Old Classics…? Newly Reviewed | “My Fair Lady” (1964)

© Nancee E. Lewis / Nancee Lewis Photography.
Editor Note: Gini has another Old Classic film from her Turner Classic Movie Collection watching. Since Atlanta is home to Turner Classic Movies it is only right that Gini should be reviewing them with her view of the world.

What can it be this time?

Gini is tackling a renowned musical out of the Turner Classic Movies vault with 1964’s My Fair Lady.


My Fair Lady

By Gini Koch

As with Kismet, Topper, and Dr. Dolittle I saw this movie on TV when I was younger. Even though I am a gigantic Julie Andrews fan, I enjoyed this movie tremendously. But would I like it now, as an adult?

My Fair Lady is based on the stage musical of the same name, which was in turn based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It centers on Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) and his linguistics achievements, by way of Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and assisted by Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White).

Higgins spots Cockney flower girl Eliza outside of an opera house, where, due to her hysterics about him writing about her speech, he and Col. Pickering meet up. Turns out they’re both linguistic experts – Pickering’s come from India to find Higgins and Higgins was about to head to India to find Pickering. An instant admiration society is born.

Eliza, meanwhile, realizes that Higgins might hold the answer to her getting out of the gutter, so she goes to him, asking to pay for linguistics lessons. He and Pickering make a bet on whether or not Higgins can accomplish the feat of turning Eliza into a lady, so Higgins acquiesces, trains her, and does indeed turns her into a lady who can pass as royalty.

That’s the nice version.

In the reality that the hubs and I saw, this is how I rewrite the movie’s synopis: “Confirmed bachelors” Higgins and Pickering find each other and find insta-love and admiration. Into their cozy new couplehood comes Eliza, who wants to better herself. In part because it seems like it will please Pickering and in other part because they make a bet about it, Higgins agrees. He bribes and tricks Eliza into staying and becoming his student, then he tortures and torments her, giving audiences an excellent primer on how to be an abusive spouse/mentor/housemate and how to turn a spunky girl into a pliant, terrified, complacent woman. Even though Eliza has prospects to marry handsome and titled (though broke) Freddy (Jeremy Brett), who adores her even when he seems to find out where she comes from, she chooses to return to Higgins, because she’s been brainwashed to feel that he actually cares about her in some way and Higgins convinces her that it’s better to fetch his slippers than run a flower shop and support herself and her potential husband.

Eliza hates Higgins right up until the moment he actually speaks kindly to her, which is the prelude to “The Rain in Spain” number. She’s so stunned by this that she manages to incorporate all his teachings in that one moment and becomes a success at all this new speaking. Again, this is classic abusive behavior – in that by being kind once, Higgins gives Eliza the belief that he will be kind AGAIN if she is “just good enough” to deserve it.

Higgins has a full staff, all of whom look down on Eliza and see absolutely nothing wrong with how badly Higgins is treating her. They’re wonderful enablers. Pickering tries, weakly, to make Higgins be nicer to Eliza, but the best the Colonel offers is being nice to her himself. This sets him apart as the only person in the Higgins household who manages to treat Eliza civilly.

Back to some good. The songs are terrific. Several big numbers are staged in a way that suggests they took the staging directly from the musical stage play and incorporated them into the movie. It’s fun, but those moments do remind you that you’re watching a movie, instead of keeping you immersed.

Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is both the comic relief and the best part of the show though he, like every man other than Freddy, is only out for what he can get out of or from Eliza. Gladys Cooper, as Henry’s mother Mrs. Higgins, is the only person who knows “the truth” who comes off as actually caring about Eliza in any kind of real way. You can tell she’s rooting for Eliza to leave Higgins forever and go off with Freddy, but alas, the conditioned abusive training wins the day.

In case you might not know why I mentioned Julie Andrews at the start of this, she originated the Eliza role on stage, against Harrison as Higgins. Harrison got to keep his role for the movie, but Jack Warner felt that Andrews was a nobody and therefore cast Audrey “Can’t Sing” Hepburn in her place. The comeuppance for Warner? Andrews landed the lead in Mary Poppins, and went on to win best actress, for which she thanked Jack Warner in her acceptance speech.

The number of people who went uncredited in this movie is extreme. So far, I’ve never seen a longer list. I guess it was just supposed to be the thrill of it all for them, but this list includes people with enough lines spoken to warrant SAG cards. Of course, the winner of the most egregious lack of credit goes to Marni Nixon, who sang all of Eliza’s songs.

The hubs literally could not figure out why Eliza was supposed to fall into some kind of love with Higgins. I knew why – because he’s the star – but couldn’t help but agree that this was not the way I wanted Eliza to go. We spent the last third of the movie screaming, “Choose Freddy!” at the screen. We both agreed that we liked Higgins and Pickering as a couple and they seemed so content, we also couldn’t figure out why Higgins would want to keep Eliza around, other than that she’s the best at fetching slippers or something. Frankly, we felt that the happy ending we wanted was for Higgins and Pickering to give Eliza away at her wedding to Freddy, and then order flowers weekly from her shop to ensure she kept going, perhaps even buying a part interest in the shop or something.

But the ending we wanted is not the ending this movie gives. Somehow when I was younger, I believed that Higgins had fallen in love with Eliza, too. But Eliza clearly states that she doesn’t expect “love” (because she, like the rest of us, is clear that Higgins and Pickering are a couple) but “friendship and respect”. Either she’s decided that getting married is just right out and it’s better to live as Higgins’ slipper fetcher than have sex with handsome and endearing Freddy, or she’s been brainwashed. That choice is yours.

Watch for the musical numbers and the daring depiction (for 1964) of a happy gay couple hidden in the movie about an abusive relationship between teacher and student and the discussions of British and European class distinctions that still resonate even today.

Songs: 5 stars out of 5
Movie: 2 stars out of 5

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3 responses to “Old Classics…? Newly Reviewed | “My Fair Lady” (1964)”

  1. Ben Ragunton Avatar
    Ben Ragunton

    I agreed with almost everything that is said here… I only came away with a different idea regarding Higgins’ mother, thinking that perhaps she believed Eliza might succeed in teaching Higgins both manners and humility, something which she failed to instill in him. Other than that, I never understood why Eliza didn’t go with Freddy. Then again, this based on Pygmalion, and that’s a really unpleasant story considering how badly virtually everyone treats that Eliza character.

    And yet, I cannot help but love this movie. The analysis is spot on, but I love it because of Audrey Hepburn. She was an angel as she comes down the stairs as they all prepare to go to the Embassy Ball. The movie is both beautiful and ludicrous to watch.

  2. Gini Koch Avatar

    I love the music. I am “this close” to trying to find the soundtrack. But I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it again. Seeing it as an adult woman who’s been around the block more than once, I don’t know if I can enjoy the primer on how to be an abuser again.

    I do agree with your take on Mrs. Higgins, but I think she’d also have been damned pleased if Eliza had married Freddy. There’s your comeuppance, son, sort of thing.

    I also agree on the beauty. The costumes are divine. But the storyline…ugh, just ugh.

  3. Meg Leader Avatar
    Meg Leader

    ROFL. I remember in 11th grade English class having my English teacher insist that the ending could not POSSIBLY be a “romantic” one where Henry and Eliza fell in love and that the non-romantic ending where she just stayed to be squashed was possible. A romantic ending would just have “demeaned” the story–it wasn’t literary enough.

    Yeah. Gini, I’ know you’ll recognize that attitude!

    There was NO discussion of Henry’s horrible treatment. Me, I think she should have married Freddie too. She could have “made something of him” and he’d have loved every moment of it. As for what she saw in Henry…I always thought he was the daddy figure she wished she had. I think she could have given up the idea of the flower shop and persuaded Freddie to stand for Parliament where he would have risen through the ranks (with Eliza’s help) and ultimately become Prime Minister with Eliza becoming the most popular hostess in Europe because of her clever wit, down to Earth approach to life, and empathy for the less fortunate. Freddie would have become a social welfare proponent and established a guaranteed minimum stipend for all adults…

    Yeah. GBS probably would have liked that ending.Wonder why he never thought of it…

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