Adaptation is the bread and butter of cinema. Whether it’s remaking novels, short stories, plays, or even other films, adaptations allow storytellers to offer their own perspectives on someone else’s work. Sometimes this comes out poorly (Psycho, 1998), while others replace all common knowledge of the original entirely (Scarface, 1983). In the case of playwright George Bernard Shaw, the version of his own adaption of W.S. Gilbet’s adaptation of the Greek myth Pygmalion has been largely overshadowed by the 1964 cinematic rendition, the George Cukor-directed (Gaslight) My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Released on Christmas 1964, My Fair Lady went on to win eight Academy Awards including Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor in a Leading Role; Best Costume Design; Best Cinematography, Color; and Best Music. Now, for the first time, at-home audiences can enjoy the much beloved musical in 4K UHD with improved sound via a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio mix.
In 1912 London, Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) attempts to sell flowers to the theater-goers leaving the show amid a downpour, finding herself mostly ignored by the rich individuals seeking transport away from the theater and safely away from the rain. As she tries to make conversation with the crowd, she’s alerted to the note-taking a man is engaged in, believing him to be an officer about to arrest her for causing trouble. In truth, the man is Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison) and he’s just writing down her vocal cadence as he’s a scholar of phonetics, a branch of linguistics that studies the production and perception of sound. Soon after their meeting, Eliza tracks down Higgins at his home, hiring him to help her improve her speech so that she can get a job in a flower shop, thereby improving her station. Instead, Higgins decides to transform her entirely, wagering with fellow phonetic expert Colonel Hugh Pickering (Hyde-White) that he can teach Eliza to fool royalty within six months. So begins a journey of self-improvement that may just transform them all.
Straight off the bat, it seems fair to announce that covering the 4K UHD edition of My Fair Lady is also the first time I’ve seen the film in full. I’ve seen portions (my mother loves musicals) and have been exposed to the various references or homages over the years; yet, despite all this, watching the full 170-minute feature just never happened. While my instinct was to grimace at the length (I have two kids and one’s been teething, so free time is precious), the story is paced so well that it truly flies by. Even the songs that aren’t as famous as the others (“On the Street Where You Live” or “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?)”) succeed in moving the plot forward versus interrupting the narrative for a song-and-dance number. Like an action sequence, if a song is just there for spectacle, it can become a slog without proper investment. With My Fair Lady, you get the investment and more, hence my continued surprise. Two real revelations, though, come in the form of learning that (a) Eliza comes to Higgins to improve herself and (b) that Higgins’s a proper bastard from start to finish. The impression that I’d gotten from the film’s reputation and other adaptations (She’s All That, 1999) is that Eliza wasn’t aware of the bet made between Higgins and Pickering but was merely a pawn in their game. To discover that the character possesses real agency delights, especially when the film continues post-intermission and Eliza rips Higgins a must-deserved new one.
Having not read the play, seen any of the live productions, nor the 1938 cinematic adaptation Pygmalion, to me the film feels like a breath of fresh air in its presentation of a woman amid the suffrage movement who proactively takes the steps to rise out of her station. Taking it further, Eliza recognizes that her worth is not determined by the male influences around her (drunken father, teacher Higgins, or potential suitors) for she knows herself enough to stand on her own. The narrative goes out of its way toward the end to make excuses for Higgins and his constant barrage of insults toward everyone as though his consistency in abuse somehow makes him a better person, which all it does is highlight the warning from his housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Mona Washbourne) that he doesn’t think things through. For those unsure of what I mean, Cukor’s ending is not Shaw’s original, but one adapted from the 1938 film which implies a romantic happy ending between Eliza and Higgins. Shaw didn’t want the two to get together, but other adaptations tend to bend toward the will of the audience in hopes of a “happily ever after” instead of what makes sense for the characters. Especially after Eliza’s rousing song “Show Me,” having her couple in any way with Higgins is a step backward in her journey of self-empowerment. She already possessed the will to escape her circumstances, and the training from Higgins and Pickering gave her the attributes to fool the upper classes (as well as a sizable payment to help get her started after the bet was complete), so why would she go back to Higgins at all? If Eliza is truly meant to be Galatea of Shaw’s ideal (not of the Greek myth), then she would shun her “creator” in favor of autonomy. Ahead of my initial viewing, my father mentioned a conversation he’d had with my step-mother recently about how the film couldn’t be made today and, to a degree, I see what he means if what he means is that Eliza wouldn’t go back to Higgins as a romantic partner or just to live in his home. If that’s his meaning, then I would agree. There is no reason for Eliza to return to a place that is now beneath her. However, considering how much the film shifts from showing Eliza as her own person in the opening to a tool to be plied and misused by Higgins until the bet is won, it would make sense for audiences to want them together. By the time Eliza realizes how Higgins sees her, the audience has forgotten that it was her act of coming to him that inspires him to solidify the bet he made as a passing declaration in their first meeting. By structuring the film to forget this aspect of Eliza, the only ending that would make sense is to pair them up. No wonder Shaw was displeased with the 1938 film.
My revelations are, by no means, notable or new, so let’s get into this home release before I bore you all to tears with my thoughts on why Higgins is a prime example of the classism born out of the presumption that English-speakers are the Alpha and Omega when it comes to determining global respectability and should in no way, shape, or form be anyone’s romantic partner.
On to the home release!
The 4K UHD release is a combo pack including the film on 4K UHD disc and a 4K digital copy. A Blu-ray disc is included, but it only possesses previously released special features; all of the previously released special features to be precise. So if you were planning to pick this up as a means of replacing a Blu-ray copy, don’t throw out that version just yet. As for the 4K UHD release, I can only make presumptions on the transfer as there is no information included in any of the press releases accompanying the 4K UHD announcement, but there is some information included at the end of the film. It appears as though a 65mm negative is preserved on Eastman Kodak film, which is likely used by FotoKem to create the digital intermediary required to produce a 4K UHD transfer. Additionally, the new 7.1 audio mix appears to have been completed by Audio Mechanics, involving both re-recording and re-mastering of the audio. Again, without official confirmation, this is a best guess using the information provided at the end of the film and researching the companies identified. Additionally, there’s no indication of who oversaw or approved of the video transfer or audio remix (something which boutiques like Criterion and Arrow Video provide), though several names are listed with the companies. It’s not that no one oversaw the restoration process, it’s just that the release doesn’t make it plain who Robert A. Harris is in relation to the film. Again, with research, Harris is a film scholar and preservationist who has worked on restoring My Fair Lady at least twice before this. While the average person may only be delighted that the film looks and sounds better than ever (which it does look and sound fantastic), having some sense of who approved of its various updates would comfort tech-inclined cinephiles. If you’re the type who doesn’t need to know the behind-the-scenes stuff, you will be delighted in how wonderful My Fair Lady looks and sounds on 4K. If you’re the type who needs to know this stuff, well, I did my best detective work for you.
Whether you’ve found this film loverly since 1964 or only recently watched it, Paramount’s 4K UHD restoration of My Fair Lady is a solid release. Times having changed may influence how the film may be viewed by modern audiences, but the things which charmed countless people before will likely do so again. Hepburn is charming, Harrison is commanding, and the rest of the cast are no slouches either. Every scene moves the story forward in a rare cinematic experience where there is no fat to be shaved. If something is introduced in the first or second act, it’ll come back around before the end, whether you’ve forgotten about it or not; bringing with it a reasonable and a satisfactory payoff. Well, except for the ending. At least, if it bothers you like it does me, even if it’s just implication and not explicit, knowing that Shaw wasn’t too fond of it either is a strange comfort. Sometimes the best ending isn’t what people want, but what the characters need. Unless you prescribe to the fan theory that the Dr. Doolittle Rex Harrison plays in the 1967 film is the same linguistic expert having taken his wife’s name, in which case, will wonders never cease to amaze! (Seriously, though, it’s the only way the ending of My Fair Lady works and Higgins’s pride would never allow it.)
My Fair Lady Special Features
- 4K Ultra HD Disc
- Feature film in 4K Ultra HD
- Blu-ray Disc
- More Loverly Than Ever: The Making of My Fair Lady Then & Now
- 1963 Production Kick-Off Dinner
- Los Angeles Premiere 10/28/1964
- British Premiere
- George Cukor Directs Baroness Bina Rothschild
- Rex Harrison Radio Interview
- Production Tests
- Wilfred Hyde White make-up
- Covent Garden lighting test
- Alt. Higgins/Pickering screen test
- Alternate Audrey Hepburn Vocals
- Show Me
- Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?
- Comments on a Lady
- Andrew Lloyd Webber
- Martin Scorsese
- Theatrical Featurettes
- Story of a Lady
- Design for a Lady
- The Fairest Fair Lady
- Theatrical Reissue: Poster Illustration
- Theatrical Reissue: Poster Illustration Reserved Seats Trailer
- Theatrical Reissue: Poster Illustration Awards
- Theatrical Reissue
- Rex Harrison BFI Honor
- Rex Harrison Golden Globe Acceptance Speech
- Academy Awards Ceremony Highlights 4/5/65
Available on 4K UHD and digital May 25th, 2021.