art design history observations

Impressions of My Fair Lady

I haven’t watched “My Fair Lady” since high school, but had occasion to watch it again recently (the occasion being to give my grandbaby time for a nap in my arms). It’s interesting to revisit movies that were childhood favorites after a long lapse in time. My impressions of the movie are different now.

When I first watched the movie, it was because I admired Audrey Hepburn and I liked musicals. I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the plot. The movie is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” and is about a linguist, Professor Henry Higgins, who claims he can turn a poor, common woman selling flowers in the street, Eliza Doolittle, into a duchess by teaching her how to speak properly. Colonel Pickering takes Higgens up on the bet and the story goes from there, with Eliza learning to speak like an upper-class lady and successfully passing herself off as a duchess.

In the movie version, which was released in 1964, Higgins is played by Rex Harrison and Eliza is played by Audrey Hepburn.

During my most recent viewing, I was immediately struck by the plot and the classism it represented. There was also a touch of sexism, though the classism was more pronounced. People enjoy transformation stories, but the idea that a wealthy guy can make a bet with a professional linguist to train a woman “proper” English and dress her beautifully in order to pass her off as upper-class without actually pulling her out of poverty is galling on a number of levels. The arrogance! The lack of ethics!

However, setting the plot aside, there were other aspects of the movie to admire. The costuming and the way the scenes were set were captivating.

Because the movie was made in 1964, Technicolor was a big deal. Movies of the early Technicolor days have an opening screen proudly announcing Technicolor technology, as does My Fair Lady. Boy, howdy, the color! At the beginning of the movie, the poor people selling their wares in the street are in black and other dark colors while the upper-class people leaving the theatre are in vivid colors that leap off the screen.

Color plays an important role throughout the movie, with Professor Higgins having a bright green floral settee, the race track scene awash in whites, grays, pinks, and blacks (with Eliza having a bit of red added to her ensemble to set her apart from the rest of the crowd), and a mix of beautiful colors in the ballroom scene where Eliza debuts as a duchess.

The race track scene, where everyone is in coordinating colors, is especially artistic. The actors are set to pause in vignettes so that the scenes remind me of Impressionistic paintings. It’s fabulous to watch. The same thing happens to a lesser extent in the ballroom scene.

And the costuming is brilliant, particularly the race track scene and anything on Audrey Hepburn. (To be fair, Audrey would have looked good in a flour sack.) Every dress and outrageous hat in the race track scene is unique. Audrey is gorgeous in the race track scene in her striking white hour-glass dress with black details and gigantic hat. But she was stunning in her shimmering ballgown.

According to trivia on IMDB, “When Audrey Hepburn entered the set for the first time in Eliza’s gown for the ball, she was so beautiful the crew and the rest of the cast stood silently gaping at her, then broke out with applause and cheers.”

Cecil Beaton is credited with costuming. Michael Neuwirth also worked on costume design but is uncredited according to IMDb.

One thing about the costuming and settings that gives me pause is that I can’t quite peg what era they are supposed to be. Because so much of the costuming is so brightly colored, but the styles look sort of early 1900s, they don’t feel accurate to that time period. And Henry Higgins’ house looks vaguely Art Deco, but the floral upholstery on the settee seems to be a wild 1960s-pattern.

It’s as though the movie is a nod to pastiche, but pastiche that took a slight left turn at Albuquerque.

Apparently, however, the styles are actually accurate to the time period, according to this 2016 Aging Like Wine blog post, though I do wonder about the vivid colors, which seem to have been chosen to show off Technicolor.

My impressions of My Fair Lady this time through were more about the visuals than anything else, though I do wonder what linguists think about the premise of the plot.

What do you think of My Fair Lady? What is your favorite aspect of the movie?

Thoughtful comments welcome.