Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
MY FAIR LADY (1964)
All I knew about My Fair Lady going in was that Doctor Dolittle teaches a nasty woman to be a nice woman, there’s a song about Spanish precipitation trends, and it has something to do with a Greek myth and a Shaw play and Pretty Woman and Kingsman: The Secret Service. I didn’t even know that the titular lady was Audrey Fucking Hepburn. Welp, now I’ve seen it! Cut out the Roy Orbison and crank up the Lerner and Loewe!
Goddamn, you know you’re not watching a classic romantic comedy if it doesn’t involve a wager of some kind. Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) is the rattiest, most unpopular girl in school… I mean, the streets. Her unsophisticated Cockney accent crosses paths with irascible elocution teacher Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) and he is appalled by this subhuman’s attempts at speech and not being poor. Naturally, a fellow phonetics bro bets him that he can’t transform this walking sack of fucking garbage into what we already know Audrey Hepburn looks like.
“As God is my witness, I’ll turn this slightly disheveled Mary Poppins into an attractive woman!”
As predictable as this sort of story can be, I didn’t expect a quest to pass off a peasant as a princess to get so Fifty Shades-y. Immediately Higgins stresses how he doesn’t do romance and he tells Eliza what to eat and wear and think and he straps her into all kinds of machines. No, they’re not BDSM pleasure devices, they’re designed to help her repeat common English phrases like, “How kind of you to let me come.” Oh, Jesus, this is totally a sex thing.
Yes, I pretty much figured out exactly where the story would go, but it’s still immensely entertaining. There’s some great exploration of struggle between classes and sexes and also goofy fun scenes and Audrey Hepburn in pretty dresses. Is that enough to fill three hours? No, so they padded it out with a pointless side plot about Eliza’s drunk-ass dad also getting snazzed up offscreen by some other rich guy!
Okay. Sure. I guess.
Honestly, though, the running time is only noticeable towards the end, thanks to the rest of the movie being carried by some great performances. Hey, is the next section about the acting? Convenient!
Rex Harrison is a saucy bastard in this movie. His Henry Higgins isn’t your average macho misogynist dickhead; he doesn’t objectify women so much as he simply can’t stand them. Don’t get me wrong, he is a gigantic gaping asshole, but his attitude is less “know your place” and more “eh, whatever” and it’s way too entertaining to watch him be a fussy self-centered prick. It takes real acting chops for a character to suggest that people with Cockney accents shouldn’t be allowed to live and my response is: “Ha, this guy’s fun.”
Oh shit… he hates women… he wears fedoras…
Audrey Hepburn is quite the little spitfire as Eliza Doolittle. She’s brash and doesn’t take shit from anybody, which is why it’s so fun to watch her and Rex Harrison play off of each other. It’s not all shouting and complaining, though; there’s a scene later in the film where Henry’s disrespect pushes Eliza to her breaking point, and Hepburn’s performance left me fairly shaken up.
Oh, honey, no, you don’t need him. Let’s get some Denny’s and talk about it.
Honestly, Rex and Audrey are so good that every other actor fades into the background. Probably the most fun is Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father Alfred, who’s a goofy old boozer but has no fucking reason to be cut to whatsoever.
“Huh? Why are you showing whatever the hell I’m up to? Go back to Eliza!”
Other actors of note include Wilfrid Hyde-White as Higgins’s newfound live-in manfriend Colonel Hugh Pickering (who proposes the initial bet), and Jeremy Brett as Eliza’s upper crust suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill. I’d tell you what they were like but I’m too busy thinking of all the funny shit Rex and Audrey got up to.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
This is a gigantic beast of a movie packed with twenty-five songs, so I’m gonna have to keep it to the biggest hits and the shittiest misses, with everything in between getting stamped with the Seal of Mediocrity. First up, our introduction to Henry’s linguistic pedantry is “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?” It’s a bit of a talk-singy number, but the lyrics are a fantastically funny way to show us Henry’s occupation and his ornery attitude towards language. I’d say it also sets up the audience to hate him, but I’m the editor for this blog, so apologies if I side with the Grammar Nazi.
Then Eliza gets to imagine a decadent, chocolate-filled life off the streets in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” I honestly thought there was a typo on the DVD case, but I guess it’s the Cockney accent. It’s a nice tune with some light choreography up and down a horse-drawn cart, and serves to show us how much poor people don’t want to be poor.
A thought I’d not considered until this very moment!
So, we know Henry Higgins hates crappy pronunciation, but how does he feel about women?? Oh boy, you’ll find out in “An Ordinary Man,” in which he lists off the pleasures of bachelordom, 95% of them being “not having to deal with whatever bullshit women are always up to.” (The other 5%: not meeting their fat, loud families.) It should be noted that this song is being sung to Colonel Pickering, a dude he just met and invited to live in his house solely because they’re both fans of phonemes.
Infer whatever you would like from his “hello, sailor” pose!
Now’s a good time to mention that this film’s characters tend to break into song, but not dance. Still, they find other ways to get creative, like in “Just You Wait,” a vengeful fantasy sequence in which Eliza has Henry murdered. I wondered when musicals would stop being bright, cheerful affairs and never would have guessed the gritty darkness would begin in My Fair Lady. Anyway, the whole scene is an unexpected blast.
Aww, what a sweet little psychopath.
Now, here’s where things got interesting for me. You see, musicals are a pretty weird format when you don’t ever really watch them, and my brain gets hung up on what’s “actually” happening in each song because there’s no way every character knows the words and the steps. So, in “The Rain in Spain,” Henry and Eliza sing and dance to celebrate her advancements in elocution, but the following song is “I Could Have Danced All Night,” in which Eliza is specifically commenting on the dancing she did with Henry in the previous musical number. Should this meta moment blow my mind as much as it does? Probably not as much as the fact that Eliza is likely not referring to “dancing” all night.
The weirdest part? Colonel Pickering was watching.
My absolute favorite scene in the movie is “Ascot Gavotte,” in which a bunch of insanely wealthy folks sing a flat, boring song about the excitement of horse racing. They stand completely still in fashionable poses and drone in monotone about how much fun they’re having, and I don’t think I’ll ever see a better condemnation of snobbery.
I won’t spoil who wins the Gigantic Hat Contest.
In a similar vein of lyrics mismatched with emotions, Higgins and Pickering sing “You Did It,” a jaunty tune about what a genius the professor is for passing off a guttersnipe as royalty, but for the duration of the scene, Eliza is in the background becoming increasingly upset that she isn’t receiving any credit for her transformation. Musicals are pretty brilliant like that.
Good show, old chap!
I’m starting to think this is just the movie for English majors, because in addition to the opening number about the downfall of our language, Eliza gives us a perfect bit of writing advice in “Show Me.” She’s fed up with words; she wants Henry and Freddy to show their feelings rather than talk about them. Any song that combines sexy confidence and good character development techniques is a surefire hit to me.
Also a hit to me: hats with food on them!
If you haven’t inferred enough about Higgins from his first female-hating number, then brace yourself for a song that screams, “Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you” from the title alone: “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man?).” I know, it’s supposed to be Higgins going on about how he wishes women weren’t all the same (in his typical sexist-as-fuck fashion), but so many lines sound like a six-year-old figuring out his sexuality for the first time. And it doesn’t help that Higgins flashes the outline of his balls at Pickering as he laments, “Why can’t a woman be like you?”
Of COURSE Pickering looks.
Sadly, Henry and Hugh aren’t married in the morning. Instead, Higgins confronts Eliza for taking off, and she smacks him in the ego with “Without You,” an empowering ode to how the world will just keep on turning without the likes of him.
Performed in Drax’s jungle lair from Moonraker, for some reason.
And Henry takes off to have his big complaining number as well, only he keeps dipping into sentimental nostalgia for Eliza in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” It’s a nice capper to the story that still leaves the ending sort of ambiguous.
Wait, “ambiguous,” I’ve just remembered who Higgins and Pickering remind me of!
Honestly, even the songs I skipped are pretty good for not being too memorable, but fuck both of Eliza’s dad’s songs. I don’t care if they’re big, catchy showstoppers, they don’t belong in this movie because his character doesn’t belong in this movie.
OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:
- I haven’t really been mentioning it in prior articles (looking at you, Singin’ in the Rain), but there’s a whole lot of dubbing going on at this point in the history of musical cinema. Audrey Hepburn isn’t doing her own singing throughout this film, which is… irksome. But, nice work, Marni Nixon!
- I very much want to believe that this film takes place in the same universe as Doctor Dolittle. Henry and Eliza married, he took her name “Doolittle” as an attempt at accepting women as equals, his obsession with mastering human speech eventually led him to try talking to animals, Eliza left over this craziness, Henry was laughed out of every major language institution, he changed his name to “John Dolittle” and ran away to the countryside, taking up veterinary medicine so he could practice communicating with animals in secret. Tell me I’m wrong.
- Cinemanaut John instantly told me that the ending of the play is much different, with Eliza and Henry continuing to despise each other. That sounds great, but I still applaud the movie for ending more subtly than the big Hollywood reunion I expected.
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
Yes, there are some terribly misogynistic lyrics in this film, but they all serve to show what a gigantic assface Henry is, so it’s sexism with a purpose (kind of, this was still the ’60s, of course). The only bad line that actually made me physically cringe, however, was this forced rhyme from “You Did It” that any professor of speech should be utterly ashamed of…
“Every time we looked around,
There he was, that hairy hound from Budapest,
Never leaving us alone.
Never have I ever known a ruder pest…”
I enjoyed the hell out of this movie while still agreeing with prior criticisms I’d heard lobbed at it. Yes, it’s far too long. Yes, they should have stuck with the ending of the play. Yes, it has some pretty fucked-up messages on gender that it could try to pass off as simply being Henry’s own shitty ideas, but I nevertheless wouldn’t show this to a small child just in case. All that aside, it’s a fun flick featuring two amazing lead performers and far too many incredible songs. It’s definitely worth watching, but feel free to check your phone whenever that drunk guy shows up.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)