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My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady

By Frances Taylor • March 26th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Warner Bros

Original release: January 21st 1965
Running time: 170 minutes

Director: George Cukor
Writers: Alan Jay Lerner, George Bernard Shaw
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Jeremy Brett, Wilfred Hyde-White

My Fair Lady

Accents can be a funny thing, especially here in the UK where it’s enough to move across a county border, or trek across a valley or particularly barren fell, and you can hear a new one or dialect. Far from merely denoting where you’re from geographically, they can also be loaded with connotations of class, wealth, education and knowledge. Certain accents have been fetishised and reviled in equal measure, whilst others are just generically ‘other’.

It’s a particularly interesting topic to me because I’ve a bit of a complex about my own. Being from Cumbria, I have flat vowels, a harsh ‘r’, don’t usually pronounce ‘t’s and say words like ‘ratch’ (to have a quick look through some items) and ‘scrow’ (mess). People sometimes comment on it, make jokes about it, and have even been quite mean and snobbish.

If there’s one a lady on screen who knows these jibes, it’s Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). Selling flowers in Edwardian London, she yelps in a thick Cockney accent, working on the street instead of in a shop like she wants. After being insulted by linguist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) to his colleague Colonel Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White), Eliza asks him to teach her how to speak more regally.

More than that, Higgins bets with Pickering that he can pass her off as a lady to the London high society, and so the transformation begins from “deliciously low”, luring her in with material wants: “Think of it, Eliza. Think of chocolates. And taxis…! And gold! And diamonds!” From being wrestled into the bath so she can be properly washed, to attempting to talk with marbles in her mouth, the road isn’t smooth for Eliza or ‘Enry ‘Iggins. Despite living in the same city, they come from vastly different worlds. There’s so much they don’t understand about each other, and the battle of wits, misunderstandings and stubbornness ensues. At first, she’s incensed by Higgins’s methods and treatment, and sings about them in ‘Just You Wait!’ where she imagines rising to the top of society and looking down on him when he needs some help.

My Fair Lady

She’s rambunctious in her revenge fantasy, knowing exactly how to target him and enjoying it all the while. She’s not just singing to Higgins specifically, but everyone who’s ever put her down. Eliza knows she has strengths and attributes, that she’s a good person inside despite her decidedly un-shiny appearance. All she wants is a chance to prove it, and then to dismiss those who have dismissed her unjustly, with relish.

After her introduction at the ball, she gets a taste of the good life; meeting new people, being treated kindly and revered, and dancing in beautiful gowns. At a later outing, Higgins takes Eliza to the races, which leads to one of the most humorous outbursts in film, “Come on Dover, move your bloomin’ arse!” Eliza’s still the same girl on the inside, and as much as Higgins tries to iron out her ‘uncouthness’, he just can’t. Eliza herself says that the “difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she is treated”.

She doesn’t mince matters when it comes to the snobbery of the British class system. All she has to do to fit in is wear a fancy dress and have a polished vocabulary, making the upper classes seem vacuous and shallow. She scorns, “I sold flowers; I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else.” My Fair Lady The best Eliza now can hope for is to be married off to a suitable gent who can keep her fed and dressed and sheltered. Now that working is ‘beneath’ her, she is allowed only to be a wife, to be cared for by someone else, and to have little governance over her own life.

This is a little reminiscent of Thomas Day’s experiments with women and wife-training in the 1700s. Day adopted two girls from the Foundling Hospital and educated them, and “strengthened their character” by dripping hot wax onto their arms. His experiments were ultimately a failure, unlike Higgins’.

My favourite thing about the film is that everyone seems so happy. They’re not trying to change the world; they’re just trying to have a good time in it. The majority of the musical numbers are upbeat with positive lyrics. Even Higgins, as misogynistic and snobbish and stubborn as he is, is taught a lesson of sorts in the end. He sings that he has “grown accustomed to her face”, and concedes that he’ll miss Eliza now that she’s left. In what’s perhaps the least romantic love song, he says, “But I’m so used to hear her say “Good morning” ev’ry day” and that’s the best that we are ever going to get out of him. He may know how to pronounce words properly – if only he could ever vocalise his feelings.

Frances Taylor

Frances Taylor

Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).

When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.

She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.

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