Yeah, you know this story – this musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which a phonetics and diction teacher makes a casual bet with a friend that he can pass a Cockney flower girl off as a Duchess simply by giving her a series of elocution lessons – but he does so with little thought to how his pet project will fare after his little experiment is over.
And Audrey Hepburn is perfect as Eliza Doolittle, the flower-girl in question; she’s got the sass and spunk Eliza needs before her transformation, and the regal bearing she needs after. I could always totally buy her in both guises. She also overshadows Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, the diction teacher seeking to mold her; he’s fine and all, but he’s got the sort of speak-singing habit that makes me dubious. He’s also playing a thoroughly unpleasant fellow to boot; in the original stage musical, as in Shaw’s play, Higgins is an unpleasant and selfish fellow, whom Eliza walks out on at the end. The musical tries to soften things with a happy ending, bringing Eliza back to Higgins after he’s sung an epiphany about how he misses her; but Shaw was opposed to this kind of ending in his original play, and Higgins is unpleasant enough that I didn’t buy it in the musical either.
I found I had a similar to-and-fro reaction to much of the rest of the film as well; loving some elements, repulsed by others. Some of the songs are delightful – I’ve always been fond of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On The Street Where You Live” (I even sang that latter song to myself one afternoon when a work errand brought me to the block where a new boyfriend lived). And the musical and film both preserve Shaw’s ideas about how providing aid to people needs to be more than just a cosmetic fix-up; and how in some cases it may make them worse off.
That last notion may be the whole point of Eliza’s father, Albert, and his inclusion in the play. But I honestly felt like you could have cut him out entirely without the story suffering at all; he’s absent from much of Eliza’s life, and appears only to sing a couple songs and then wheedle Higgins out of some money. His songs are fine and all, and Stanley Holloway does okay with them, but they could have been cut entirely from the whole thing and I wouldn’t have missed him. This story and this struggle is entirely between Higgins and Eliza, and Albert has little to nothing to do with it.
Also, I simply was bored by everyone’s musical performances save Audrey Hepburn’s – even though, ironically, she wasn’t the one singing; her voice was famously (and unnecessarily) dubbed by Marni Nixon, a singer who often provided the “singing voice” for other actresses in this period (we’ve heard her before in West Side Story as Maria, and we also hear bits of her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). It may be Nixon’s voice we hear, but it is certainly Hepburn’s performance which sells Eliza’s numbers. Compared to Hepburn, though, everyone else felt stagey and affected.
I realize it sounds like I’m damning this film with faint praise. I didn’t dislike it, though – I was more just lukewarm about it, and felt it went on a little long, with too much time in between Hepburn’s singing. And honestly, that’s one of the biggest reasons I wished they’d cut out Albert’s role – the whole film could have been shortened by a good 20 minutes without him, and I think it might have improved; again, not because Holloway does poorly with the role, but rather because I don’t think the story itself needed to hear from him at all.