My Fair Lady is probably one of the most famous movie musicals of all time but it was already one of the biggest hits of all time before that – My Fair Lady broke all records on the Broadway stage and became the longest-running show of its time. So, it was a wise decision by the movie makers to stay as faithful to the stage adaptation as possible (which itself was based as faithful as possible to the original play by George Bernhard Shaw – except, of course, for the ending which was based on the 1938 movie starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller but Shaw was one of the screenwriters for this version so basically, My Fair Lady stayed faithful to Shaw as much as possible).
The plot of My Fair Lady is probably as famous as its catchy tunes – the arrogant Professor Higgins tries to make a ‘lady’ out of the common flower girl Eliza Doolittle by teaching her ‘proper’ English. It’s a long and difficult journey until Eliza passes a test at a ball where people mistake her for an Hungarian Princess – Mission accomplished! But what will happen now? Will Eliza start her own shop or will she marry Freddy, a young man hopelessly in love with her? Or will she and the Professor discover their feelings for each other?
Also taken right from the Broadway stage was Rex Harrison in the part of his life as Professor Higgins. After having already won a Tony for his performance, he also collected a well-deserved Oscar for his unforgettable portrayal. Julie Andrews, the Eliza Doolittle of the stage, did not only lose the Tony (to Judy Holliday who was an expert in triumphing over famous performances) but also the part of Eliza in the movie – the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle is as controversial today as it was in 1964. It’s probably one of her most disliked performances but for me, Audrey Hepburn is simply splendid and did complete justice to her role. The transformation from the common flower girl to the refined lady is believable and presented in a very entertaining way and both Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison work together wonderfully. Stanley Holloway shines as Eliza’s father while Wilfrid Hyde-White and Jeremy Brett offer great support. Mona Washbourne also stands out as Mrs. Pearce. Only Gladys Cooper disappoints a bit which has more to with the limits of her role – why she received an Oscar nomination for talking to Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn for a few minutes will forever remain a mystery.
My Fair Lady is perfect entertainment on every level – from the visual aspects to the performances to the legendary score which includes so many wonderful melodies, from ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely?’ to ‘I could have danced all night’ to ‘The snakes in Spain travel mainly on a plane’, eh, I mean ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’. It’s also one of the few musicals with a truly developed plot that doesn’t feel like a bridgeover between the songs but instead drives the whole production. It may be too old-fashioned for some (staying faithful to the stage production also meant a very static presentation) but for me, it’s a wonderfully entertaining jewel.