The Fair and “Well-Cast” Lady

        When asked which actors, costumes, setting, cinematography, sound effects, and music worked best if a film, I found that the one film that came to mind as satisfactory in every category is My Fair Lady. The 1964 musical, directed by George Cukor and based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 Pygmalion, has long since been served as a benchmark in which to compare other musicals. The combination of elaborate sets, color film, and very character-fitting costumes made the musical a brilliant spectacle. The musical numbers and lyrics made it a joy to listen to, and the cinematography was very detailed, and kept the audience’s attention.

        The actors that served as the cast for My Fair Lady may very well have been its initial reason for success. With the talented and wildly popular Audrey Hepburn cast as the lead role of flower girl Eliza Doolittle, the film was labeled as a blockbuster before filming even commenced. After being featured in films such as Roman Holiday (co-starring Gregory Peck), War and Peace (co-starring Henry Fonda), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (co-starring George Peppard), Hepburn was comfortable in the spotlight.

        But her being cast alongside Cleopatra star Rex Harrison gave the movie an over-the-top hype. Oftentimes throughout the cinematic history, “all-star” casts have been assembled and failed miserably (i.e. the recent films Be Cool and Ocean’s Twelve), but Hepburn and Harrison fulfilled their duties as A-list actors and gave renowned performances that redefined the roles from their staged predecessors. Whether it was Hepburn’s barely understandable Cockney dialect or the genuine scatter-brained stubbornness of Harrison as Professor Higgins, they lived up the expansive excitement that came with the film. Hepburn also fared well in the face of doubt. Many critics and movie fans alike had hoped that Julie Andrews be cast as Eliza because it was she that made the role infamous on Broadway (alongside Harrison).

        The second great aspect of the film was the enormous amount of spectacle. The film was revolutionary in that it was filmed in color just a couple of decades after the first color films had made their way to the screen. The ability for the audience to see the entire spectrum of colors gave the film an amazing added dimension. The bright colors of the clothing that Eliza wore and the vast sets that accompanied the film made the film much more lifelike. However, it was not just the color, but also the detail and obnoxious costumes that gave the film such a fantastical visual element. Take the Ascot racetrack scene for example; in the scene most of the women are wearing sophisticated and elaborate gowns and the men are trotting around in suits equipped with long coattails. The “high society” look that the people employ helps the audience associate how out-of-place Eliza and Henry really were. Another visual trick that Cukor used was to have everything on the set stop moving except for the person the scene was focused on. At the beginning of the film, as Eliza is singing and walking through the streets, the people hustling and bustling in the background completely stop, giving the film a unique feel. The sets in My Fair Lady also add a ton of detail to the spectacle. From the vastness of the street scenes, to the interior of Higgins’ apartment, to the inside of the ballroom, the sets make the physical space of the film seem infinite.

         However, since it is a musical, the film’s crowning achievement came in the musical aspect. Often times, musicals can seem monotonous and cause the audience to question, “Why did they just start singing?” My Fair Lady makes smooth transitions into its musical numbers. From the extremely clever rhymes and slang in the opening number, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” to Higgins dumbfounded realization in the closing number, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” the film seems to weave in and out of dialogue and singing effortlessly, almost without the audience noticing it.

        Cukor’s approach to his adaptation of the classic Pygmalion was far ahead of its time. By using his own combination of elaborate costuming and settings to his decision to cast two of the most famous actors of the time, Cukor created the point of reference for cinematic musicals that we still use today.

Marshall Toy

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