My Fair Lady: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)

November 19, 2015 16 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

There’s not a lot that can be said about My Fair Lady that hasn’t already been said so many times before. Inspired by the Broadway Musical starring Rex Harrison, in a role that he brought to the screen and later collected a Best Actor Oscar for it; and starring Julie Andrews. In a twist of irony, Andrews was the logical choice to take her role to the screen as well, she had the right accent and temperament and certainly the familiarity with the role. However, the role went to Audrey Hepburn and has become one of two roles that she is most easily identified with (this and Breakfast at Tiffany’s). The irony came into play when Julie Andrews did a little movie called “Mary Poppins” to which she collected her Best Actress Oscar. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for her role as Eliza Doolittle. History showed that Audrey Hepburn was doing the stage version of “Gigi” and was the logical choice to bring that role to the screen. Instead, the role went to Leslie Caron (of “An American in Paris” fame) instead. All of this, though, only scratches the surface of what is widely considered to be one of the best musicals to hit the screen. Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers for many a year, paid a then outrageous sum of money for the rights to the play. He paid $5 million for the rights for seven years and then the play was then property of CBS again. He spared no expense on the lavish production design, casting, costumes and locations. This was to be his last huge movie that he would personally oversee as Producer.

The end result of all of this was 8 Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture , Best Director and Best Actor. Director George Cukor finally got his due after being in his prime in the 30’s and 40’s. He helmed such classics as The Philadelphia Story and A Star is Born with Judy Garland. Some say that all of the awards were as a result of the elaborate marketing campaign that Warner devised in combination with the movie. In a year when, as time has gone by, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is widely considered the better movie, we have to ask ourselves this: “What is it that makes My Fair Lady such a pleasure to watch? I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer, per se, but part of it’s appeal is as a musical while the other is that of a great love story. Hepburn and Harrison were almost complete opposites as characters that it’s very exciting to see them as they come together during the course of the movie. The songs, sung throughout, are a constant reminder of musicals and only recently did they make their resurgence. Marni Nixon, who dubbed for Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Deborah Kerr in “The King and I”, would supply the voice for Hepburn, even though she sung two of her own songs. This created quite a scandal at the time as Hollywood had “grown up” in the sense that all actors couldn’t sing and that dubbing had to be done. Some even blame the dubbing for the reason that Hepburn wasn’t nominated for her work in the film.

Now the plot couldn’t be simpler, could it? We meet a cockney flower girl by the name of Eliza Doolittle. She stumbles across a phonetics professor who is so terribly disgusted with her that he decides to take a bet to turn her into a lady. Of course, turning someone into a lady requires more than a shower and a fresh pair of clothes. In this time period, your accent defines who you are. Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) takes the bet to turn Eliza into a lady and just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, she starts to become part of the upper crust. After seeing that his little experiment worked, he’s very fast to pat himself on the back and take all the credit; thereby alienating himself from Eliza. Higgins, the confirmed bachelor, starts to feel a change come over him, though. This is the inspiration for the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and the song title pretty much says it all. Eliza, meanwhile, has run off with socialite Freddy Hill (Jeremy Brett). Will all work out and will Eliza and Henry ever get back together and live happily ever after? Hmmm…

Time has told the tale of My Fair Lady and has treated it fairly well. While a bit dated, the true nature of the film remains the same. I can remember watching the movie on cable some years ago and still remember when that sentence was uttered (“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain…”). This, naturally, defines the movie and is one of the more quoted lines out of the film. Aside from the honors that the Academy bestowed on it, the movie was also chosen as one of the American Film Institute’s Top Romantic movies. I’m rather curious as to how many, if any, songs out of the film will come into the AFI’s list of Top 100 Songs? All of this aside, the movie is a sheer delight to watch. I feel it’s a bit long with the running time, so the younger audiences might not stay tuned in too long. Hepburn was at her finest here and the supporting cast with Stanley Holloway (as “Alfred Doolittle”) is just as good. Holloway and co-star Gladys Cooper were also nominated for Oscars, but lost. If you’ve never had the chance to see the movie, then there’s no better way to experience it than in DVD. The audio and video are superb and you’ll find no shortage of supplements. Highly recommended.

Video: How does it look?

The main draw of this 50th Anniversary edition is, no doubt, the visual look of the film. This has been through the ringer in previous versions and we’ve nearly lost the film – twice. Film historian and preservation Robert A. Harris was personally involved with the previous restoration, but even warned customers to “stay away” from it. Well after a few years and a brand new 4k restoration from an 8K scan of the original negative…here’s what we have. The 2.20:1 AVC HD image is a sight to behold and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. It’s beautiful. Glorious. The detail is second to none, the colors pop and I don’t think I’ve seen such a remarkable transformation since a cockney lady was transformed into a princess! Ok, maybe that’s a bit much but suffice it to say that this leaves little to the imagination and it’s a testament to how truly lovely this film looks. If, for no other reason, this needs to be seen just to see how truly amazing it looks.

Audio: How’s it sound?

The previously-released Blu-ray contained a DTS HD Master Audio mix that served its purpose. For this new release a new Dolby TrueHD mix was crafted and the result is, well, unexpected. While not night and day from the previous HD mix, this one does have heightened levels that really seem to give the movie a new depth. Granted, it’s a musical and not on par with today’s films, but for a movie that’s half a century old it sounds pretty good. Dialogue is crystal clear and that’s important when the movie stresses dictation (I’m sure I don’t need to explain that reference).  Surrounds are very active, particularly during the race scene. It’s a step up from the former sound mix, for sure. And it’s a welcome change.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Based on the technical specs alone, I’d recommend this new edition. But there are some new supplements that have been added to this release as well as a bevy of previously-released features. Let’s take a look.

Previously-Released Supplements

  • Documentary: “More Loverly Than Ever: My Fair Lady Then and Now” – A documentary that was made at the time of the thirtieth anniversary of the film (1994 for those mathematically challenged). This is an all-encompassing look at how the movie was brought to the screen and interwoven in the fabric of it, we get some technical “how’d they do that” information from Robert Harris and James Katz. It’s here that they show us the actual negatives, how they re-mastered the audio and video and what it took to do the entire production. We get a new respect for their work as it’s something that I wouldn’t want to do.
  • Vintage Behind-the-Scenes Footage: “1963 Production Kick-off Dinner” – We’re treated to some black and white photography, but yet no audio. The production was huge and Jack Warner spared no expense – this was the beginning of things to come.
  • Vintage Audio: “George Cukor Directs Baroness Bina Rothschild” – Though it’s interesting, most of the lines sounded exactly the same to me; even as Cukor told her to say it “…with more authority.” I suppose that’s why I’m not a movie director. Interestingly enough, many of the audio-only segments were found when Harris and Katz were doing their investigating for the re-issue in 1994.
  • Vintage Featurette: “The Fairest Fair Lady” – A featurette that was also included on the prior DVD release and it shows more of the technical aspects of the shoot. For instance, they concentrate on the costume design, production design as well as the art direction. It literally took thousands of people to bring this film to the screen and we get just a hint of what amount of work went into the production.
  • Vintage Newsreel Footage: “Los Angeles Premiere 10/28/1964” – Essentially that. We get some black and white footage of the stars of the day as they arrived at the premiere of the film.
  • Vintage Footage: “Rex Harrison Golden Globe Acceptance Speech” – Shown is Rex Harrison’s Golden Globe acceptance speech, with some annoying time code on the top, as he is on location in Europe. It’s short, but neat nonetheless.
  • Vintage Footage: “Academy Awards Ceremony Highlights 4/5/1965” – There is also some footage from the 37th Academy Awards with Jack Warner and George Cukor accepting their respective statues.
  • Alternate Audrey Hepburn Vocals – Can’t sing, can’t act and can’t dance – a triple threat! Ok, maybe not but we do get some full-length versions of a few musical numbers in which Audrey Hepburn’s actual voice was used. While she wasn’t “bad” per se, there is a fairly noticeable difference between these and the final product.
  • Galleries – The galleries show some sketches of wardrobes, some production photos (both color and black and white) as well as some marketing and publicity materials.
  • Rex Harrison Radio Interview – Harrison is interviewed and speaks highly of the project. This is accompanied by some production photos.
  • “Comments on a Lady” – Interviewed are Martin Scorsese and Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and as Scorcese talks about film preservation, he doesn’t mention anything in particular about this movie (here). He shows up again later and mentions the movie, and it’s obviously the same interview; but he speaks about a foundation whose goal is to preserve films. Webber, on the other hand, speaks of the play and not really much about the movie.

New Supplements* (All of the new supplements are presented in HD)

  • Vintage Newsreel Footage: “British Premiere” – Restored color footage from the British premiere shows some familiar faces as the stars arrive for the film.
  • Production Tests – Alex Hyde-White, son of Wilfred Hyde-White gives us a bit of a backstory on his father’s role in the film and we’re treated to some various technical tests for lighting and the like.
  • Theatrical Trailers – Seven, count ’em, seven in all are shown.
  • Vintage Featurette: “The Story of a Lady” – Focusing more on the Broadway show, we get a history of the project, Warner’s amount they paid for it and some behind the scenes footage.
  • Vintage Featurette: “Design for a Lady” – I couldn’t imagine this movie without a costume design feature and here we have it. We get an all-too-brief look at some of the costumes and the attention to detail that was paid for the film and its star.
  • Rex Harrison BFI Honor – Harrison is honored for his work as well as a brief montage of his films that made him an inductee.

The Bottom Line

This is a prime example of “they don’t make them like they used to.” My Fair Lady epitomizes everything that classic Hollywood did and did right. This new Blu-RAy version knocks it out of the park in the technical department and though we’ve lost some supplements from previous versions, new ones have been added while retaining the majority of the previously-existing ones. Put this one your shelf.

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