My Fair Lady: Special Edition

January 28, 2012 21 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 100 Movies of all time (#91) and was chosen in their list of Top Romantic movies as well. 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?

““My Fair Lady” comes to us in a deluxe two-disc package that is brimming with extras. That aside, the transfer for the movie has a lot of history behind it. It was personally restored by James Katz and Robert Harris, both of whom have experience working on a 70mm print (with “Lawrence of Arabia”) and they were the logical choices to give “My Fair Lady” new life on the format. Now most of the work was done about ten years ago when the movie was gearing up for it’s 30th anniversary. There are segments out of the documentary that showed the actual negatives, the condition and what painstaking efforts it took to restore them. There is a side by side comparison that shows what the print looked like before and after restoration. Let me be the first to say…the results are stunning. The print that was used was in bad shape, but luckily the folks at Warner kept a few copies of it as the rest was shipped off to CBS when the rights to the movie went away (and this was some thirty years ago). Katz and Harris literally searched the globe for any and all remaining prints of the movie to get the best, brightest possible picture.

All of their hard work paid off as “My Fair Lady” looks lovelier than ever. I compared it to the previous DVD release and for the most part, it looks about the same. Warner did all of the work on the disc in house instead of sending it off to Lowry Digital Images (who have done great work on “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Citizen Kane” to name a few). The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is splendid all the way through. Not many movies utilize every inch of the screen, but this is one of them. From the opening credits (that were digitally re-created) to the dingy streets of England to the scene at the park where everyone is dressed in black and white, every inch of the transfer oozes greatness. Now, this isn’t the best-looking image on DVD, not by a longshot. However, when you consider how the print looked and the result of the restoration, it’s a no-brainer to see that this simply looks marvelous. Some scenes still seem a bit dirty, but with cracked negatives to work with, it’s understandable that not everything will look 100%. Quite simply this is the best that the movie has ever looked and a much deserved “Thank You” (or should I say “How kind of you”) should go to the restoration team of Robert Harris and James Katz.”

Audio: How does it sound?

“The audio was just as big of an undertaking as the video was. Again, the restoration team of Harris and Katz had to use a duplicate of a duplicate just to get some of the original 6 track sound back. The first thing they did was to make a Dolby SR copy of it and then put the “original” in a storage, where it wouldn’t deteriorate any more. Once they had the sound, or some of it anyway, they could then start working on how to best make this into a Dolby 5.1 track. Mind you, these guys were working with a movie that won the Oscar for Best Sound (among others), so to change it too much would not only be second guessing the work, but would be beside the point as it wouldn’t retain the original feel of the movie.

Again, the comparisons are shown as to how the sound was done. A very noticeable example is with Rex Harrison in his singing scenes. Harrison wore a hidden mike as he sung because he couldn’t dub his voice; by his own confession, he said “I sing differently every time”! The main problem with Harrison’s recording was that it was too high-pitched, therefore sounding dry and brittle. With a little fine-tuning, they were able to give the dialogue a more natural sound to it. While a musical is known for musical numbers, the songs sound simply fabulous in this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The opening credits sound remarkably robust as the orchestra plays alongside the digitally-generated credits. Again, like the video, this isn’t the absolutely best-sounding disc out there; but when you consider what the restoration team had to work with – it sounds superb.”

Supplements: What are the extras?

“Again, Warner has issued up another Two-Disc special edition of an already existing title. These must be selling well or they’re just giving film buffs (like me) something to crow about. While the previous DVD edition had an anamorphic transfer, a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, a few featurettes and a commentary with the restoration team, singer Marni Nixon and Gene Allen (all of which made the cut to this version). Suffice it to say that Warner would have to up the ante with some considerable supplements in addition to those already listed or else what’s the point of buying the same disc again? Well, they have answered and with the additional supplements, this new version is a no-brainer to purchase. Though the first disc contains the movie (intermission and all) and the same commentary track, the second disc is where all of the supplements are located. But first, the commentary track…restorers Harris and Katz along with Marni Nixon and Gene Allen give a very thoughtful and insightful commentary track here. Katz and Harris start out the track with some technical information, essentially saying “Here’s what we’ve done and we hope you enjoy it…” and throughout the course of the movie, the different people chime in at key times. For instance, Nixon takes control during some of the songs, etc. The quartet remain fairly talkative, even considering the film’s lengthy 173 minute runtime. Another testament to the dedication of the people associated with the film – even forty years later.

The second disc is where the rest of the supplements are located. The menu looks harmless enough as it contains only a few options (“More Loverly Than Ever”, The Production, The Awards, The Comments and The Trailers of Lerner and Loewe). “More Loverly Than Ever” is 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. There’s some segments on Marni Nixon and the semi-scandal that ensued as Hepburn was noticeably distraught when they found out that they dubbed her voice. This wasn’t on the previous DVD release, so it’s good to see that this was included here. Next up we have “The Production”, probably the most informative section of the disc. We start off with a 1963 Production dinner in which 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. Next up we have some audio of Director George Cukor as he directs actress Bina Rothschild on a couple of key lines. 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. Something that was ported over from the previous version is alternate versions of Audrey Hepburn’s vocals for “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” and “Show Me”. These were also discovered during the restoration and this was the first time that Hepburn’s original vocals were heard instead of Marni Nixon’s. Rex Harrison is interviewed on the radio telling about the shoot (they had just finished production) as various posters flash across the screen.

“The Fairest Fair Lady” is 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 took literally 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 of “My Fair Lady” here. Some “Show Me” galleries are also included in the form of some stills from the set (shown in black and white). There are some production documents, which is a bit misleading, as it’s just pictures of the set and some sketches of the costumes that were eventually used in the film. Lastly, there are some architectural drawings that show the scale of what was built for the movie. It’s amazing what they did back then and all inside a large room…This brings us to “The Awards” section as this movie has many. 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. There is also some footage from the 37th Academy Awards with Jack Warner and George Cukor accepting their respective statues. Some text-based awards are shown as well. “The Comments” is a section that didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. 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. Lastly, we have “The Trailers of Lerner and Loewe” as trailers are shown for “Brigadoon”, “Camelot”, “Gigi” and the original and re-release trailers for “My Fair Lady”. The movie is enjoyable, if not campy at times. At nearly three hours, it’s quite long, but this is Hollywood at it’s best – giving us what we wanted. This new Special Edition should easily replace the one currently available and I’m wondering what new Special Editions Warner has in store for us for the rest of this year…”

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