My Fair Lady — another musical from Gigi creators Lerner and Loewe — is a charming and amusing satire on the absurdity of rigid class distinctions such as were to be found in turn-of-the-century London. Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) bets his friend and fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde White) that in six months Higgins can transform coarse cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a lady who can pass for a duchess. Eliza’s great roaring cackle of an accent and uncouth manners make Higgins’s task an uphill climb.
The cast in uniformly excellent, including Jeremy Brett (who in the 80s and 90s would create the definitive Sherlock Holmes for British television) in a small role as a suitor for the metamorphosed Eliza. Lerner and Loewe’s songs are sheer delight — Hepburn’s voice was dubbed by singer Marni Nixon, and Harrison talks his way through the lyrics, but that’s just fine. Higgins sings his despair over the deterioration of the English language — “In America they haven’t used it for years” — in “Why Can’t the English?” Eliza belts out her annoyance at the rude, selfish Higgins, imagining the king ordering his execution, in “Just You Wait, ’Enry ’Iggins.” Higgins wonders aloud, ”Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”
But My Fair Lady’s biggest joke is on London’s upper-class twits. Higgins wins his wager, of course, and presents Eliza in polite society — she’s a smashing success, and everyone wonders who this charming creature is. Would merely refining her accent and dressing her up in gowns convert a low-class flower seller into a “lady”? Of course not. There is a passing reference to book learning that Eliza is being subjected to, but the emphasis is on her appearance and demeanor. If all it takes for a woman to be considered nobly bred is to look good and chat prettily about inconsequential things like the weather, and anybody can learn to imitate that, then what does that say about the upper class’s self-bestowed superiority? Not much.
My Fair Lady is a wonderful movie, even if you enjoy it only for its surface charms and ignore the subtext.
Oscars Best Picture 1964
AFI 100 (1998 list): #91
unforgettable movie moment:
Two serving girls and Higgins’s housekeeper have to wrestle Eliza into the bath, her screams of protest echoing through the house.
previous AFI 100 film:
90: The Jazz Singer
next AFI 100 film:
92: A Place in the Sun