My Fair Lady (Blu-ray)
Directed by George Cukor
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 172 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, Japanese, Dutch, French, German, many others
Region: no designation
Release Date: November 15, 2011
Review Date: November 10, 2011
Linguistics expert Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) places a bet with his follow language expert Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White) that he can take a common flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and mold her into a person who can speak English so perfectly that he can pass her off as an educated, cultured young lady at the annual Embassy Ball. Though she is a slow learner and makes a terrible gaffe at the Ascot Races in a trial effort the teachers use to see how their pupil is progressing, she triumphs so completely at the ball that she actually convinces those present that she is a princess in disguise. The bet is won, but Eliza feels her part in the enterprise has been downplayed and, worse, she is tired of being talked down to and treated thoughtlessly by Higgins despite the differences in their social stations.
Though George Cukor was not the first choice to direct the film (Vincente Minnelli had been first considered, but he wouldn’t do it for a flat fee), his vast experience in bringing stage properties to the screen (Dinner at Eight, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday to name a few) made him an ideal candidate for the job. He has such respect for Alan Jay Lerner’s musical libretto that he films it with a carefully controlled guiding hand. The film is filled with extremely long takes that instill in the viewer the essence of a legitimate play being performed, and yet there are plenty of thoughtfully conceived cinematic flourishes that give the film a grandeur that no stage version could possibly match. The Embassy Ball sequence practically sweeps one off his feet with the lyrical Frederick Loewe music and the swirling dancers sweeping past, and the Ascot Gavotte sequence is highly stylized and altogether hilarious because of it. The play’s most romantic ballad “On the Street Where You Live” is stunningly shot with a telephoto lens that keeps Jeremy Brett as Eliza’s suitor Freddie in focus while the rest of the world fades into insignificance around him, all the better to experience that rapturous song without distraction.
But all of the stage numbers are given their due. Eliza’s shiftless father Alfred (Stanley Holloway) gets to perform his two musical showstoppers “A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” with all of the actor’s music hall know-how to bring down the house as he did in the theater (and the second is done as a superbly conceived pub crawl montage that proves this is a film and not merely photographed theater), and the show’s “The Rain in Spain” breakthrough when Eliza finally masters the King’s English captures their joyous relief in a bracing comic number. There truly is only one place where Cukor might have done better to leave the confines of the soundstage: in Eliza’s rebellious “Just You Wait,” there is a section where she imagines her torturous language master is being ordered by the King to face a firing squad. Instead of setting her dream sequence within the household staircase and entry hall, it might have been funnier and more cinematic to take it to an outside location backdrop with the soldiers firing at Higgins as a real firing squad might do. It’s just a thought, but the way it’s handled in the film with Higgins’ lifeless body on the carpet one moment and then standing erect in real-time the next has always seemed a bit too pat.
Rex Harrison had played Higgins over a thousand times in the theater, but his performance in the film is superbly fresh and dynamic. He handles all of his patter songs with his patented talk-sing method that works superbly for his linguistics expert, and his climactic revelation that Eliza is someone who truly matters to him as a person, not just as an experiment, registers distinctly. Audrey Hepburn’s scenes as the guttersnipe Eliza seem a trifle more forced and artificial than her transformed Eliza, but overall her acting performance is lovely. Voice double Marni Nixon, engaged to handle the soprano vocal chores for the alto-voiced Hepburn, was not a felicitous choice. The Hepburn speaking voice and the Nixon singing voice are never convincing as coming from the same person, as fine as the singing is. What a pity that a singing actress possessing an alto chest voice with a soprano extension (say Joan Diener) wasn’t engaged to be Hepburn’s vocal double. Wilfred Hyde-White’s somewhat befuddled but always kind Pickering is a delightful foil for Harrison, and Jeremy Brett’s dumbstruck Freddie is a pleasure as he fumbles his way into romance (Bill Shirley, his voice double, matches Brett’s speaking voice to perfection). In smaller roles, Gladys Cooper is the very essence of the no-nonsense matriarch Mrs. Higgins, and noted character actress Mona Washbourne is full of spit and polish as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce.
Though filmed in Super Panavision 70 with a 2.20:1 aspect ratio in 70mm, the aspect ratio here appears to be the more conventional 35mm ratio of 2.35:1 presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. At its best, which includes scenes at Ascot and the Embassy Ball, the image can be splendid with excellent clarity, perfect contrast across the frame, and glorious color. But there are density issues on both sides of the frame which often make the sides appear somewhat washed out and decidedly ill-matched with the image quality of the middle portion of the frame. The opening two songs “Why Can’t the English” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” along with their accompanying street scenes in darkness and a second act scene when Eliza wanders the streets in the early morning hours before meeting up with her father also display the irregularities of the image quality at their worst with sides looking milky and ill-matched with the rest of the image. Overall, flesh tones are nicely consistent and lifelike, and while you’ll note a few dust specks here and there, most of the image is clean and artifact free. The film has been divided into 50 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix makes the film’s Oscar-winning musical score adaptation sound triumphant from an orchestral standpoint. The music is rich and full in all channels with superb bass extension that gives the entire soundtrack a richness heretofore unrealized on home video. But when the singing starts, those with those back rear surround channels (6.1 and 7.1 set-ups) will hear notable reverb with the voices which is sometimes very distracting. Otherwise, dialogue is beautifully recorded and is always discernible placed as it is in the center channel. Sound effects are also nicely achieved, and when those horses at Ascot run their race, you’ll hear their progress sweep around your home theater environment impressively.
The audio commentary is by Oscar-winning art director Gene Allen and restoration experts Robert Harris and James Katz (along with inserted comments from vocalist Marni Nixon). The trio has a genial conversation about the movie and its restoration filled with interesting information about the original movie and discoveries made in its afterlife. For fans of the film, it’s a fun if very laid back listening experience.
Unless otherwise noted, the bonus features are in 480i.
“More Loverly Than Ever” is the 58-minute combination making-of documentary and explanation about My Fair Lady’s need for a restoration. Hosted by Jeremy Brett and featuring Robert Harris and James Katz explaining the issues My Fair Lady faced in bringing it back from the brink of extinction, it’s an interesting piece on the film and the need for preservation of our film heritage.
There are six vintage featurettes:
1963 Kick-off Dinner features remarks from Warner Bros. head Jack Warner and slightly acerbic interviews with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison before the film began production. It runs 23 ¼ minutes.[*]
“George Cukor Directs the Baroness” is an audio-only 2 ½-minute excerpt with Cukor supervising the looping of Baroness Rothschild’s few lines in the movie.[*]
The Fairest Fair Lady is a 9 ½-minute behind-the-scenes featurette on the enormous production of the film with a special focus on the wigs, hair, and make-up departments for the vast cast of extras the film used.[*]
Los Angeles Premiere shows a succession of celebrities arriving for the premiere of the movie on October 28, 1964, in this 4 ¾-minute newsreel-like vignette.[*]
Rex Harrison/Golden Globes is a ¾-minute filmed speech by Rex Harrison welcoming viewers to the Golden Globes and thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press for his nomination while apologizing for his absence from the ceremony due to filming.[*]
Academy Award Highlights actually includes only Jack Warner’s acceptance speech after winning Best Picture for the film. It runs ½ minute.
Two musical numbers featuring Audrey Hepburn vocals are presented in 1080p. “Show Me” runs 2 ½ minutes while “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” runs 4 ½ minutes.
Art galleries for the movie include Cecil Beaton sketches of the principal cast, black and white stills, color production stills, documents and publicity from newspaper and magazines, and poster art and lobby cards which play in montage while a 1-minute radio interview with Rex Harrison is played.
“Comments on a Lady” feature brief interviews with Andrew Lloyd Webber who speaks of Alan Jay Lerner for 1 ¼ minutes and Martin Scorsese who speaks for 1 ¼ minutes about the need for film preservation.
The 1964 theatrical trailer runs 5 minutes. The 1994 re-release trailer runs 3 ¾ minutes.
3.5/5 (not an average)
My Fair Lady, one of the great screen musicals, gets a less than great high definition treatment with this release. Though at its best it can look and sound splendid, there are enough problems with this release to make it not quite worthy of the work of art it’s representing. Chalk this one up as a missed opportunity.