George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, one of the great screen musicals, gets an ultra high definition release that should likely be the last word for this screen version of the show on home video.
The Production: 4.5/5
Stephen Sondheim once said that My Fair Lady was probably the greatest musical comedy ever fashioned in terms of sheer entertainment, and there are probably few who would argue with him. Lyrical and literate, My Fair Lady was and is one of the apexes of the American musical theater. Its 1964 film version is a handsome, über-faithful transcription of the theater piece with two of its original cast members recreating their roles and a top-flight set of actors filling in the other legendary parts with ease. Directed with controlled finesse and command by veteran George Cukor, the movie was pretty much everything one who loved the stage version could have hoped for. There may be no surprises or unusual innovations in the movie, but the play’s dramatic, comedic, and musical merits have all been brought forward and play to perfection on the big screen. After receiving a masterful restoration and a subsequent Blu-ray release in 2015, My Fair Lady has now been prepared by Paramount for its ultimate home video presentation: a 4K ultra high definition transfer offering at last the definitive copy of the film for all to see and enjoy.
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 initially 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 but 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 and overly confined.
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 particularly felicitous choice for doubling Hepburn. The Hepburn speaking voice and the Nixon singing voice are never quite 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. Though Hepburn never claimed to be a soprano (she said as much in many interviews), the transition from speaking to singing would have been more seamless with a better vocal match. 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 vocal 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.
3D Rating: NA
The Super Panavision 70 theatrical aspect ratio of 2.20:1 appears to be present in this 2160p transfer using the HEVC codec and abetted with thoughtfully applied (but not overly enunciated) Dolby Vision. The spotless transfer is sharp but never edgy and is very detailed, all the better to observe facial features and the intricacies in the hair designs and the astounding wardrobe creations and sets. While color throughout is true and solid, the color is more resolved and tame rather than blazing from the screen and thus seems more realistic. Bright colors such as reds and purples are wonderfully under control while still offering impressive saturation levels. Contrast has been consistently maintained, and black levels are wonderfully rich and deep. There are many scenes set in Higgins’ study where it seems one could simply walk into the picture so clear and real is the image. The movie has been divided into 50 chapters.
The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 sound mix, ported over from the previous 2015 Blu-ray release, offers the best-ever presentation of the Oscar-winning sound design for the film. There is wonderful spread of the music in all available channels with instrumentation divided obviously in various channels. There is some directional dialogue, too, though most of it has been placed in the center channel. There is a healthy amount of bass present in the mix though it is not accentuated to the distraction of the other channels. The annoying and frustrating reverb from the first inadequate Blu-ray release is not present here though Rex Harrison’s live recordings of his vocals still sound just the tiniest bit arid and electronic especially in “I’m an Ordinary Man” and bits of “You Did It!” Split atmospheric effects aren’t frequent, but when they do occur (the horses galloping at Ascot, for example), you’ll know it.
Special Features: 4.5/5
There are no bonus features on the UHD disc. The enclosed Blu-ray disc does not contain a 1080p version of the movie. Instead, it is just the bonus features from the previous 2015 release.
More Loverly Than Ever (57:58, HD): the 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.
1963 Kick-off Dinner (23:20, HD): features remarks from Warner Bros. head Jack Warner and slightly acerbic interviews with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison before the film began production.
Los Angeles Premiere (4:53, SD): many Hollywood celebrities turn out for the premiere but few actors from the film itself are present.
British Premiere (2:17, HD): Stanley Holloway, Cecil Beaton, Jack Warner, Jeremy Brett, Rex Harrison, and Audrey Hepburn attend.
George Cukor Directs the Baroness (2:39): an audio-only excerpt with Cukor supervising the looping of Baroness Bina Rothschild’s few lines in the movie.
Rex Harrison Radio Interview (1:06): excerpts from a specially prepared radio interview with the film’s star.
Production Tests (7:04, HD): Alex Hyde-White, son of the film’s Colonel Pickering, hosts this selection of five brief production tests: lighting the sets, a Wilfred Hyde-White make-up test with the actor trying a toupee, rain on the Covent Garden set, Covent Garden lighting test, and a screen test for John Williams auditioning to play Colonel Pickering. (Ben Wright plays Higgins in the test.)
Audrey Hepburn Vocals (HD): the footage from the film featuring the star’s reasonably successful vocals for “Show Me” (2:48) and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (4:32).
Galleries: step-through galleries of sketches and photographs for Cecil Beaton’s character and costume sketches, black and white stills of the production and wardrobe, color production stills, and documents and publicity materials.
Comments on a Lady (SD): brief comments from Andrew Lloyd Webber (1:04) about missing the opportunity of working with Alan Jay Lerner on The Phantom of the Opera and Martin Scorsese (1:19) on the necessity of film preservation.
Trailers (HD): teaser with seven city tags (1:13), With Pride trailer (1:11), Awards Won trailer (1:04), Reissue Trailer with poster illustration (0:58), Reissue Trailer with Reserved Seat Notification (1:25), Reissue Trailer with Awards Won (1:25), Theatrical Reissue Trailer (3:48)
Story of a Lady Featurette (5:05, HD): show the Broadway show came to Warner Bros. to be filmed.
Design for a Lady (8:22, HD): Cecil Beaton displays and explains his set and costume ideas for the film.
The Fairest Fair Lady (9:31, HD): a 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 for its two big production numbers: Ascot and the Embassy Ball.
Rex Harrison BFI Honor (2:08, HD): the actor introduces a series of films he starred in during his career.
Rex Harrison Golden Globe Speech (0:47, HD): 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 Awards Highlights 4/5/65 (2:09, SD): the brief acceptance speeches for George Cukor, Jack Warner, and Rex Harrison from the night they each won for My Fair Lady.
Digital Copy: code sheet enclosed in the case.
My Fair Lady, one of the great screen musicals, gets an ultra high definition release that should likely be the last word for this screen version of the show on home video. While one might have liked a new restoration featurette or an authoritative audio commentary on the film’s legendary status, the film in pristine condition is the main thing, and with this 4K UHD release, there are no complaints at all. Highly recommended!
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