Friday, September 11, 2009


Warner Brothers film studios honcho Jack L. Warner paid CBS-TV mogul William S. Paley the sum of $5.5 million to acquire the movie rights to turn "My Fair Lady" into a movie. Moreover, Paley demanded 50 percent of the film's gross once it exceeded $20 million. Incidentally, "My Fair Lady" raked in $72-million during its preliminary theatrical release. Paley stipulated also that the film could not be released until "My Fair Lady" completed its Broadway engagement. According to Warner biographer Bob Thomas, Warner actually produced "My Fair Lady," something that he had rarely done since the 1920s. Initially, Warner had sought Cary Grant for the role of Professor Henry Higgins, but Grant not only turned him down but also threatened to boycott the movie if Rex Harrison did not star in it. Warner approached Peter O'Toole who had recently starred in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but O'Toole's price including profit percentages was astronomical. Warner hired the highly respected “woman’s picture” director George Cukor, who had directed such classics as "The Women" and "Adam's Rib," to helm this 170-minute film. Cukor received $300-thousand for a minimum of 52 weeks, from January 1963 to February 1964.

At the time of its release, "My Fair Lady" (**** out of ****) generated some controversy because the star of the stage version, Julie Andrews, did not receive the Liza Doolittle role. Principally, Warner chose Audrey Hepburn over Julie Andrews because Hepburn was a recognized commodity that would attract audiences to the cinema. Hepburn had made a bundle for Warner Brothers with “A Nun’s Story.” Indeed, Warner anted up one of the biggest pay checks ever for Hepburn, paying her a cool million. For tax purposes, the studio paid the million dollars over a period of seven years. Meanwhile, Warner ignored the fact that Andrews had played Liza Doolittle in 2,281 performances on the London stage and 2, 715 performances on Broadway. Interestingly, Audrey Hepburn did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The 1964 Best Actress Oscar went to Julie Andrews for "Mary Poppins." Keep in mind, “Mary Poppins” was Andrews’ film debut. Reportedly, Andrews thanked Warner at the ceremonies for making her Oscar possible. According to Turner Classic Films historian Frank Miller, Rex Harrison wound up reprising his stage role as Professor Henry Higgins for $200-thousand. Harrison didn't sing a line but rather spoke his lyrics as he had done on stage. Harrison also lobbied on behalf of Andrews to get the Liza role. Veteran British character actor Stanley Holloway, the only other actor in the stage presentation, reprised his role and was a hoot as Liza's blue-collar father. Originally, Warner had sought tough guy hoofer James Cagney to play the role. Cagney had retired by then and could not be induced.

"My Fair Lady" wound up costing Warner a whopping $17-million to produce, one of the most expensive movies in Hollywood at the time. 'My Fair Lady" received the 1964 Oscar for Best Picture. The last time that a Warner Brothers movie had been accorded this high honor was in 1943 with "Casablanca" starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart won the statuette. "My Fair Lady" also brought home the Oscars for Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction, Best Color Costume Design, Best Adapted Musical Score, and Best Sound.

Director George Cukor's "My Fair Lady" is essentially Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's cinematic musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion." Shaw derived the idea for his play from Greek mythology. In one of Ovid's narratives, a Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion becomes enamored with a statue of a woman that he had carved out of ivory. Shaw adapted his play in 1938 for a British film that toplined Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. Like "My Fair Lady," "Pygmalion" concerned a Victorian phonetician who wagers that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to speak correct English so that he can have her masquerade in high society as a lady. Wendy Hiller played Eliza Doolittle and Howard—best known for "Gone with the Wind"—was cast as Professor Higgins. Hiller and Howard both received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress while Shaw actually won an Oscar for his screenplay that he wrote with W.P. Lipscomb and Cecil Lewis. Ian Dalrymple and Anatole de Grunwald also contributed to the screenplay but they never received credit, while Kay Walsh provided some additional dialogue. In 1956, Lerner and Loewe rewrote the play because Shaw's work broke two important musical conventions: the main story lacked a romance and allowed no place for an ensemble.

As in "Pygmalion," "My Fair Lady" has voice coach Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) challenges his incredulous colleague, Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), that he can train boisterous Cockney street vendor Eliza Doolittle so she can talk in proper English and fool the lords and ladies at Buckingham Palace into believing that she is a duchess. Pickering not only takes the bet but also provides the funds to dress Eliza to fit the role. For six months Higgins toils day and night working on refining Eliza so that the aristocrats at the biggest social event of the season will believe that she is royalty. Of course, before it is over, both Higgins and Doolittle grow to hate each other but inevitably the hate sweetens into love at fade out. The early scenes between Harrison and Hepburn as they argue with each other at the station are hilarious. There isn't a bad song in the lot.

According to Frank Miller, virtually every cent of the massive production budget of "My Fair Lady" appears on screen. Lerner and Loewe complained when Warner decided to lens the film on the Warner Brothers backlot in Burbank, California. Nevertheless, Warner Brothers went to extreme lengths to recreate the actual British setting. For example, the stones for the cobblestoned Covent Garden streets were manufactured one at a time, rather than the usual practice of making them all for one mold. The sets were painted and retouched by Art director Gene Allen to give some of the edifices the illusion that they had been standing for hundreds of years. He also aged Hepburn's flower-vendor costumes so she wouldn't appear too prosperous. One thing that couldn't be fixed about Hepburn was her voice. Although Hepburn had sung songs in Funny Face” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the “My Fair Lady” songs would prove to be beyond her range. The studio musical experts felt her voice wasn’t good enough. None of the meticulous rehearsals, recordings, and re-recordings passed muster. Ultimately, Warner hired ‘a voice double’ Marni Nixon to dub Hepburn in spite of the actress's extensive preparation for the part. Future Sherlock Holmes actor Jeremy Brett was cast as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Although Brett had a fine voice, Bill Shirley ended up dubbing him.

Movie reviewers at the time largely loved “My Fair Lady.” The only complaint that surfaced concerned the casting of Audrey Hepburn rather than Julie Andrews. Many critics felt that Hepburn was not credible as a Cockney flower vendor. The final note of interest in this story about this celebrated hit movie is the October 1964 premiere. Jack Warner told his publicity manager Joe Hyams the following about the premiere. “I want this to be a Tiffany operation. Everything you do must be one-hundred percent style and class, money no object. Just remember: it’s a Tiffany product.” Hyams followed Warner’s orders to the letter.

In his book “The Clown Prince of Hollywood, the Antic Life and Times of Jack Warner,” Bob Thomas described an ironic event that occurred at the benefit party afterward that mirrored “My Fair Lady.” Mrs. William S. Paley, the Duchess of Windsor and Mrs. Winston Guest chaired the benefit party and were gearing up for the cream of New York society to attend. Mrs. Paley had arranged for Jack Warner to escort her daughter at the premiere and the ball, but Miss Paley was unable to attend because she had developed a cold. Hyams got back to Warner about this complication. “Now Mrs. Paley is worried about your having someone to sit with at the head table.” Hyams and Warner huddled in the bar at the Sherry Netherland hotel in New York City at the time. Warner spotted a girl in the bar who according to Thomas was “an attractive young woman, who appeared to Hyams to be one of the high-class hookers that were allowed to work the hotel as a convenience for guests.” Warner escorted the hooker to the premiere decked out in a gown that Warner’s designer Ceil Chapman had made and they had styled the girl’s hair, too. The girl could not believe the charade that Warner was requesting her to do, but she attended the events. Again, according to Warner biographer Bob Thomas, “In the midst of the festivities, the girl in the bar arrived, looking like Eliza Doolittle.” Warner introduced her as Lady Cavendish, and everybody at the party, with the exception of Rex Harrison, believed that she was Lady Cavendish. After Warner kissed the girl good night and told Hyams to make sure that the clothes were returned, she turned to Hyams and told him. “What an unbelievable night! And you know something? I had such a good time, I’m not going to charge him.”

In his biography about director George Cukor, Patrick McGilligan classified “My Fair Lady” as the “last great studio movie . . . produced by the last great studio mogul: Jack Warner.”