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(Best sung to “On the Street Where You Live”)
Covent Garden’s full of the unwashed crowd,
Peasants selling wares with accents none should speak aloud.
One rude gentleman knows each origin
And shows off his obscure expertise.
One poor flower girl whom he ridicules
Thinks he’ll help her speak all proper-like with English rules.
He is boorish, yet when he’s posed a bet,
He can’t wait for her Cockney to cease.
Though Eliza starts to become upset,
She is quickly washed and focused on her alphabet.
Speaking night and day, she is told to say
Sentences of the plain rain in Spain.
Henry Higgins and everyone nearby
Grow more weary every time she mutilates an “I.”
She sends Higgins spite till she gets it right,
And she tries in the gentry’s domain.
Though tact comes and goes, Higgins thinks that she
Now is ready for a ball with aristocracy.
There his girl excels, casting countless spells
On the nobles who speak so genteel.
When it all is done, Higgins’ ego soars,
With no credit for Eliza, whom he just ignores.
She deserts him there in unsure despair,
And the snob doesn’t know how to feel.
When he finds her next, she proclaims that she
Doesn’t need him and his arrogant contumely.
When the haughty sir then starts missing her,
She returns by unspoken appeal.

My Fair Lady is one of only ten musicals to win the Best Picture Academy Award, beating out Mary Poppins that same year. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, this musical version retains much of his clever dialogue and social commentary and adds a number of classic songs. Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics are a poet’s delight, making excellent use of internal and feminine rhyme. My favorites would have to be Rex Harrison’s sung/spoken diatribes “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?,” “An Ordinary Man,” and “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?,” as well as Freddy’s lovestruck serenade “On the Street Where You Live.” Eliza’s dreamy arias “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” are among the film’s most recognizable tunes, but my VC and I find them rather bland compared with her empowered melodies, like “Show Me” and “Without You.” Most of the songs fill a purpose or convey an idea, but those sung by Eliza’s alcoholic father seem like filler, particularly “Get Him to the Church on Time,” even if they’re the most fun ditties.

The film also swept other Oscar categories, such as Director (for George Cukor), Cinematography, Score, and its most well-deserved Best Actor. Rex Harrison is so perfect for Henry Higgins, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Audrey Hepburn gives an outstanding performance as well, handling both her Cockney and refined accents skillfully with the proper amount of slight overlap in some later emotional scenes. Why she was not even nominated for Best Actress is one of 1964’s great mysteries, though it still might have gone to Poppins’ Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza on Broadway. True, Eliza’s overreactions early on are appropriately irritating, and her singing voice was dubbed in most instances by renowned dubber Marni Nixon, but Hepburn deserved recognition for what became one of her most enduring roles. The film’s weak point is its final scene, and as much as I dislike the Communist Shaw, I agree with him that the story (which was revised against his wishes) should not end with Eliza returning to her unappreciative “creator.” It ends on an ambiguous note with no indication that Higgins will actually change his behavior toward her, regardless of his obvious self-stifled affection.

My mom ofttimes relates how, in the early ‘80s, she attended an actual Broadway show of My Fair Lady with none other than Rex Harrison himself, perhaps twenty feet away from her seat (it gets closer every time she tells it). There was a different Eliza, but a few other familiar players from the film cast were present. She has called it an awe-inspiring high point in her entertainment life. Perhaps her love for the material transferred to me, for My Fair Lady is among my favorite musicals and a worthy beginning to my top 100 countdown.

Best line: (Higgins, explaining the bet to Eliza) “Eliza, you are to stay here for the next six months learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist’s shop. If you work hard and do as you’re told, you shall sleep in a proper bedroom, have lots to eat, and money to buy chocolates and go for rides in taxis. But if you are naughty and idle, you shall sleep in the back kitchen amongst the black beetles and be wolloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick. At the end of six months, you will be taken to Buckingham Palace, in a carriage, beautifully dressed. If the king finds out you are not a lady, you will be taken to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls! But if you are not found out, you shall have a present… of, ah… seven and six to start life with as a lady in a shop. If you refuse this offer, you will be the most ungrateful, wicked girl, and the angels will weep for you!”

Rank: 53 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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