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Considering MY FAIR LADY

This Sunday, Turner Classic Movies will be screening George Cukor’s MY FAIR LADY. To enhance the experience, you might want to take a look at a think-piece I published on the movie at this blog’s parent site, PostModern Joan. The piece can be found here.

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4 Comments to “Considering MY FAIR LADY”

  1. Ralph Benner says:

    Because you’re likely still in China and might not have seen the newest restoration:

    The 2015 CBS-Paramount Blu-ray release of “My Fair Lady” is the second restoration of the musical by Robert Harris. To say it’s an improvement over his 1994 refurbishment (and the subsequent pathetic 2011 Paramount Blu-ray release) is an understatement. He and his crew perform the Lazarus effect in much the same way Melisandre does to Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, only far more splashy. It IS a resurrection: they brought back from the dead a movie now better looking than it probably looked when it opened in 1964. In Super Panavision 70 the musical choked on claustrophobia, had a deadening color palette and lacked spontaneity. Just about everything appeared soaked in preservative. Still valid to a degree, but with present technology in film restoration, with the opportunity to make respectful choices in color enhancements, George Cukor’s “vision” no longer warns of formaldehyde. Breathing in the atmosphere of theatrical enclosure continues to be labored; the decision to keep everything, including rain, inside sound stages gets to us—we need ventilation. Harris and his colorists, though, have enlivened with as much spirit they can get away with, concentrating on the various wallpapers, ladies’ dresses, cloaks and capes, sparkles in jewelry, sashes and flashes of flower colors, mosaic glasswork and incidental ornamentation. Professor Higgins’s forest-denuding environs literally shine from the coatings of polish and the sound stage lights, equalized as much as possible so not to be too distracting. His mother’s place remains the brightest respite in the entire picture—something JoJo on HGTV’s very popular “Fixer Upper” might whip up, wainscoting subbing for shiplap. The sound enhancement is a split decision: great for the dialogue and ambient effects, disastrous when Audrey Hepburn, Wilfred Hyde-White and the Higgins house servants chorus start lip-synching to the songs. Excepting “On the Street Where You Live,” during which the dubbing by Bill Shirley matches the physicality and voice of Jeremy Brett, the pre-recorded singing robs the performers of immediacy—the shift into the tracks are obviously too abrupt and loudly distant from both the actors and the audience to connect to. (This doesn’t happen in the Ascot Gavotte moments—they’re set up for the pretension.) The efforts allowing Hepburn to sing in her voice and then mix it with Marni Nixon’s are futile, altho neither’s fault: there’s a bit of the schizoid about the way Cukor, producer Jack Warner, Lerner and Loewe couldn’t make up their minds as to whose voice will do the singing. More evident in this restoration is that Nixon unnecessarily over-scales and Hepburn hopelessly under-scales her lip-synching. This edition also re-confirms Nixon isn’t the right voice; her nail-scratching perfection is the diametric opposite of Hepburn’s Eliza, no matter how successful the transformation. Cukor agreed to Rex Harrison’s demand that he record on set and this integrity saves the cunning chauvinism of Shaw’s story. At the time there was no technical way to insert live a gradually appropriate voice for Hepburn, other than her own for “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” (Not used, it’s the way a guttersnipe needs to sound early into the story.) But musical soundtracks made a lot of money back then—the sales for “Westside Story” were phenomenal—and Hepburn’s warbling wasn’t going to make the cut. The extensive and very expensive attentions by Harris and his team, employing and benefiting from 4K resolution and Blu-ray, have made “My Fair Lady” a highly tolerable curiosity piece, albeit with that half-ass conclusion. Have always objected to Lerner and Loewe altering Shaw’s ending to suggest Higgins and Eliza settling as an adversarial couple. Wouldn’t have taken much to simply add Brett’s Freddie ringing the door bell once again as Hepburn’s Eliza ponders her future: After Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, is it another Daddy or a fresh piece?

  2. Doug says:

    As an audiophile, I appreciate your insight into the dubbing. Jeremy Brett’s physicality worked but he never seemed to take a deep breath before bursting with song — something that always rang false in his lip-synch. And what do under-scale and over-scale mean??

    • Ralph Benner says:

      Forgive the delay, and you are right, I didn’t make myself too clear. In my view: Nixon’s pitched too high for some of the songs. For example, in ending “I Could Have Danced All Night,” she scales soprano as showoff, modeled after Andrews’ specialty, of course, but even with spending extra time with Audrey to study her voice—they frequently shared rides to and from the studio during filming for this purpose—she didn’t do much in adapting the obvious limitations. With takes available over at youtube as evidence, Audrey was underwhelming singing on set to her own recording and Nixon’s. She can’t even keep up with herself: By the time she gets to the last lyrics of the song she’s out of air and for too many seconds her mouth is gaping with nothing coming out. She’s achingly mediocre and admits it. As for Brett, went back to the 2015 blu-ray and there are spots throughout his number where you might want to inhale for him, but in fact he is breathing in/exhaling several times.

      BTW: How long are you going to stay in China? Until after Trump’s reign of terror is over?

      • Doug says:

        1) Thanks for the insight into MFL. I totally agree with your observations. 2) As to my future, long before the latest election, I planned to retire to Thailand in 2018 when I turn 65 (which has a very accomodating retirement visa). China doesn’t have a retirement visa, and is still quite uncivilized in many respects, due to the long-term effects of Mao’s regime, when — for example — being polite was a bourgeois affectation which could put you in front of a firing squad. Echoes of those times are still much in evidence here compared to the relative graciousness and tranquility of Buddhist-inspired Thailand.

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