My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion, is one of my favorite musicals of all time. I first saw the 1964 movie, directed by George Cukor, seven years ago and instantly loved it for its musical elements, bright colors, and elaborate costumes. Audrey Hepburn was captivating as Eliza Doolittle, and Rex Harrison made Henry Higgins as loveable a character as could be expected when playing a ill-mannered, temperamental professor of linguistics. In my mind, the story of Shaw's Pygmalion, as depicted in My Fair Lady, was in itself complete without anymore room for interpretation. Indeed, I was convinced that the other cinematic interpretation, the 1938 film Pygmalion, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, was not needed.
So, my notions of the romance, or rather, fiery relationship between Miss Eliza Doolittle and her teacher, Henry Higgins, were set in stone. When I read Pygmalion for the first time, it was hard to shake scenes of My Fair Lady from mind and even harder to forget the musical score, especially with Harrison's Higgins tramping down the street near the end of the movie, furious that Eliza has left him and yelling, "Damn! Damn! Damn!"before launching into his song of regret, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
The effect was the same when I saw the film Pygmalion, starring Wendy Hiller as Eliza and Leslie Howard as Higgins. I found myself exclaiming, "That's not what Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins are supposed to look like!" In my mind, Eliza was best defined by Hepburn's dark hair and whimsical figure, and Higgins' image was that of Rex Harrison's elderly yet loveable wit and temper.
We are creatures of habit, and we like to rely on our first impressions. So when an original play or another movie challenges our first notions of a story, the effect can be both disillusioning and uncomfortable. But it can also be reinforcing. I personally loved Howard as Henry Higgins. I thought he added new humor to the role, a humor I would have never experienced if I had never seen the 1938 film. But I still prefer Hepburn as Higgins' "squashed cabbage leaf."
As disillusioning as it can be to see or read the same story in three different versions, in my experience, first impressions win…and My Fair Lady is still the reigning interpretation of Bernard Shaw's work.