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A Fair Lady, worthy of Pygmalion

Consider this possibility: a romantic comedy with no nudity, no sex, and no kissing. In fact, there aren’t even any declarations of love. The closest the female character comes to admitting her feelings is saying that she could have danced all night with the man; the closest he gets is remarking that he’s grown accustomed to her face. Could such a project lift off the pad in today’s climate? Almost certainly not – no studio would green light the film without assurances that elements would be added to spice things up. So it’s fortunate that circumstances and expectations were different in 1964, when My Fair Lady reached the screen.

More than three decades later, the movie, which won the Best Picture Oscar, remains a musical favorite. The film’s origins go back to George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, which was subsequently adapted into a Broadway musical and then later adapted into a G-rated movie by Warner Brother’s studio, to be directed by George Cukor in 1964. Rex Harrison stars as the ever bad-mannered Professor Higgins, Stanley Holloway as the drunken Mr. Doolittle and fresh-faced and charismatic Audrey Hepburn in the leading role of Eliza Doolittle.

My Fair Lady is a timeless tale about a common flower girl becoming a duchess-or at least be able to speak like one. The basic storyline progresses at a leisurely tempo, leaving room for music and songs that compliment the storyline. The focal storyline concerns Eliza, a poor Cockney from Covent Garden who is transformed into a lady under the tutelage of Higgins.

When he first encounters her, an unwashed girl with a grating voice selling flowers, he forms an opinion of her and calls her, among other things, a “squashed cabbage leaf” and an “incarnate insult to the English language. His conviction has not changed when, the next morning, she shows up at his house, asking him to teach her how to speak properly and be a lady. Although at first reluctant, Higgins, intrigued by the challenge of re-making a woman, agrees. He tells her that she is stay there for six months learning to speak beautifully, like a duchess.

Higgins also tells her that, “At the end of six months you will be taken to an embassy ball in a carriage, beautifully dressed. If the king finds out you are not a lady, you will be taken to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls! With this warning in mind, Eliza begins her lessons and In addition to cleaning her up, teaching her how to behave in society, and instructing her about what to wear, Higgins completely re-shapes her language skills.

By depriving her of sleep and forcing her to repeat phrases like “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain,” he hopes to rid her of her ghastly accent. It’s impossible to discuss My Fair Lady without mentioning the film’s unique and unmistakable look. From the sumptuous costumes to the gorgeous set designs, this is a movie into which a world of care and effort was invested.

Not only does My Fair Lady feature an involving story with compelling characters, but there’s a substantial list of charming songs, the best-known of which, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” is familiar to almost everyone (even those who haven’t seen the movie). The only shame in this movie is that only two of the cast members actually sang their numbers (Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway), but despite her best efforts, Hepburn lacked the necessary vocal range, so a singer was brought in to dub her songs, which ended up costing Audrey Hepburn the academy award that year (awarded to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins).

Few genres of films are as magical as musicals, and few musicals are as intelligent and lively as My Fair Lady. I’d recommend My Fair Lady, to anyone who loves musicals, tales of from rags to riches, romantic comedies, or fan’s of Bernard Shaw’s work. Rarely have so many minutes in front of a T. V. been passed this enjoyably.

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