March 7, 2014 -- I watched this movie again last night for the first time in 50 years. When I first saw it, this movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth because of the awful ending it has. After watching it again, that awful ending seemed even worse than before, so I went back and read the play on which the movie was based, “Pygmalion,” and there, I found the ending to the story that should have been in the movie, but wasn't.
As far as a story goes, the play is far superior to the film. This is too bad because the film has wonderful music, great performances and some of the most spectacular costumes you'll ever see, along with that awful conclusion (see spoiler section below for a discussion about the way the film ends). Musically, this film is light years ahead of most modern musicals, such as some of those highly touted recent Andrew Lloyd Webber film adaptations. Those classic songs, such as “The Street Where You Live” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” stick with you long after the film ends.
Eliza Doolittle (played by Audrey Hepburn), a poor girl selling flowers on the street, finds herself the object of study by phonetics scholar Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison). Higgins boasts that he can teach Doolittle, in a few months, to speak proper English well enough to fool anyone in high society. His friend, Colonel Hugh Pickering (played by Wilfrid Hyde-White) makes a bet with Higgins that he cannot accomplish the feat.
Pickering agrees to pay for Doolittle's lessons and to pay for some of her living expenses for the duration of the bet, as she, Pickering and Higgins are all living in Higgins' spacious home, along with several servants. Higgins is independently wealthy, but also seems to make some money from his phonetics publications and teaching. Higgins works very hard with Doolittle to get rid of her Cockney accent. He also bullies her and ridicules her, constantly reminding her of her poor background and lack of education.
Eventually Eliza blossoms into a beautiful lady, learning the manners and speech of high London society. This seems obvious to everyone but Higgins, who still treats her like a street urchin. He is proud of what she has become, but only insofar as she is his own creation. He gives himself all the credit. Eliza is quite angry with Higgins for his manner of treating her as an inferior and ordering her about. She abruptly leaves.
Higgins, who has grown to enjoy Eliza's company, is mystified as to the source of her resentment. Eliza goes to stay with Higgins' mother (played by Gladys Cooper). She also announces her intention to marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill (played by Jeremy Brett) a young man who falls in love with her charm and beauty. Meanwhile, Eliza's penniless rascal of a father, Alfred P. Doolittle (played to the hilt by Stanley Holloway, whose performance of “A Little Bit of Luck” is a show-stopper) has had a complete reversal of fortune, thanks to a joke by Higgins that backfires. Eliza's father is now rich and he can now afford to support her.
Given this setup, you can guess how the story ends, but, thanks to some elaborate contortions and lengthy speeches, it avoids the usual romantic comedy ending. Unfortunately, it avoids the Pygmalion ending as well, to settle for an ending that is truly half-hearted. More on that below.
The acting by Harrison, Hepburn and Holloway (sounds like a law firm), is phenomenal. The music, by Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, is amazing. The costumes, by Cecil Beaton and art direction by Beaton, Gene Allen and George James Hopkins, are dazzling. It is a truly great film, right up until that screwed-up ending that had Shaw spinning in his grave. This film rates a B+.
The way the film ends is an abomination (with Eliza ending up with Henry Higgins). George Bernard Shaw himself despised this kind of ending that people wanted for Eliza and Henry in his play “Pygmalion,” written in 1912. He wrote in a sequel to the play, “This is unbearable, not only because her little drama, if acted on such a thoughtless assumption, must be spoiled, but because the true sequel is patent to anyone with a sense of human nature in general, and of feminine instinct in particular.”
In the sequel (an essay attached to the end of play itself), Shaw writes that Eliza marries Freddy and they open up a flower shop that eventually, after problems, becomes quite successful. Eliza continues to visit Higgins and Pickering, but “she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel (Pickering); and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle,” according to Shaw, “She knows that Higgins does not need her, just as her father did not need her. The very scrupulousness with which he told her that day that he had become used to having her there, and dependent on her for all sorts of little services, and that he should miss her if she went away (it would never have occurred to Freddy or the Colonel to say anything of the sort) deepens her inner certainty that she is 'no more to him than them slippers'”
The movie ends with Eliza going back to Higgins, who implies that she should fetch his slippers, which is a joke, albeit a bad one, which comprises the final line of the final scene in the film. In the movie, we are supposed to believe that Higgins truly needs Eliza (unlike in the play, where he pretends to need her as a shallow ploy, but does'nt really need her at all). In the movie Higgins manipulates Eliza into her giving him what he wants. Higgins wants himself, Eliza and Pickering to form a nice little household of three bachelors, and he says as much in the play.
Of course in this situation, Eliza would end up alone after the two much older men died. Shaw rejected this ending outright because Eliza knew that Higgins would not be a suitable husband, or father for that matter. She wanted more affection, more equality and better treatment than Higgins was capable of giving her. She does'nt sell out in the play. She does sell out in the movie.
In the play, Eliza ends up with a suitable partner in Freddy, who loves and respects her and who helps her as much as he can. The ending of the play is not a typical romantic ending, which George Bernard Shaw scrupulously avoided (which was unusual at the time). Even so, Shaw's vision for Eliza's future at the end of “Pygmalion” is quite different, and more fair for Eliza, than the one seen in “My Fair Lady.” Shaw believed in equal rights for women. It is not clear that those who made “My Fair Lady” shared that belief. In the film, Eliza will not have an equal partnership with Higgins. She will always be in a class of society below that of Higgins and Pickering. She will be forever trapped between her humble beginnings and below the upper crust of society to which Higgins belongs. She will end up a childless old maid alone in a big house she will inherit only if she is lucky. She will be totally dependent on Higgins. That is dangerous because Higgins is a fickle fellow.
Eliza is young, beautiful and smart. She has more options available to her than to spend her life trying to get along with that old rascal Higgins, and she knows it. There are other differences between the play and the film. In the play, Pickering and Mrs. Higgins (Henry's mother) have much bigger, meatier roles and are very important to the conclusion of the story, and the sequel. Although Higgins and Pickering both help Eliza and Freddy set up their business and the couple ends up being financially independent of their benefactors. The ending of “Pygmalion” gives Eliza more independence and security than she is afforded in “My Fair Lady.”
So how in the world did a movie with such a weak, half-hearted ending, so out of touch with the play on which it is based, end up being made this way? How in the world did it win the Academy Award for Best Picture over such wonderful films as “Mary Poppins” or Stanley Kubrick's magnificent comedy “Dr. Strangelove”? Good questions. Part of it has to do with the period of history in which this story is set, and the period of history in which this film was released. The play was written over 100 years ago, but in some respects the film is even more backwards, from a feminist viewpoint, than the original play was.
The film was made near the beginning of what became known as the second wave of feminism. Although feminism began in the late 19th century (the women's suffrage movement was a big part of it, the most profound social changes would come later in the 1960s and beyond. The people who made the film dated back to earlier, pre-feminist times. Academy Award voters tend to be older to begin with and even the younger voters in 1964 would belong to what is now called the “Greatest Generation” which was decidedly anti-feminist compared to the following generations. The ending of “My Fair Lady,” in which Eliza is left essentially powerless and under the control of Higgins, didn't seem to bother the Academy voters the way it angered me in 1964 and angers me even more now.
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