My Fair Lady 50th Anniversary – Blu-ray Review

The rules of the 70mm Classics Series are simple: If it’s at least partially shot using 65mm film materials, then it’s fair game. This is different than movies that were blown up from 35mm sources or otherwise, and shown in 70mm theatrically.

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My Fair Lady is possibly the most lavish and decadent movie ever made. The film has some of the most elaborate set pieces, choreography, and musical numbers ever committed to a single picture.  It’s funny, well-acted, brilliantly scripted, and edited with such finesse that nearly three hours of screen time melts away like nothing. Along with The Sound of Music, it represents the last of its kind; the closing of the era of the successful, yet massively bloated Hollywood musicals.

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On paper, My Fair Lady had everything working against from the beginning. Warner Bros. Studios paid a ridiculous sum of 5 million dollars for the rights to the film, something that was absolutely unheard of at the time. It was based on a hugely successful Broadway show, one which took home 6 Tony Awards during its initial stage production, including Best Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for one of its stars, Rex Harrison. The massive popularity of the stage show only raised the stakes even higher, so high that Jack Warner himself took the reigns as producer of the film.

The film’s production from the outset was fraught with controversy. Warner settled on an established Hollywood star, Audrey Hepburn, to take the place of Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza Doolittle, deeming her too much of a risk to take on for such an expensive production. Rex Harrison, who originated the role of Henry Higgins on the stage, was passed up for actors such as Cary Grant, who famously fought for Rex along with many others, who were finally successful in getting him cast. The casting of Audrey Hepburn proved to be challenging, as she couldn’t comfortably sing all of the material. This forced the studio to dub her singing voice in post, which may have cost her an Academy Award nomination for the film.

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The film’s budget ballooned to a sum of 17 million dollars, which was impressive for the early 1960s, as Jack Warner and his crew put forth every effort they could to ensure that everything fell into place just right. The film was photographed using the expensive and prestigious Super Panavision 70 format, and all of the film’s lavish set pieces were built on the Warner Bros. Lot at great expense to look convincing and grand. The film’s incredible award winning costumes were designed for the large casts by the Broadway show’s original designer, and the script was fine-tuned by its original author, the legendary Alan Jay Lerner, who worked with composer Frederick Lowe to arrange the Broadway score.

The film’s plot, which was adapted from the 1938 film adaptation of the 1913 stage play Pygmalion, tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins and commoner Eliza Doolittle. Higgins, a professor of phonetics, after encountering Eliza in the streets after attending a show in London, declares her accent and use of the English language to be a crime against phonetics. Making a friendly wager with a friend, he bets that he could teach her to be a proper lady through her use of language. Eliza, who initially takes offense to the proposition, eventually goes to Professor Higgins, and accepts his offer. The rest of the film accounts his various attempts to teacher her the proper use of the English language, portraying all of the trials and tribulations that they get into together through song and dance, in typical musical style.

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My Fair Lady is pure cinematic bliss from start to end. The cast of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, while controversial, could not have been a better match for the character. She plays the role with vulnerability and conviction, placing her future in the hands of a strange man, who has only offered to help her to win a silly bet. Watching Eliza transfer from a brash, naïve commoner into a sophisticated, elegant woman on screen through the performance of Audrey Hepburn is not one to miss. Even better is Rex Harrison’s career defining performance as Henry Higgins, a role that he created for the stage. He comes off as sophisticated and arrogant, a man who truly embodies and throws around his upper class education as if it makes the air he breathes truly better than ours. Harrison plays the role with enthusiasm and energy. It is clear that he is truly enamored with character, putting forth a performance that is both incredibly likable, and despicable at the same time, a true master of the role. The chemistry between Rex and Audrey on screen, although it takes a rather long time to build up, is absolutely electric. The film carries itself upon the interactions between the two, and it succeeds in spades.

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The supporting cast, full of famous English actors such as Jeremy Brett, Gladys Cooper, Sterling Holloway, and Wilfrid Hyde-White provides numerous opportunities for humor and commentary, as their characters serve as a slice of sympathetic humanity to inject into what is otherwise a story about a man verbally abusing a woman until she nearly breaks in two. Their contrast to the main story line is very much needed, helping to keep the film grounded in reality when it needs it most.

Cast aside, the film is sumptuously photographed in Super Panavision 70, the only shooting format that could contain the film’s large set pieces and elaborately choreographed song and dance sequences. The film is full of beautiful wide shots and close ups that reveal the beauty of the film’s production. The costumes are elegant, a testament to the skill that Warner was able to pay for with the film’s ridiculous budget. The film’s soundtrack, adapted from the original stage show is catchy, with lyrics that are amusing and engaging. Not a single song feels like filler or seems out of place, unlike some of the musicals from this era. It just feels right.

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My Fair Lady is a true achievement, bringing the stage show to the silver screen in truly grand fashion. The film is edited skillfully, performed by a cast of class actors and actresses, and shot by a truly masterful crew. The film never comes off as bloated, even though it’s filled to the brim with fancy set pieces and large scale musical numbers. The film absolutely oozes style and elegance, something only matched by the grand MGM musicals of old.

Needless to say, I am absolutely enamored with My Fair Lady. It is by and large my favorite musical film ever made. It may not hold up well under close scrutiny, treating women as objects, and portraying the lower class as selfish and ridiculous folk, but sometimes I am just so enthralled with a film that I’m willing to put that aside. The film is sumptuously photographed, brilliantly acted, and tells one of the most endearing rags to riches sorts of stories ever committed to film. The film is a shining example of the musical film, with incredible songs that are well integrated into the film’s story. It is a true cinematic treasure, one of the last of its kind. True movie magic.

5/5

The Video:

Extensive notes and interviews pertaining to the restoration of My Fair Lady can be found here and here.

My Fair Lady was shot entirely on 65mm negative using the Super Panavision 70 camera format for theatrical projection on both 70mm and 35mm prints. For its 50th anniversary, the film’s surviving 65mm elements were scanned in 8K resolution, from which a 4K restoration was painstakingly prepared by Robert Harris, who worked with James C. Katz to revitalize the film for its 1994 release. The film is presented in 1080p on Blu-ray, using the 2.20:1 letterboxed aspect ratio.

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As I mentioned several times above, My Fair Lady is a gorgeous film, full of intricate and detailed set pieces, both big and small. Not a single detail is left unnoticed in this brand new restoration, bring the folds in Henry Higgins’ suits, to the cracks in the streets of the sets built to recreate the rainy streets of London early on in the film. The elaborate costumes peppered throughout the film truly shine, as every piece of the many outfits resolves with sharpness and detail in extreme amounts.

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This new transfer, especially when compared to the previous Blu-ray release of the film which was most likely transferred from a 35mm source, has dramatically improved color and contrast. Grain is even, sharp, and light throughout the length of the entire film. Every single piece of dirt and damage that had been inflicted upon the film’s original camera negatives have been expertly cleaned up. Truthfully, unless we someday get to take a crack at the film’s 8K scan, I think this 4K restoration is the definitive presentation of the film. Truly superb work by all of those who were involved with the process.

5/5

The Audio:

My Fair Lady was originally presented in 6-track magnetic stereo for its 70mm theatrical presentations. 6-track sound originally, before Dolby got their hands on it, used a 5 channel front, with a mono surround channel. The original 6-track 70mm mix was remixed for its 1994 restoration, conforming the film to the more modern 5.1 speaker conformation. This film’s soundtrack has once again been remixed, presented in 7.1 Dolby TrueHD on home video. For review purposes, the film was listened to in 5.1 surround sound.

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Having watched the film theatrically in digital 4K, Laserdisc, and on the film’s original Blu-ray release, I can tell you that the film has never been a particularly enveloping the film. The sound, having been remixed once more, sounds fuller than ever, no longer limited by the technology of old. The film’s sound mix, having once had a 5 channel front, features excellent dialogue panning, some of the best in films from that era. Surround activity is minimal, as is subwoofer activity, reflecting the style of film that it is, as well as the limitations of sound production during that time period. Everything is clear and sharp, useful in a film that relies so much on music and quick dialogue.

4.5/5

Special Features and Packaging:

My Fair Lady’s 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release, presented by CBS Home Video, comes packaged in the style of the metal Neo-Pack. The case’s color scheme is designed around the black and white color pallet of the race scene from the film, and features a picture of Audrey Hepburn wearing the famous black and white dress and hat from that sequence, with a picture on the back of the case of Henry and Eliza dancing from the ball sequence from the film. Upon opening the package, you are greeted with a picture of Henry and Eliza from the race scene in the bottom left corner of the case, with swirls, and a famous quote from the film taking up most of the frame. Upon opening the case up to its entirety, we are greeted with the film’s 3 discs, as well as another shot of Eliza and Henry, a quote, and black swirls.   The packaging, much like the film, is stylish and elegant. A perfect match.

     

Onto the special features, which are contained on their own separate disc from the feature film:

More Loverly than Ever: The Making of My Fair Lady Then & Now – a holdover from the film’s Laserdisc box set release in 1994, which is a comprehensive documentary that runs close to an hour. The program covers costume designs, stage designs, various accounts of different events from the filming of the film, and a brief look at the film’s heavy duty restoration that occurred in 1994 using mostly photochemical methods, as well as some brand new digital techniques. As I mentioned, this one is a standard definition upscale, but it holds up pretty well, and is a rather entertaining account of the film’s history.

1963 Production Kick-Off Dinner – a press coverage of the kick-off dinner that was held to commemorate the start of production. It features several shots of the cast and crew assembled for this dinner, as well as a series of interviews with cast members like Rex Harrison cut in between. The footage is in rough shape, but it’s a nice archival piece to give us a glance into the atmosphere on set.

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Los Angeles Premiere 10/28/1964 – an old newsreel sort of coverage of the My Fair Lady premiere in the Los Angeles. It highlights the spectacle of the event, and all of the stars who were invited and have showed up at the event. Presented in a pretty messy standard definition transfer.

British Premiere – in a similar fashion to the LA premiere, this covers all of the stars and glamour of the British premiere of My Fair Lady. Features more British stars, due to the location change. This one is a fresh HD transfer from a 35mm archival source that looks fresh, grainy, and detailed. A surprising addition.

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George Cukor Directs Baroness Bina Rothchild – an audio recording of George Cukor directing the Baroness during the ball sequence after the intermission. He quickly gets frustrated, and has her repeat the same lines. Unfortunately, this one is audio only, and is set against still images.

Rex Harrison Radio Interview – a brief, minute long clip where Rex Harrison discusses working on the film

Production Tests – Alex Hyde White, son of the actor who plays Colonel Pickering, walks through lighting tests and lens tests transferred from 65mm archival material of lighting Higgins’s study, a makeup/hair test of Colonel Pickering, the lighting of rain during the opening sequence. Also shown is the lighting of the Covent Garden scene, and a Higgins/Pickering screen test with alternate actors. White recounts various stories about his father, and intricate details about the lighting in each scene. Good stuff.

Alternate Audrey Hepburn Vocals – clips from the films’ songs Show Me and Wouldn’t It Be Loverly with Audrey’s original, slightly lower range vocals. Honestly, for these two songs, her voice seems fairly appropriate. Although these vocals have been around forever, set against the new restoration, they’re great archive pieces.

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Comments on a Lady – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martin Scorcese say a few words, without much substance to them, as they talk for about a minute. It is pretty much outtakes from the More Loverly than Ever feature, and feels out of place on its own.

Galleries – a large collection of production stills. Pretty standard stuff.

Trailers – a collection of trailers with various city tags award trailers, and various reissue trailers. None of these are very substantial, and are mostly music set against moving text. A little disappointing that they couldn’t have pulled out more stuff for this comprehensive release.

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Rex Harrison BFI Honor – an archival piece, in which Rex introduces some of his older films for a BFI retrospective screening, shot on set during the filming of My Fair Lady.

Rex Harrison Golden Globe Speech – Rex Harrison accepts a Golden Globe award in this archival piece.

Academy Awards Ceremony Highlights – a selection of clips from a muddy broadcast archive of the 1965 Academy Awards, highlighting the awards that My Fair Lady walked home with, including Best Actor and Best Picture.

The Story of a Lady – a look at the success of the original Broadway play, and how Warner’s lot was consumed by the production of the film’s scope and extravaganza

Designing a Lady – an eight minute clip that covers the design of the film as a period piece, and the costume design created by award winning costume designer Cecil Beaton

The Fairest Fair Lady – yet another archival piece that highlights the development of the film, and the film’s production.

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There are a ton of special features to work with, and yet, besides the More Loverly than Ever documentary piece, and some of the celebrity interviews, the supplements here are fairly non-substantial, reiterating a lot of the same ideas. The production tests, and the alternate vocals from Audrey Hepburn are also a treat, but most of this stuff is pretty standard, run of the mill stuff. I was a little disappointed with the lack of solid material here, but there sure is a lot of it.

3.5/5

Overall:

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Listen, you all know at this point that I’m going to give this Blu-ray release of My Fair Lady a perfect score, and demand that you purchase it as fast as you can type, “My Fair Lady” into your choice of retailer. The film is fun, well-acted, edited, scored, and produced. It is the pinnacle of the Hollywood musical, and one of the last of its kind. It’s pedigree is undeniable; winner of 8 Academy Awards, the film has stood the test of time as a masterpiece in traditional Hollywood film making. This is not one to miss, especially since we’ve finally gotten the definitive restoration of the film. This Blu-ray features an incredible visual presentation of the film, with a clean, yet basic audio transfer, limited in scope by the age of the material. The packaging is a stylish neo-pack metal case, which perfectly matches the tone and style of the film. The special features, which are large in quantity, for the most part left me wanting for more. Even though there’s a whole disc of content, I only felt that 3 or 4 features really engaged me and enlightened me on the production of the film. However, based on the strength of the incredible movie, and the even better restoration of the 65mm film negative, this one comes highly recommended.

4.5/5

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