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My Fair Lady: Special Edition

Warner Home Videp

Starring Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn
Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, Theodore Bikel

Written by Alan Jay Lerner (words) and Frederick Loewe (music)
from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by George Cukor

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Passionate, intellectual, acerbic, bossy, and mock-conceited, George Bernard Shaw was many things to many people, but at root was deeply mysterious, perhaps even to himself. His 60-plus plays and host of other writings take up four shelves, and books about his life and his plays fill up at least two bookcases. Bridging two centuries and four monarchies, he lived a long time and seemed never to stop writing (in fact, he may have suffered from a form of hypergraphia). An Irish expatriate, like James Joyce, he was a political writer who viewed literature as ameliorative, while writing plays that proved upon closer examination to be deeply personal; among his surprising achievements are the formation of the London School of Economics, the founding of The New Statesman, and the creation of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He's the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar, and he's the guy who said "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach," among numerous other memorable witticisms.

But these days, almost 60 years on from his death, Shaw is most remembered for being the man who wrote the play that My Fair Lady is based on.

Pygmalion, derived loosely from the Galatea myth, was written in 1912-1913 and first performed in England in 1914, when it became Shaw's first theatrical hit at the grand old age of 58, partially due to the instant notoriety the play accrued for using the adjective "bloody" for the first time on stage. In general, the play is Shaw's spoof on the eccentricities of his adopted home, its class system, language, and educational system, and Henry Higgins and his pal Colonel Pickering are a linguistic version of Holmes and Watson, Higgins finding through accents and vowels the keys to identity that Holmes gleaned from muddy boots and cigarette ashes.

The history of the play and its adaptations, first as a movie, then a musical, and then as a movie musical, has been recounted in exhaustive detail in several books. Suffice it to say here that in its delightful manner the musical hews closely to Shaw's original play, except in one regard. Shaw enjoyed being difficult and confounding audience expectations, so he denies his spectators an easy romance between Higgins and Eliza Doolittle (Shaw feuded with the actor who created the first Higgins on stage, who found a non-verbal means during the play's last seconds of playing to just this audience expectation). The musical is more audience-friendly, but Lerner and Lowe's songs are such marvelous homages to Shavian tropes that even the most dedicated and irascible Shaw clone must approve.

*          *          *

My Fair Lady (1964) now enjoys a 40th anniversary, two-disc release that may strike consumers as definitive, but those with a long memory of the short history of DVDs, and of Laserdiscs before them, will know better. In fact, DVD collectors who are waiting for Warner Home Video to release still-unobtainable treasures from its archive (pre-Code dramas, Warren William films, certain key Frances Farmer and John Garfield films) will wonder if there is any reason than the commercial imperative of a 40th anniversary to inspire this second Region One iteration of the DVD.

That's because the transfer appears to be the same as the one released on DVD in 1998, which was itself the DVD version of the 1994 Laserdisc, with — mutatis mutandis — the same extras (released at the time by Fox Video).

The Laserdisc came with a soundtrack CD, a portfolio of Cecil Beaton's costume designs, plus the 1994 restoration documentary "More Loverly Than Ever," two recordings of Audrey Hepburn singing, both of which appear here. The previous Warner DVD had an audio commentary track, "The Fairest Fair Lady," which is a contemporaneous promotional short, four theatrical trailers, and the two Hepburn singing takes.

So what's new in this set? The most ephemeral of additional material: raw newsreel footage of the so-called 1963 Production Kickoff Dinner, newsreel footage of the premiere, a brief audio clip of Cukor directing Baroness Bina Rothschild (who played the Queen of Transylvania), sketches, production stills, audio promotional material of Rex Harrison talking about the film's production, Rex Harrison's pre-recorded Golden Globe acceptance speech, Jack Warner's Oscar acceptance speech, a list of the film's awards and two brief snippets — of Martin Scorsese plugging film preservation, and Andrew Lloyd Webber sharing his memoirs of the musicals creators.

Is it worth springing for this new celebratory two-disc set when the transfer itself remains the same? It depends on whether you are a Shaw-My Fair Lady-Hepburn-Harrison fanatic. If you absolutely cannot live without hearing Harrison's pre-fab Golden Globe award, then, yes, this set must find its way into your library. If the addition of Jack Warner's brief thanks rounds out your collection of Warniana, than yes, this is something you need. Otherwise, if you already have the DVD, this set is only for people who just got into DVD collecting recently. It's a set packed with material that by rights should have been on the 1998 set. Warner Home Video might have waited until now in order to offer just one DVD version of the movie, but as numerous DVD vendors have shown, one makes money in this business by releasing the same discs over and over again, rather than bearing the expense of reviving a whole catalog of older films.

My Fair Lady is a great movie musical almost in spite of itself, or rather, in spite of director George Cukor, who shows no facility with the genre. What should have been helmed by Minnelli (over at MGM) or Stanley Donen instead is overseen by a director credited with being a great woman's director, i.e., a man of no particular visual flair or cinematic identity. Cukor doing a My Fair Lady is like Robert Wise doing The Sound of Music, a creature of the studio system with a leaden hand mounting what is basically a TV-ish film that succeeds solely by the force of the actors and the songs they sing. Shaw would have been of two minds about it: He would have reveled in the mountains of money the capitalist system threw his way (which he would then channel into "good works"), while bemoaning the fact that once again the actor playing Henry Higgins got away with the crowd-pleasing routine of romancing Eliza Doolittle.

— D.K. Holm

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