The Trouble with Song

     I assure you, I am not an Audrey Hepburn disparager. Although she is definitely in the category of those actors or actresses I have been mandated to like by some higher authority in Tinseltown, I do not resent her and have found that in such films as Sabrina or Breakfast at Tiffany's she can hold her own. After watching her performance in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loew's 1964 cinematic adaptation of Pygmalion however, I was left with a myriad of questions and an overall sense of being cheated. Lerner has taken George Bernard Shaw's 1913 master satire and lengthened it by at least ninety minutes by adding songs, many of which are lip-synced by the aforementioned Hepburn. After being pleasantly surprised with the Pygmalion film, directed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard and starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, I was nearly knocked out by the monumental unimpressiveness of My Fair Lady. The problem was chiefly with the cotton candyesque musical numbers.

     Rex Harrison portrayed the phonetics teacher Henry Higgins in the Lerner production. With wrinkled face and frazzled hair, he was a bit older than I thought he should have been. But aside from his age, his performances of such numbers as "Why Can't the English," "A Hymn to Him," and "I'm An Ordinary Man" left much to be desired. Harrison does not sing as much as "spings," a ghastly hybrid of speaking and singing. Sure, the lyrics to the Harrison numbers were more conversational than straight-out verse, but I found it to be without feeling and a bit grating. He sang as though the life of his worst enemy depended on it. Oh, sure. He gets all hot and bothered when it comes to ridiculing the opposite sex, but am I really better off for hearing Harrison stumble through such lyrics as

     Ready to buck you up whenever you are glum.
     Why can't a woman be more of a chum?

I think not. And Harrison is just the first example.

     The main exhibit in my case against the use of songs with the Pygmalion story is the performance by Audrey Hepburn. I cannot ever get past the fact that she is blatantly being dubbed over. Okay. So the directors did not get her for her singing voice. What did they get her for?--her acting? I think not. She was a superficial choice from the get go. Wendy Hiller, the actress who portrayed Eliza in the 1930s non-musical version of the Shaw play, may not have been as physically attractive as Hepburn, but she certainly pulled through in terms of the difference between the uncultured and cultured her. I never for a minute thought that Audrey was not a wolf in sheep's clothing. Maybe it was an attempt by the director to cast against type because of Hepburn's obvious sophistication in her other roles. The problem was she could not pull it off. Her songs can never truly be given the feeling that they need because she is not doing the singing. The songs are about as spontaneous as a Strom Thurmond bowel movement (to borrow a Dennis Miller line), and Hepburn only makes it worse with her uninspired hemming and hawing.

     My Fair Lady was bumbling blunderbuss of a film, a huge showy and glamorous outside with little or no soul. The Pygmalion film was intense, funny, and smartly cast and directed. My Fair Lady is a plodding giant of a film, crushing scenes with plodding songs and smashing emotions with poor casting decisions. Get rid of the songs. Please. If the songs must be there, then get lead actors who can sing them. There are plenty of actresses who could have really sung the Eliza songs and pulled off the conversion better than Audrey, Hollywood's Patron Saint of Glamour. There had to have been a younger actor than Mr. Harrison who could have actually sung instead of spoken his songs. Mr. Lerner, the trouble with your songs is that you have managed to take a humorous play and bloat it to two times its intended length with good for nothing tunes. Next time, think again.

Jonathan Sircy

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