At one time, Hollywood produced quite a large number of musicals. But growing up in India, I, like most young people, knew only of two: The Sound of Music, and My Fair Lady. Admittedly these have been among the most successful movies of all time, but I still wonder why Singing in the Rain, Mary Poppins, West Side Story -- to name a few -- did not find more of an audience in this country.
My Fair Lady was, of course, adapted from Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" (free Project Gutenberg e-text). The movie (and its predecessor, the Broadway musical) contains notable differences from the play. In particular, where Shaw -- distressed by an early performance that introduced a romantic ending -- appended a lengthy prose diatribe explaining why Eliza would marry the uninteresting Freddie and develop no romantic relationship with Higgins, Alan Jay Lerner concluded My Fair Lady with Eliza returning to Higgins' room (though the question of subsequent romance was left unresolved). I generally assumed that Shaw would have squirmed at this, as he would have at the idea of his play being converted into a Broadway musical.
So it was with great interest that I recently watched the 1938 movie of Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza. The screenplay is credited to Shaw himself, who received an Oscar for his efforts; it deviates significantly from his original play, but what struck me was how little My Fair Lady deviates from this movie. Even the ending is the same (Shaw presumably was persuaded of its merits) -- except that in Lerner's version, Higgins, walking home, bursts into song ("I've grown accustomed to her face") and, where the 1938 movie concludes with the line "Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?" Lerner substituted "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" Numerous other new elements in the 1938 film -- from the "educating Eliza" scenes, with marbles in her mouth, to the line "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain", to the ballroom scene featuring Higgins' former Hungarian student Karpathy, who "exposes" Eliza as a Hungarian princess -- have been borrowed almost without modification by Lerner. Most surprisingly, the melody of "I could have danced all night" is clearly audible in the ballroom scene. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that "My Fair Lady" is the 1938 movie interspersed with songs, and with different actors.
As for the actors -- I wasn't born early enough, or in the right city, to watch Julie Andrews as Eliza; but Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn do a great job in the movie. However, to me, Howard rings truer. Harrison's Higgins seems to be playing a part: he is a rude, mannerless, inconsiderate character, not out of his inner nature, but in order to be provocative and to have a bit of fun at everyone's expense. Howard's Higgins does not seem to be acting a role: he really is like that. And Wendy Hiller, as Eliza, is absolutely outstanding from start to finish.
That leaves the songs. Compared to the 1938 movie, these (and Technicolor) seem to be the main value additions to My Fair Lady. And Lowe's melodies are indeed valuable. But I have several nits to pick with the lyrics.
Henry Higgins, let us remember, is fanatical about the English language; while his field is phonetics, surely grammar would not be much lower on his priorities (and, indeed, he repeatedly corrects Eliza's grammar.) Yet the first lines that Lerner's Higgins sings are these:
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutters
Condemned by every syllable she utters;
By rights she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
But in English (as opposed to American), only inanimate objects are hung; humans, when executed, are hanged. ("By rights" does not sound very British either.)
We may excuse Lerner for this: he was after all an American. But what do we make of these lines from "I'm an ordinary man"? Could Higgins possibly have uttered such a monstrous line as "I'd be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling than to ever let a woman in my life"? I would have thought that "equally as willing" is incorrect English on both sides of the Atlantic; "for" and "than", following that phrase, ring quite wrong; and shouldn't the refrain be "let a woman into my life"?
Perhaps Higgins is being sarcastic, but that doesn't make much sense either: if he wanted to lampoon someone, it would be a Cockney, not an American. I'm rather mystified that Rex Harrison, who was reportedly a Shaw purist who carried the Pygmalion script to rehearsals, allowed himself to sing these lines. But they have become classics, so what do I know.
Having picked those nits, let me admit that the songs are indeed very enjoyable. So here are a couple of links to close out this post. Though Julie Andrews was sidelined for the movie, we can watch her do "Wouldn't it be loverly" here. (She also sings on the 1956 Broadway cast recording, which is marvellous, and on the 1959 London cast recording, which I haven't heard.) Audrey Hepburn was mostly overdubbed by Marni Nixon in the movie, but the DVD includes her versions of two songs as alternate takes; you can watch that here. (She struggles a bit on the high notes; one can understand why she was dubbed, but it is really quite a creditable performance.)