Okay, there’s a specific reason we’re covering musical comedy-drama My Fair Lady (1964). But we’ll get to that further below.
Directed by George Cukor (1899-1983), the film starred Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) and Rex Harrison (1908-1990) in a very popular film that won eight Oscars! Well, then, let’s take a look at it.
Class Structure and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady
Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is a scholar of phonetics in London. A pompous git, he decides accent and tone of voice are what mark a person’s prospects in life.
One day, he plans to teach a working class scumbag how to be upper class (see how to speak like you’re from Northern England, mate).
As his specimen, he chooses local flower girl Eliza Doolittle. She just so happens to be the famous film star and model-level-good-looking Audrey Hepburn.
Wouldn’t you know it? She has a bit of a singsong about things, which is all perfectly choregraphed in spontaneous fashion.
She accepts the invitation and, the very next day, heads to Harrison’s house for elocution lessons about proper English, like.
And this is where the famous Rain in Spain song comes from, by the way.
From the weird English proverb:
“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane.”
With those lessons in action, you can see the similar themes to the film Educating Rita (1983). But My Fair Lady lives in more of a fantastical version of life. It’s a musical, after all, and is quite similar in its tone to Mary Poppins (1964) with Julie Andrews.
Andrews, incidentally, was in the stage version of My Fair Lady. The studio decided on Hepburn for the film role.
Anyway, as the film progresses Eliza shifts through Higgins’ various lessons and demeaning behaviour. Encouraged, the scholar decides to give her a special day out at Ascot Racecourse amongst his fellow toffs.
You can tell Hepburn was enjoying herself with all of this.
Now, this leads to probably the most famous bit of My Fair Lady.
And where our personal story kicks in. As back around the early 1990s (let’s call it 1992), at St. Georges Primary school our teachers decided to make us watch My Fair Lady.
It’s fair to say, for a bunch of eight year olds in the early 1990s, we found this film intensely boring. Quite why the teachers decided to show us this we have no idea.
You know? As kids, we were into wrestling, dinosaurs, explosions, computer games, POGs, conkers, and all that sophisticated stuff (kind of exactly like now).
However, there was one massive redeeming feature to the My Fair Lady experience—a moment we’ve remembered for the last 30 years most fondly indeed.
And it’s this bit, where Eliza loses her upper class training and goes all working class on everyone. The horror!
Having been bored rigid the entire film, several of us dumb lads fell about laughing ourselves stupid at that bit.
Maybe you had to be there. But it was hysterical.
We don’t know why, but we kept remembering that scene recently. After a bit of research, we found it online and watched it again. Probably for the first time in 30 years.
That’s the importance of primary school, kids!
My Fair Lady does have some interesting themes about it, though, especially with the plucky Eliza. She doesn’t just accept everything, there’s a good pretty lady know your lot in society etc.
She’s a forthright character and, as the film reaches its closing sections, gives the pompous Dr. Higgins a bit of a dressing down (when he was probably hoping for a dressing gown).
It makes for an intriguing comparison to Educating Rita, which was based on Willy Russell’s 1980 stage play. In that, Rita’s teacher comes to regret providing her with a higher education as she loses a more natural core of her personality.
In Rita, the teacher (played by Michael Caine) never looks down on his pupil.
Whereas in My Fair Lady, Higgins floats about on Cloud Elitism and generally views Eliza as inferior and an “insect”.
However, Higgins does eventually have a realisation Eliza has become an important part of his life. In the closing stages, he reflects on his obnoxious behaviour (sorry for the poor quality of this clip, it’s the only one of this we could find).
Yes, then, this was the first time we’d watched this film in 30 years. Not being eight years old anymore, we enjoyed it a great deal more.
Nostalgic power here, sure, but still it’s a lively and entertaining musical. Fine praise indeed, as we can’t stand musicals 99% of the time.
My Fair Lady? Good job, with a fine performance from Audrey Hepburn.
It stands up pretty well for a film that’s almost 60 years old, with a mischievous sense of fun. Although we must say the film meanders with its take on the nature of classism and sexism. The message it offers is a bit unclear.
But, hey ho, it was a different era. And at least Eliza Doolittle is a triumphant character in many respects.
The Production of My Fair Lady
My Fair Lady was a smash hit. The budget was $17 million, which was pretty enormous for 1964. Quite what they spent that on we’re not sure, but it was the most expensive film shot in the US at that point.
Anyway, Warner Bros didn’t need to worry as it raked back $72.7 million worldwide.
It was also a huge hit with critics, going on to win some eight Oscars. That includes Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Rex Harrison, Best Supporting Actress for Gladys Cooper… but no Oscar win for Hepburn.
In fact, she wasn’t even nominated. Bizarrely.
She did get five nominations in her career, winning only once in 1953 for Roman Holiday, but this is a bit of a weird emission.
Although it may be due to a dubbing issue. Her singing voice wasn’t deemed strong enough, so Marni Nixon sang all the songs (except for Just You Wait). She was very pissed off when she was told, walking out of the room. She apologised for her “wicked behaviour” the next day.
It’s fair enough, as she’d spent months prepping for the role with a voice coach.
But, again, Julie Andrews did have the stage version of the role. And Rex Harrison fought mightily to ensure she was the lead human female for the shoot. You can see a bit of Andrews’ performance below.
The studio wouldn’t have it, though, choosing Hepburn as she was a bigger name on the old A List Celeb board.
Not exactly a disaster for Andrews’ career, as she starred in Mary Poppins instead and bagged the Best Actress Oscar in 1965 (again, whilst Hepburn wasn’t even nominated… hah! In your face, Hepburn!).
Anyway, one of the real heroes of the production was George Groves (1901-1976) who was a sound engineer and a pioneer in the industry. Across a 46-year career, he won two Oscars for his efforts (alongside a total of eight nominations).
Initially, the actors were told to mime their singing. This upset the cast. The result? Groves went off and adapted a radio microphone (the tech still in its infancy) to fit to the actors.
There are extensive notes for George Groves’ innovations on My Fair Lady on his official site: The Making Of The Oscar-Winning My Fair Lady (1963-64):
George made test recordings of Rex Harrison on a scoring stage using radio microphones borrowed from a broadcast station to see whether it could be a practical solution and to determine how low orchestral playback could be. They realised that they would have to equalise the radio speech so it matched the standard microphone recordings. They also identified difficulties in disguising a bulky microphone under Rex’s clothing. George presented this problem to the wardrobe department and to Rex, because he was so enthused about the preliminary test that they’d made:
“[Rex] thought it was the greatest invention, the greatest miracle that had ever happened…it gave him complete freedom of action. He was tremendously excited, tremendously enthused. He said ‘George, if there’s anything I can do, let me know and I will do anything you want to make this thing work.'”
Rex Harrison’s tie in My Fair Lady contains a radio microphone The radio microphone was one-inch in diameter and the tube containing the pre-amplifier, which fed the transmitter, was two inches long. “It was a bulky thing”, said George. So the wardrobe department created a course-knit tie, completely transparent to sound and the radio mic and its pre-amp were concealed within it.
The radio microphone was disguised in other scenes using creative thinking, such as actors wearing clothing to hide the item.
And this all went down a storm and proved a breakthrough for the industry. My Fair Lady? My Fair Microphone, more like!!
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Move your bloomin’ arse!
(in reference to the clip, in case you missed it)
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Didn’t miss it! xo
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I’ve not heard of conkers. When I was a kid we just whipped crabapples at each other. I guess we are primitive screwheads over here in America.
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I had to Google that, but apparently conkers is popular in certain states in the US. You missed out! Epic game. You whack a conker with another conker until one of the conkers is annihilated. Amazing stuff. It was the early ’90s so, yeah, we didn’t have iPhones then.
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Which states? I’ll conker them good
Google claims it’s popular in Ohio. So, you’ll have to move to Ohio now. Best of luck on your new life’s adveture!
I’ve not seen ‘My Fair Lady’ (the movie), but know the music very well – my parents had the Lerner & Lowe Broadway soundtrack album, and when I was a kid, the local am-dram society staged it. To which we had to go – my Mum knew everybody in it. They tried their very best to make it just like the Broadway production, but it wasn’t. If they’d taken a lead from the movie instead and hidden radio mikes around their persons they might have got away with it. Possibly. A bit.
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A local staging, huh? Bizarrely, in my tiny local community now, there’s a staging of the Monty Python Hail Grail musical. I was not forced to go to it.
I think the moral of your story there is to try. If you’re missing the Broadway budget, some duct tape and whatever else may well make it all right on the night. Probably.