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The messy brilliance of the MY FAIR LADY film (VERY LONG!)
Posted by: Michael_Portantiere 05:59 pm EDT 03/31/21

Recent discussion of the virtues and flaws of the film version of MY FAIR LADY (see below) motivated me to finally sit down and write a detailed account of all of the flaws I find to exist in the film, despite its overall greatness. Please understand that the accent here is on what I see as wrong with the film, but that should NOT be taken to mean that I don't nevertheless view it as beautiful and brilliant overall. It's just that I find it hard to think of another major film that's so great overall yet so significantly flawed in so many ways, and this fascinates me. Of course, I would enjoy reading everyone's thoughts on any or all of these points. So, here you go:

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1. The main title sequence of the film begins with a series of gorgeous, ultra close-up, 70mm film images of beautiful flowers, one image fading into another while we hear on the soundtrack a brilliant adaptation of the original MY FAIR LADY overture as heard on Broadway. But the first flaw of the film occurs within the first few seconds, in that the quietly beautiful images of these delicately gorgeous flowers do not really comport with the music we hear at the start of the overture: a joyful, up-tempo, pulse-quickening orchestration of the song "You Did It." The flower images continue for what seems like quite a long time before the Warner Bros. logo finally appearas, and after the first few seconds of the film, the images begin to fade from one to the other more and more quickly, lending a somewhat frantic feeling to images that are supposed to give us a feeling of serene beauty. The pace of the fading out and in does slow when the Warner Bros. logo finally appears, and at that point, the music has switched to the lyrical ballad "On the Street Where You Live," which certainly fits the flower images better than "You Did It." But then we come to the final flaw of the main title sequence: As the title cards (MY FAIR LADY -- starring Audrey Hepburn -- Rex Harrison -- etc.) fade from one to the other, each new credit or set of credits begins to fade in before the previous one has faded out. Therefore, at each fade, two sets of lettering momentarily appear one on top of the other, looking very messy and marring the whole sequence with a sense of amateurishness.

2. The first scene of the film is a montage of people leaving a performance at the Covent Garden opera house, and then we see some of them getting caught in a rainstorm that suddenly begins. The transition from the elgantly attired patrons of the opera grandly exiting a temple of art and then suddenly scurrying about in the rain in topcoats, umbrellas, etc. is very effective, and the quick cutting of the sequence is exciting -- but then, in the middle of a shot of people milling about in the rain, there's a horrendous edit where everyone on screen suddeny shifts from one position in the frame to another. I can think of no other major movie that contains such a glaringly obvious editing error, and as many times as I've seen it, I still can't believe it was ever allowed to pass into this film. Anoter moment of sloppniess in this sequence: There's a shot of Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his mother walking through the rain as she says to him, "Freddy, go and find a cab. Do you want me to catch pneumonia?" But that line was obviously looped, and the actress's lip movements are not even close to matching it. (Note: MY FAIR LADY was famous restored some years ago, after the original elements had been allowed to deteriorate. Is it conceivable that a few frames of film were actually unsalvageable in this sequence, and that accounts for the awful edit mentioned above? Perhaps, although the background music continues to flow throughout the sequence with no obvious edit, so I don't think so.)

3. Rex Harrison's performance of "Why Can't the English?", recorded live on set, is absolutely brilliant, with a wonderful feeling of spontaneity. It gives us hope that all of the songs in the film will be performed and presented in the best, most meticulous and effective way possible. But then we get to "Wouldn't it Be Loverly," and the shift from the speaking voice of Audrey Hepburn to the singing voice of Marni Nixon is jarring. Over the decades, much has been written and said about why the vocal match between these two voices is so unconvicing, but I won't get into that here. Suffice to say that Marni herself always said she felt that, for various reasons, this was by far the least successful of her major dubbing jobs.

4. In the scene after "Wouldn't it Be Loverly?," Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is introduced, along with two of his friends. These three are walking through London in the very early morning hours, and then comes one of the film's oddest blunders: We see the square in which the men are standing slowly fill up with people as the activities of the day begin, but this is done in the stagiest way possible, with actors entering the frame and walking for a bit, then freezing in their tracks as more actors enter before freezing in THEIR tracks, and so on. Eventually, the frame is full of actors frozen in their tracks until they all suddenly begin to move at once and the scene continues (finally). Aside from taking much more time than it should, this sequence is off-putting because the actors freezing in their tracks (rather than having them be frozen photographically) is a theatrical device that is almost never used in the film medium and, indeed, is used nowhere else in THIS film.

5. The song "With a Little Bit of Luck" is well performed and effecively filmed overall, but it's damaged by the excision of the chorus as heard on the original cast recording and other recordings of the stage version of MY FAIR LADY. I think the problem here was that, for all the tremendous popularity of the property, MY FAIR LADY was filmed at a time when directors, producers, etc. had become afraid of certain trappings of musicals that were now considered too stagey and unrealstic for film -- including choral singing and ensemble dancing. To one extent or another, this fear marred many musical films made over the past 60 years or so, as witness for example the highly unfortunate excision of ALL choral singing from the film version of the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece SWEENEY TODD.

6. The song "A Hymn to Him" suffers from ome of the egregious grammatical errors that exist in MY FAIR LADY's lyrics -- errors which, of course, were carried over from the stage show. The worst line of the song in this regard is "I'd be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling than to ever let a woman in my life," which contains TWO errors in the space of one sentence -- all the more embarassing because they issue from the mouth of a character who supposedly prides himself on speaking flawlessly. There are also grammatical errors in several other songs in MFL, including "Why Can't the English?" ("By rights, she should be taken out and hung," "Arabians learn Arabian," "The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears") and "You Did It" ("You should get a medal or be even made a knight"). Lerner might have taken the filming of MFL as his opportunity to correct his own grammatical errors, but he declined or refused to do so, for whatever reason(s). Perhaps he figured that fixing these lines would only point up how sloppy he had been in making these errors in the first place.

7. For the "Just You Wait" number, the decision was made that Eliza's fantasy of meeting the King and his retinue and asking the King to (metaphorically) cut off Henry Higgins' head should be acted out on screen by actors playing (and, in the case of the King, singing) those roles. As filmed, this scene then proceeds to the point where we see Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins get "shot" by a firing squad. Now, the effectiveness of presenting this sequence in this manner, rather than as a solo for Eliza as it was done in the show, is debatable. But at any rate, if the filmmakers felt they needed other actors to flesh out the number, they probably should have done something more filmic to show that we had entered a fantasy world, rather than simply blurring the edges of the screen image a bit and then having the king and his retinue march onto the very realistic set of Hggins' home, and having Higgins "shot" right there in the alcove. Yet another flaw in this sequence: Audrey Hepburn herself sings the first and final sections of the song, but Marni Nixon's voice was used for the higher, center section -- or, at least, that portion of it that was not sung by "the King" -- and, again, there's a major disconnect between the sound of Hepburn's voice and the sound of Nixon's.

8. The first few lines of "I Could Have Danced All Night" point up how much more successful the dubbing of Nixon's singing voice for Hepburn's might have been if it had been done more carefully. But then, for the bulk of the song, Nixon's voice sounds very little if at all like how we imagine Hepburn would sound if she could sing, and this partly because the key that was chosen for the song is not ideal for Nixon to have made such an impression.

9. For the entirety of the "Ascot Gavotte" song proper, the chorus members sing in the perfectly clipped, pretentious, uppper-crust British accent that's required. But when a brief, partial reprise of the song is heard towards the end of the Ascot scene, the chorus sings in a flat, 100 percent American accent. To me, they sound like a different group of people presumably recorded in a different sesssion at a different time, and their sudddenly American sound mars the scene just before its climax. How or why this happened is beyond me, but there you have it.

10. In Freddy's "On the Street Where You Live" and the separate little song that precedes it ("When she mentioned how her aunt bit off the spoon..."), the singing voice of Bill Shirley is, if anything, an even worse match for Jeremy Brett's speaking voice than Marni Nixon's for Hepburn's -- plus, Shirley's Brit accent is only very sketchily indicated. So, again, there is a disconnect and we are taken out of the movie whenever the dubber's voice replaces the actor's.

11. "Show Me" is one of two songs in MFL in which Lerner's lyrics include phrases that would never be spoken in British English. Here, the phrase in question is "Don't talk of June, don't talk of fall, don't talk at all" -- which would never be heard in England, because they don't say "fall." For the original London production of MFL, and the cast album of that production, this line was changed to "Please don't implore, beg or beseech, don't make a speech!" -- but, for some reason, it was changed back for the movie, maybe with the weird justification that it was an American movie, not a British one.

12. "Get Me to the Church on Time" also contains a non-British expression, "stamp me and mail me," which had been changed for the original London production (to "bond me and bail me") but was changed back to the original for the movie. But the biggest flaw of this number is the fact that, whereas it was a huge dance number on stage, there's virtually no dancing in the film -- just a few soft-shoe steps by Stanley Holloway at one point. To add insult to injury, although all the dancing has been excised, the sequence is attenuated by having Holloway and/or the chorus repeat the same lyrics over and over, and over and over, again, with the result that the number ends up being simultaneously boring and annoying -- until the choral tag at the ending, which is very well done.

13. The ending of the movie, after "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," is what it is: apparenty, an almost exact recreation of the ending of the show as originally written, staged and directed. On the one hand, one can understand why neither Lerner nor Cukor, nor anyone else involved with the film, would have risked changing the ending of one of the most popular musicals in history, regardless of how controversial that ending had been from day one. But on the other hand, how wonderful would it have been if someone had come up with a more satisfying conclusion for the movie?
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