I don’t know why I do this, but I do. I always think that musicals, especially these older, mid-century musicals, should have a lot of dancing in them. I don’ t think that’s an actual requirement, especially since probably my favorite musical of all time (Once) doesn’t have really any dancing in it. Still, I count it as a demerit that the second biggest dance scene in My Fair Lady involves an older gentleman kind of shifting his weight around as he and a bunch of people sing about drinking a lot. That’s not too spectacular. Especially in a movie this long, a nice dance scene or two might have enlivened the proceedings a bit. That’s not to say that there aren’t fun or entertaining things happening, it’s just that there might have been more.
And the movie doesn’t really help its case when it features Audrey Hepburn squawking constantly for the first hour of the film’s three hour run time. Is the first version of Eliza Doolittle the most shrewish character in movie history? Potentially? You do get a hint of her humanity through “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” as she dreams of a better lot in life, but she also won’t get out of her own way to beat a path towards that lot. Instead, it must be beat into her through a brutal regimen of vocal exercises and propriety classes. Of course, it leads to a pretty monumental change and the later two versions of Eliza are both more tolerable and even root-able once her voice loses its bluster. In fact, the middle version, where she speaks properly but uses her street vernacular at the horse race, is probably the best version. Really funny scene there. Unfortunately, the movie also kind of loses her after that happens. It takes the climax of her achievements out of her hands (or mouth) and puts it into Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins’ post-victory song. Ugh, it might have been nice to see it happen rather than hear him sing about it.
Though the movie is called My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins is its main character. Harrison performs him superbly, slyly, as a genius with little regard for those around him. I loved the opening song as he places random theater-goers within the town of their residence just by listening to them talk. And later, he does dedicate himself to helping Doolittle, an admirable task. But he still often treats her as an object rather than a real person. This is, then, a movie of self discovery as Doolitle realizes she has worth and Higgins realizes other people can be valuable, too. A nice message, it just takes a little long in getting there.
That isn’t to say, though, that the movie is poorly made. In fact, it’s kind of a wonder, visually speaking. There are a few times when director George Cukor stops his actors in mid stride and composes them in the frame as if it were a painting. Once, towards the beginning after the first night in the film, he has a kind of opening up shop sequence which begins with a few people entering the frame and then freezing in place while still others enter and then freeze and then the whole thing happens once again. I’m not sure what’s going on there, other than maybe that Cukor is calling attention to the artifice of social stratification or maybe to the fact that we all play our own roles in life, even as we go about our chores or jobs. It happens again at the horse race with all of the ritual and formality that such an occasion demands. In that way Doolittle provides a tonic to the stuffy nature of the upper class. If you don’t agree, she’ll do you in!