The 1960s were a glorious time for the movie musical, at least as far as the Oscars were concerned. Aside from several merely receiving a nomination for Best Picture like “Hello, Dolly!,” “The Music Man,” and “Mary Poppins,” there were a few that went all the way to capture the top award, including the outstanding “West Side Story” (winner of ten Oscars), “The Sound of Music,” and “Oliver!” (both winning five each). However, one of the biggest successes of the decade came in 1964, when the Broadway musical “My Fair Lady” (based on the play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw) made its way to the big screen, which not only opened to praise from critics and audiences alike, but also took eight Oscars of its own, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
The classic story takes place in London and involves a not-so-well-spoken flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). It’s a day like any other, where she is just trying to sell her flowers to the crowd, but on this particular day she is overheard by a phonetics expert by the name of Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), who is so good in his field that he can narrow down where a person is from just by the way they speak. Professor Higgins claims to a new friend of his, Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), that he would be able to teach Eliza how to speak properly so as to pass her off as a high-class lady at a ball, a bet that Pickering eventually takes Higgins up on when Eliza approaches the Professor for speaking lessons at his house. He immediately gets to work trying to get her to speak like a lady, but soon finds that he just might have gotten himself in over his head.
“My Fair Lady” is considered one of the most classic musicals of all time, and if for nothing else, it is certainly remembered for its elegant and gorgeous designs from the costumes to the sets to the beautiful way its shot. Personally, this is one of those musicals that I’ve always liked, but never loved as much as some people seem to. For about two-thirds of this nearly three-hour film, we are treated to a delightful and engaging story that not only shows off those gorgeous designs, but also boasts a number of catchy tunes along the way, such as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “I Could’ve Danced All Night” (a personal favorite). Indeed, for most of the film, it seems to know exactly what it’s doing, taking us along for a ride that couldn’t possibly go wrong.
That being said, when it comes to its third act, there are a number of things that start to take away from the success it found so easily in those first two hours. For starters, and do be warned that there will be a few spoilers here for those that haven’t see this 50-year-old film, when it comes to the ending, it has never seemed very plausible that Higgins and Eliza would fall in love, not only because of the contemptible way that he has treated her throughout, but also because the film never really sets it up to occur, making it seem like an entirely random notion that was thrown in at the last second.
This also brings up the question of young Freddy (Jeremy Brett), the young man who falls in love with Eliza at the ball, causing him to attempt to court her later on. He suddenly disappears in the third act, becoming a random plot element that never gets resolved. Speaking of random plot elements, you also have Eliza’s father (Stanley Holloway) suddenly coming into a fortune from a wealthy American interested in morality. All of these pieces just don’t really seem to come together at the end, turning what could have been a great musical, into merely a good musical overall.
As for all of those Academy Awards it won the following year, did it really deserve them? Well, for costumes, art direction-set decoration, sound, music, and cinematography, absolutely, but as for the top three (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor), there were definitely better candidates that year. Common consensus nowadays is that Stanley Kubrick’s satirical Cold War masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” should have easily taken top honors, with Kubrick taking Best Director over George Cukor and Peter Sellers (or Peter O’Toole or Richard Burton for “Becket”) taking Best Actor over Rex Harrison (whose speak-singing does get annoying after a while).
However, it’s not particularly surprising that the Academy didn’t want to vote for a film about nuclear annihilation in the middle of the Cold War, not when they could vote for a grand, crowd-pleasing musical. All things considered, it’s still a fine film. It’ll just leave you wishing that they had been able to wrap it up better so that there weren’t so many implausible plot threads hanging about. However, even with all of its flaws, it still stands out as one of the most decadent examples of its genre, and when you throw in the classic songs, you simply can’t help but enjoy it.
“My Fair Lady” has been fully restored in 4K from 8K scans of original 65 mm elements with 96K resolution for its brand-new 50th anniversary Blu-ray, which features a gorgeous 2.20:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that makes the film look better than ever. All of the film’s lush costumes and sets sparkle in this incredible release, made even better by a bright and perfectly-sharp picture. The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio has also been extensively restored, making the classic songs and score sound the best they ever have. Overall, this is a truly remarkable restoration that presents the film in the best possible quality that it could ever be in.
More Loverly Than Ever: The Making of My Fair Lady – Then & Now (58 Minutes): An outstanding look at how My Fair Lady came about, following its creation from the play to the musical to the Academy Award-winning film, as well as how it was restored, featuring interviews with some of the crew and several restoration specialists. Definitely worth watching.
1963 Production Kick Off Dinner (3 Minutes): Archive footage of the titular event, featuring interviews with Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and more.
Los Angeles Premiere 10/28/64 (5 Minutes): Footage from the film’s L.A. premiere.
British Premiere (2 Minutes): Footage from the film’s British premiere.
George Cukor Directs Baroness Bina Rothschild (3 Minutes): A fascinating archival recording of George Cukor directing on set.
Rex Harrison Radio Interview (1 Minute): A very brief statement from Harrison about the film.
Production Tapes (7 Minutes): Lighting, hair & makeup, rain, and screen tests. Very much worth watching.
Alternate Audrey Hepburn Vocals (7 Minutes): Two tracks with the original Hepburn vocals.
Comments on a Lady (2 Minutes): Two very brief interviews, one in which Andrew Lloyd Webber discusses how he almost got to work with Alan Jay Lerner and another in which Martin Scorsese discusses film preservation.
The Story of a Lady (5 Minutes): A vintage promo for the film.
Design for a Lady (9 Minutes): A vintage featurette that takes a look at the film’s costumes and sets.
The Fairest Fair Lady (10 Minutes): Another vintage featurette that takes a look behind the scenes at costumes, sets, and filming.
Galleries, Trailers, and Awards (including Academy Award Highlights)
Despite a somewhat flawed and erratic third act, “My Fair Lady” rises on the strength of its lush costumes and settings, as well as several great and memorable songs, turning this into a musical that one can’t help but enjoy in all of its grandeur. On top of the classic musical, the 50th anniversary Blu-ray release comes packed with lots of intriguing special features, including an excellent look at the making of the film, and when you combine that with the excellent quality of the restoration, you get a release that is easily worthy of a recommendation.
Available on Special Edition Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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