On Oct. 21, 1964, Warner Bros.’ My Fair Lady held its premiere at the Criterion Theatre in New York. The film, said at the time to have the largest advance ticket sales of any movie in history, eventually went on to win eight Oscars at the 37th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
New York — The most fabulous musical in the history of the stage has been made into a fabulous musical film, one that will be one of the greatest hits in movie history. It is, of course, My Fair Lady, a Warner Bros. presentation, a personal production of Jack L. Warner, and it is a better movie than it was a play … The picture is exquisite, extraordinary, a unique gem of filmmaking. One of those rare, rare occasions when everything goes right, when it keeps going right and it moves and takes the spectator along, enchanted and enthralled.
George Cukor’s direction is as fresh and crisp as a first night, electric with dramatic tension, keyed high and held. Visually there has never — not ever — been a motion picture to equal the breathtaking loveliness of My Fair Lady. Technicolor might have been invented for the vivid profusion of color that is splashed on the screen. It is such a pretty picture.
But far more is the fact that it is a witty film, and earthy film, with humor that ranges from the sophisticated conversation of George Bernard Shaw at his most recondite to Shaw at his most daring — with an assist from Alan Jay Lerner. It is tremulous with sentiment and rich with an unusual love story. It has perhaps the most nearly universal of themes. It incarnates the dream of almost everyone: to be bewitched or transmuted and awake to be handsome or beautiful, and the beloved of one’s idol.
This was the theme of Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and remained intact when it became My Fair Lady, and has survived — again intact, but marvelously refurbished and glittering — in the screen version. It is the story, as everyone must know by now, of the flower girl who becomes a princess, the dirty Cockney guttersnipe who is taught to talk like a lady, to walk like a lady, to hold her place in high society with the nobs and swells. But, and this is dear to all hearts, in the end it is the girl who triumphs. She is seen for what she is, but dearly loved and respected. Audrey Hepburn plays this girl, and Rex Harrison, repeating his great stage success, plays her mentor.
Lerner did the screenplay, as he did the book and lyrics for the stage version. Frederick Loewe did the music. Lerner has been wise and modest in not attempting to improve on Shaw. Most of the dialogue, most of the jokes are Shaw’s. What Lerner did with his lyrics was to extend the comedy into music, to put the ideas into restatement of another form. It is brilliant writing, as Loewe’s music is imperishable.
Cukor and Lerner have not done the conventional treatment of a stage play made into a movie, i.e., erratically moved scenes outdoors for greater playing area or into bigger settings than the stage could manage. Cukor has even dispensed with dance production numbers in the customary sense. Hermes Pan, who did the choreography, creates movement, not dance in its usual sense. It thus fits the story without the story being interrupted. Cukor, knowing that motion does not depend on space, uses his camera for movement, and in many cases keeps his area tight. Shaw is basically static physically. Lerner and Loewe’s songs gave the conversation variety. Cukor paces his action so there is a continuous flow of movement, although long scenes play in relatively small settings.
The show opens up when the action suits opening up. There is a stunning re-creation of Covent Garden. There is a gleaming ballroom scene, all cream and gilt and mirrors. The “Ascot Gavotte” number, in which the bored habitues of society chant their devotion to racing, has the joke highlighted by a swift impression of the horses thundering by.
At first Miss Hepburn’s natural elegance seems at variance with Eliza Doolittle, the Covent Garden waif. She is more gamine than guttersnipe. But she is right. She has impeccable innocence, and this must be established. She has spirit and intelligence. She is able to make the transformation, as Harrison creates his Galatea, to pass her off as a duchess. Her appearance before the great ball, where she is to be seen by all London society, is a throat-catching moment. Miss Hepburn, her hair piled high and sparkling with brilliants, her shimmering dress and regal bearing, for the first time strikes the irascible Professor Higgins dumb. He regains his composure. Then there is the touching moment when he stands aside to let her pass. He has created a duchess, but Eliza has made herself a lady.
If Miss Hepburn will be everyone’s darling, as indeed she will, Harrison will be everyone’s delight. Shaw wrote his character in 1912, so the situation is not new. But Harrison’s roaring Professor Higgins, determined not to be henpecked, shouting his lament, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man,” seems tailor-made for these mom-ridden times. It is a bravura performance of the kind that comes to few actors, and to even fewer actors who could play it. It might seem that Harrison has to be good, having played the role more than 1,000 times. But the astonishing thing about this is, the really great tribute he deserves, is that his re-creation is as vital, as varied and as overwhelming as if he had just come to it.
Then there is the incomparable Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father, the dustman philosopher, Alfred P. Doolittle, a victim of middle-class morality, one of the undeserving poor. With “A Little Bit of Luck,” Holloway introduces his philosophy, and closes out his story with a sad reversal of position when he sings “Get Me to the Church on Time.” In the first instance he is celebrating unwed married bliss. In the second he has succumbed and is getting married in the morning. Cukor and Pan turn this number into a riotous frolic where the hot, dark colors swirl as meaningfully as the cooler, lighter shades do when the upper (bloodless) classes are displayed.
Cecil Beaton is credited with costume, scenery and production design, as he was with the stage version. He has created sets and costumes of the art nouveau period, the time of the Edwardian flourish, when ladies’ dresses were tucked, teased and draped into bizarre forms, and the forms hung with ribbons, sashes, beads and crocheted lace. He has created upholstery fabrics of the period that are reflected in the light fixtures and the woodwork. It was a time formerly thought amusing in its extravagance, but My Fair Lady will make many a jeaned and suited female sigh for its uninhibited femininity. Again, it should be noted, the Technicolor process used gives these colors and color combinations a clarity and beauty that is sensuous. It is not all riotous color. The most striking setting is probably the sitting room of Professor Higgins’ mother. It is a stark white and Delft blue, and makes a spectator wonder why a movie is ever made in black and white.
Wilfrid Hyde-White, dapper and lean, is a charming Colonel Pickering, the warmhearted ally to Higgins. He is sleek as an Ascot topper, and he has one wonderfully funny comic scene. Gladys Cooper is regal and human as the professor’s mother. Jeremy Brett, with his one scene, “The House Where You Live,” is a good-looking juvenile with potential. Theodore Bikel is the hairy hound from Budapest, the blackmailing Hungarian language expert who oils his way around the dance floor while trying to figure out Eliza’s secret. He is excellent. Mona Washbourne has the proper combination of good sense and good heart for Higgins’ housekeeper. Among the others who contribute mightily in the huge cast are John Holland, John Alderson and John McLiam as Holloway’s two cronies, Veronica Rothschild, Marjorie Bennett, Queenie Leonard, Barbara Pepper, Owen McGiveney, Betty Blythe, Alan Napier and Henry Daniell.
Harry Stradling’s camera is the eye that has seen all this beauty and wit and recorded it so it glows and shines. Stradling has a way of bringing variety to composure of a scene. He has one striking innovation in creating close-ups for the wide screen by framing a face with pillars or whatever is naturally handy. It was someone’s bright notion, too, to frame some scenes with flowers. It gives a lustre to the film and a kind of unity of theme; Eliza’s a flower girl, remember. The overture, incidentally, plays on a screen of peonies, just close-ups of peonies from different aspects. Lovely.
Gene Allen was the art director and George James Hopkins the set decorator, and must be credited with the carrying through of the design and its details. Gordon Bau has fun with the Cockney makeups (the kind of fun an audience enjoys), and Jean Burt Reilly did the hair stylings, some of them as intricate as Medusa’s. They are part of the whole design, as they should be.
Andre Previn supervised and conducted the Loewe score, and he has given it impetus and fine highlighting. Previn scored for the picture as a whole, not just for musical effect. His most dramatic effort is when he totally stops the music near the end for the climactic scene between Eliza and Higgins, and the silence thunders between them. Alexander Courage, Robert Franklyn and Al Woodbury did the fine orchestrations. Robert Tucker was responsible for the vocal arrangements, and they are such that at least one spectator who has seen the stage version in six different productions heard some of the words for the first time.
Finally, and initially, and basically, there is the sound by Francis J. Scheid and Murray Spivack. It is, or was at the New York preview, six-track stereo. Whatever it is heard in, it will be good because the words are clear and the levels are good. Harrison created an innovation, doing his singing “live,” instead of to playbacks. It seems to give a ferocity and drive to his performance, and it must have set up a formidable technical problem. Their solution was worth it. Miss Hepburn’s singing voice is provided by the gifted Marni Nixon, and it is a felicitous meeting of talents. William Ziegler did the editing, and the editing very often provided the key to scenes in My Fair Lady. Some of the choreography is in the editing, and some of the drama and some of the humor and pathos. It is the use of cutting and cross-cutting that Ziegler uses here that gives the show its unhesitating and contagious propulsion.
At a press conference in New York after the preview showing, a reporter asked a beaming Jack Warner if the whole picture, Ascot, Covent Garden, et al., had been entirely shot in Hollywood. “No,” Warner replied impishly. “None of it.” His prankish point was that it was shot in Burbank, the home of Warner Bros. studio. But it is, as he gaily conceded, a Hollywood picture, entirely a Hollywood picture, with the unmistakable Hollywood touch and patina. Hollywood at its best. And at its best there is no better. So much for My Fair Lady. — James Powers, originally published on Oct. 22, 1964