Song and Dance Is Not Everything

        Although the musical version adds more fun to the story and allows for numerous playful detours into song, George Cukor’s 1964 film, My Fair Lady, still falls slightly short of Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s 1938 Pygmalion, which follows George Bernard Shaw’s original 1913 script more closely.

        In Howard and Asquith’s version, Howard portrays the misogynistic Professor Higgins with boyish delight. He is quick-witted, funny and very interesting to watch, but more importantly, he expertly captures the doctor’s immaturity. Whenever Higgins works with Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), it is evident that in his mind, he is playing with his very own walking, talking and annunciating doll. Hiller performs beautifully in her own role, as well. She plays Eliza with the spunk of a hardened but good-hearted street urchin. Her slightly masculine bone-structure prevents her from undergoing a completely awe-inspiring transformation at the end; but, even so, she plays the part with grace.

        Contrastingly, Cukor’s musical version uses sets and costumes that out-dazzles the Pygmalion, but the leads, Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, fail to portray the sparks in their characters that made Howard and Hiller’s performances. Hepburn, who is far more statuesque than Hiller could ever dream to become, successfully pulls off Eliza’s transformation into a gorgeous society queen. However, she plays Flower Girl Eliza with a shrill edge that grates on one’s nerves after a while. While Hiller’s character is endearing and lovable, Hepburn’s is sweet but tiresome.

        Harrison also falls short with his performance. He seems merely like an obsessed bachelor professor, which Higgins indeed is; but he does not boyishly bounce around the screen like Howard. Not only is Howard’s enthusiasm more fun to watch, but it also pushes Higgins’ immaturity, which is a vital part of his character. Without it, Harrison simply seems like a curmudgeonly old man.

        However, one performance in My Fair Lady exceeds its counterpart, as depicted by Wilfred Lawson, in Pygmalion. Stanley Holloway’s portrayal Alfred Doolittle is nothing short of fantastic. Any time an actor can make a despicable character that loveable, it is an achievement.

Casey Northcutt

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