To judge by the results, the producers of My Fair Lady were less interested in making a movie of the Lerner and Loewe musical than in knocking us out with it. Its sole purpose seems to be to wow us as the biggest, glossiest musical ever made. As so often happens when someone tries to impress, the heavy effort to show off smothers even the good things. Which is not to say that there is nothing of value in the movie. It’s just that you can never quite enjoy the story and music for themselves. It’s as if you’re constantly being asked “Isn’t this just amazing?”
As a matter of fact, it isn’t. It’s an obviously expensive layer cake made by talented people employing the rich resources of a major movie studio. It provides a superb recording of the music. It preserves Rex Harrison’s stage performance more or less intact. It gives Cecil Beaton the opportunity to create some lush Edwardian/Art Nouveau design, and as image after over-stuffed image rolls off the screen, one treat giving way to another, you can delight in the sumptuous excess.
What you can’t do is enjoy a particularly engaging movie. It’s not even an interesting example of director George Cukor’s flair with well upholstered light comedy. Indeed, one of the problems with the film is that it can never quite decide whether it’s a stylized theatrical adaptation, or a more “Realistic” recreation of fin-de-siècle London. On the theatrical side, you have some sketchy, impressionistic sets and broad acting for the galleries. (Audrey Hepburn, lovely as she is, overplays outrageously in the early scenes and Stanley Holloway is just about unbearable.) On the “Realistic” side, you have some overly detailed sets stuffed to the gills with period bric-a-brac while the actors are kept impossibly spruce by off-camera assistants.
The Ascot sequence is a perfect example of such schizoid intentions. On the one hand, you have a stylized set in keeping with a stage production, with singing extras in ridiculous poses that underline the music’s witty encapsulation of stiffly proper upper-class English behavior. At the same time, there’s an expensive literalism at work that requires the dozens of extras to prance about in a period fashion show, shiny antique cars to drive up and horses to race by. It’s seemingly calculated to remind us that the movies can go the theater one better, and don’t you forget it—“Wow, imagine that, real horses!”
My Fair Lady would probably be a lot more fun if we weren’t constantly nudged with such reminders of how grand it is. Given its Broadway success, there’s no way the play could have been filmed cheaply, but made with a light touch rather than this heavy effort to overwhelm, the film might have been a graceful evening’s entertainment. As it is, we seem to be expected to count the buttons in the waistcoats between musical numbers. Gosh, there are a lot of them.