie Nixon.) Higgins seems hardly to notice the girl, except as the object of his experiment. Even at the end of the film, after Eliza has stalked out and he has tracked her to his mother's house, their long conversation together is not one of sweet talk, confession and reconciliation - but of Shavian analysis of the situation. If these people are ever to fall in love, it will be with their heads, instead of the usual parts.
Cukor's film is a pleasure to behold. Harrison, suave and distant and somehow reptilian around the eyes, makes a Higgins who never ever seems a pushover for Eliza. Hepburn, so touchingly waiflike, brings a poignancy to her coming-out scenes that is magical; she never seems quite confident that anyone will like her.
The story needs its third wheel, Pickering, to give Higgins someone to bet against and argue with, and Wilfred Hyde-White is plummy, apple-cheeked and confiding. And Stanley Holloway's Mr. Doolittle (who would probably have been written out by modern Hollywood) gets some of Shaw's most pointed lines. "Have you no morals?" Higgins asks him. "No. I can't afford them." Cecil Beaton designed the production, the sets and costumes, from a remarkably realistic Covent Garden to the famous scene at Ascot, in which the many extras are dressed in whites, blacks and greys - a backdrop for Henry, in his sensible brown tweed suit, and Eliza, who has a touch of red in her dress. This is one of the bestlooking movies ever made.
As I watched it, I wondered what had happened to the tradition that produced it. Warner Brothers produced it with a sumptuous budget and wasn't afraid of its wit, its literacy, its ideas. Audiences loved the intricacies of Lerner's lyrics. And no one thought, even for an instant, that Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle should do anything obvious like actually touch one another.