Day 17 – A Musical
They’ve seen better days, but musicals used to be Hollywood’s bread and butter, and were a cinematic mainstay until the late 60’s and early 70’s, when shifting musical tastes and a series of crappy films (Paint Your Wagon, Man of La Mancha, Hello Dolly, etc.) largely pushed them out of public favor for a good twenty-or-so years. There were a few exceptions to this (Grease was the highest-grossing picture of 1978), but live-action movie musicals didn’t really come back into favor until 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, which apparently was the bugle call for studios to summon their choreographers and chorus lines once again.
As a kid who did theater in both high school and college and grew up watching the likes of Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast, I enjoy musicals. However, there’s something about movie musicals that makes me a bit twitchy. Perhaps they highlight the differences between the stage and film, and perhaps it’s because (until recently) they lack the pacing and energy of the Disney Renaissance pictures, but there’s something about many movie musicals, even ones from the so-called Golden Years of Hollywood, that seem pokey and unwieldy. Even some of the stone cold classics fall on me with a timid “Eh,” and today’s entry is a good example of a Historically Important Film that really doesn’t do much for me.
My Fair Lady (1964)
I first came across My Fair Lady during my sophomore year of college, when one of my old girlfriends wanted to watch it because it was a movie she’d grown up with. Having heard a great deal about Lady’s reputation as one of the greatest film musicals teh evars, I was more than happy to oblige. Having seen it, though, I started to reflect on the notion that sky-high expectations are rarely beneficial for movies, especially movies made during a wholly different period of movie making. I thought it was okay. Not great, certainly not bad, but okay.
My Fair Lady is a love story of sorts between the gentleman linguist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) and commoner flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). One day, as a showmanship of how awesome he is, Higgins brags to the entire street corner his diction instruction is so good, he can take the lowliest commoner imaginable (e.g. Eliza, who happens to walk by) and pass her off as a duchess. Though he merely used her as an example, Eliza tracks Higgins down and asks for him to teach her to speak properly; she wants to open a flower shop, but her thick Cockney accent prevents her from commanding the respect she needs. Though Eliza hasn’t much money, Higgins’ cohort, Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is intrigued by the woman’s tenacity, and bets Higgins that he can’t pass her off as a serving girl, let alone a duchess.
Eliza's journey from low-class flower girl to upper-class faux-duchess may remind you of She's All That (they were both based on Pygmalion), but plays out much better.
The rest of the film is Eliza and Higgins’ journey together as he instructs her on being a lady, as they slowly start to realize that, darn it, they actually like each other, though whether or not they actually get together is kept open-ended. This plot could have easily been transposed into, say, a romantic comedy vehicle for Kristin Belle and Gerard Butler, the execution is much better and less hackneyed than it could have been. My Fair Lady gives its characters space to interact with each other, giving the actors a chance to develop them, and the audience time to warm up to them.
It’s the film’s status as a musical that gives me a bit of pause. My Fair Lady is absolutely stuffed to the gills with songs (some 25, including the Overture and Intermission), but they simply didn’t resound with me. Perhaps I could use a repeat viewing, but the only thing I remember of the song selection (apart from the songs I’d heard in the trailers from my parents’ The Sound of Music VHS) is Rex Harrison’s prattling sing-talk. Call me spoiled by the likes of Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman, but I like my songs to have a little more, well, tune—there’s a very good chance you won’t hear anyone audition for American Idol singing “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man?).” Elsewhere, the songs sound a bit forced for my liking, and the lip-synching is comical (“You Did It” is guilty of both of these counts, but there are others that have a bit of each).
He's made a living off of this sort of character, so why stop now?
The acting (to my recollection) is good. I can’t remember very many particulars about Hepburn’s performance, but I do appreciate how she was able to pull off both her low-class Cockney and upper-class Queen's English accent, and keep the character consistent—that she, famously, did not sing her own songs doesn’t bother me because, hey, neither did Scott Weigner or Linda Larkin. Rex Harrison plays his usual irascible charming bastard part, and I’ve no reason to believe he’s worse here than in other iterations of the character (he won an Oscar for it, too; go figure). Everyone else fades from my mind, including (to my own disappointment) Jeremy Brett’s Freddy; I rather liked his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, and I would like have more to say about his part than “Well, yep, he sure was in the movie.”
Well, anyway. I don’t think My Fair Lady is bad, and I’m sure it deserves its place in history—I just wish I could understand the appeal. It just isn’t that much fun—pompous, flashily executed, and well-produced all around, but not much fun. I would choose another musical released during the same year, Mary Poppins, over this one in a heartbeat. So covered in accolades is this film, perhaps its greatness is self-evident, and if I viewed it a few more times, I could really get it.