MY FAIR LADY REVISITED

In an earlier post I recognized in a film production the contribution of the actors on the writing of the screenplay.  It is important to remember, which readers of my book should be well aware, that the screenplay is a continually evolving work which is never actually finished until the film is shown to theater audiences, if then.  In the aforementioned post, I gave the example of how the American actress Judy Garland demanded changes in the tone of the story for the film Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which contributed to it being a box-office success.  However, it is not generally recognized that the most consequential influence on the development of the screenplay after that of the writers is often the audience itself.  This is especially true in Hollywood, where it is not uncommon for a film to be screened for a test audience, and from the comments collected, substantial changes made, including reshoots.  One should never lose sight of the fact that in Hollywood the customer—audience in this case—is always right (practitioners of “art for the sake of the artist” need not apply in that town).

For example, if the writer is unsure whom his heroine should choose for a husband, have no fear, the audience will choose for her, and often does.  A writer may fancy himself as “a man of the world” and an expert on human nature; but that counts for nothing to an audience, whose opinion must never be ignored on such matters: case in point is the 1914 play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and its many adaptations–the 1964  film My Fair Lady, based on the stage musical of the same name, being the best known.  Regrettably I have never seen the stage version of My Fair Lady, so my examination will be based primarily on the film, which I presume did not differ much from the stage production. I will also be drawing heavily on Shaw’s original stage play itself, along with a 1938 film adaption that credited him as the  screenwriter (along with a few others).

Now let’s get down to work, and there is no better place to start than with the songs that made both the stage musical and the film the immense hit that it became. But before we do, we need to review the origins and plot of the work: My Fair Lady, and its predecessors (Shaw’s original play and the 1938 film Pygmalion) is a retelling of the Greek myth in which the sculptor Pygmalion creates a statue of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it and beseeches the goddess Aphrodite to bring her, Galatea, to life; a wish that is granted.  In Shaw’s play Professor Henry Higgins, a well- to- do expert on phonetics, rescues an impoverished young woman, Eliza Doolittle, from the streets of London and teaches her to speak English so perfectly that he can pass her off as a Duchess.  The central question we will be asking in the many versions of Shaw’s work is: does the Professor fall in love with Eliza as did Pygmalion with Galatea, and she with him?  Those of you who are familiar with the work may be surprised at this question, but as we will shortly see, the answer is not so clear.

The score for My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is indeed brilliant, so let’s begin with some of the highlights.  What better place to start than with Alfred P. Doolittle’s, Eliza’s father, song “With a Little Bit of Luck,” his paean to the morality (or lack of it) of the “undeserved poor.” This is pure Shavian wit. A real crowd pleaser; nothing for the audience or Shaw, himself, not to like here.  This theme is expanded on splendidly with Doolittle’s next number, “Get Me to the Church on Tine,” in which this incorrigible reprobate bemoans his sad fate at being thrust into the ignominy of “middle class morality,” owing to his new found (financial) fortune. Moving on to Professor Higgins’s musical numbers, we find that “Never Let a Woman in Your Life (I’m and Ordinary Man) ” and “Why Can’t a Woman be more Like a Man (A Hymn to Him)” perfectly embodies Shaw’s misogyny.   Then there is the magnificent ballad by the love-struck Freddy Eynsford-Hill “On the Street where You Live.”  Vic Damone’s version of this fine song shot up near the top of the American popular music charts during the original New York run of the show and for good reason.

Now comes Lerner and Loewe’s piece de resistance, Eliza’s show-stopper “I could have Danced all Night,” in which our heroine gushes on how her heart went a flutter when Higgins, her Svengali, danced with her. But wait a minute! My Ouija board is in overdrive! It appears that I’m getting a message—and an angry one—from the other side. It is indeed from that old curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw, himself.  And the message is: STOP THE MUSIC AND DROP THE CURTAIN!  THAT’S NOT MY PLAY!   And he is absolutely right: My Fair Lady, splendid as it is, has nothing to do with his original concept for Pygmalion.  You see, My Fair Lady is predicated on there being a romantic tension between Professor Higgins and Eliza: a tension that Shaw insisted never existed.  Furthermore, contrary to what the audience may have wished, Eliza will never marry the Professor nor ever had any intention in doing so!

As much as Shaw sought to suppress even a hint of affection between his Pygmalion and Galatea, the interpreters of his work kept undermining him at every turn.  For example, in the play’s 1914 London premier the actor playing Professor Higgins, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, at the end of the last act, throws Eliza a bouquet of flowers as she leaves him, ostensibly for the last time.  This was not written or intended by Shaw, so he went back stage and angrily told the actor he should be shot for desecrating his play; the actor replied that Shaw should be grateful because his (Tree’s) ending, which pleased the audience immensely, was making money.  So exasperated had Shaw become that in 1916 he added an epilogue to the print edition that clearly indicated why there could never be any happy ending for Eliza and Higgins’s non-existent romance. However, for the 1938 film adaptation of his play for which he (and a few others) is credited for the screenplay, Shaw seems to have softened.  For example, the line in the play in which Eliza tells Professor Higgins that he will not be seeing her again, is changed to simply her saying to him goodbye.  In addition there is an added scene in which Higgins watches Eliza drive off with Freddy; that the Professor is extremely jealous is undeniable.  Let’s examine Shaw’s reasons for why Eliza and Professor Higgins can never be together and determine how persuasive they really are.

Shaw begins by lobbing a hand grenade:  when Eliza tells Higgins that she would never marry him if he asked her, she is not being a coquette; according to Shaw, Eliza never seriously considered nor would ever consider the Professor as suitable for marriage.  Shaw assumes that any single woman (he uses the unflattering term “spinster”) worthy of her sex, upon encountering a bachelor as eligible as the Professor will do a quick calculation as to his suitability as a life partner.  Unfortunately for the old bachelor, he is found wanting in every metric: and this by a woman whose most recent home was the streets!  What are these liabilities?

Of course, there are the usual suspects that an astute woman, or perhaps any woman, can easily pick up on:  the fact that he is a confirmed bachelor, that she must compete with his mother with whom he has a close relationship, his devotion to his stuffy work, and last but not least, the Professor is a rather disagreeable chap. And to counter the old adage that beggars cannot be choosers, Eliza does bring something to the table:  she as “a good-looking girl does not feel that pressure” to marry; therefore she can to pick and choose.   Of course, a determined woman could possibly surmount or overlook these obstacles (e.g. his attachment to his mother and his work)—after all, with his breeding and his wealth, the Professor certainly would be a “catch.”  But there is one obstacle that could never be overcome: the fact that Eliza and the Professor are too much alike. They are two very strong -willed people, and we all know that only opposites attract.

Shaw quite persuasively expands upon this observation:

Accordingly, it is a truth everywhere in evidence that strong people, masculine or feminine, not only do not marry stronger people, but do not show any preference for them in selecting their friends. When a lion meets another with a louder roar “the first lion thinks the last a bore.” The man or woman who feels strong enough for two, seeks for every other quality in a partner than strength.

So if Eliza is not to marry Professor Higgins, whom then is she to marry?  Elementary.  She will marry Freddy Eynsenford- Hill .  Freddy!  That useless fop that can’t even be relied on to get a cab for his mother! Freddy whom as Professor Higgins declares couldn’t get a job as an errand boy if he had the guts to look for one!  Yes, Freddy. Here is Shaw’s cynical logic:

This being the state of human affairs, what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy.

So certain is Shaw that Eliza will marry Freddy that he wrote a final scene for the 1938 film in which Eliza and Freddy are married and running a modest grocery/flower shop together.  The producers knew better, however, and substituted one in which Eliza returns to Professor Higgins’s townhouse; in fact, it is literally the very same scene that is the ending of My Fair Lady. You would think that Shaw would have been livid about this substitution, but why should he?  Shaw knows just as does Professor Higgins that Eliza will return; for where else could she go?  Shaw alludes to this when he observes:

Eliza’s instinct tells her not to marry Higgins. It does not tell her to give him up. It is not in the slightest doubt as to his remaining one of the strongest personal interests in her life.

So now where does that leave us? We’ve heard from the characters and Shaw, himself.  Now it’s time for the audience to weigh in.  And weigh in they will (an audience in 1964, not necessarily one today):  Although Shaw may be extremely erudite and can effortlessly quote Nietzsche (“When you go to a woman bring the whip”), an audience of that period knows what they know; and they don’t need a so-called man of the world to tell them otherwise, especially when it comes to affairs of the heart.  They know full well that it is not uncommon for young female students to fall in love with their professors and vice versa.  In fact, it is quite common.   Don’t try to tell them that there is no spark between Eliza and Professor Higgins ready to turn into a full scale conflagration.  And when Eliza tells Professor Higgins that she wouldn’t marry him if he asked her, they know that that is precisely what she wants: for him to ask her to marry him.  That doesn’t mean that they expect her to say yes: Higgins has sinned and he must atone.  He has failed to acknowledge that although she may not be a gift from the gods as was Galatea to Pygmalion, this comely young woman, who is at least twenty years younger, is the best thing that ever happened to him and must be treated accordingly.

The audience decrees that Higgins be given a second chance, and if he should fail again, then—and only then—will they give Eliza leave to pursue another man: and it certainly will not be that fop Freddy Eynsford- Hill, no matter how earnest and sincere he is!   And as for Eliza “running the numbers” in deciding upon a suitable husband, don’t insult their intelligence.  The audience knows full well that in these matters one listens to the heart not the brain—and they can point to the soaring divorce rates to prove it.  No, Mr. Shaw, stick to philosophy and stinging social commentary:  don’t try your hand at writing an advice to the lovelorn column; you will fail miserably.

Can you imagine if the lyrics and book for My Fair Lady had been written by Shaw and not Alan Jay Lerner?  For the showstopper we might have had Eliza singing “I want a Weak Man” rather than “I could have Danced All Night.”  And for the final scene, we may have had the newlyweds Eliza and Freddy, in their cold-water flat, singing a duet entitled “I’d rather have Love than Money.”

The New York stage production of My Fair Lady broke all Broadway records at the time. It also ran in London for over five years (Shaw’s original production of Pygmalion ran for little more than 100 performances).  The film version of My Fair Lady received eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

If any of you find my analysis of the film less than convincing, I encourage you to undertake your own.  The source materials are readily available on the internet.  Shaw’s play with epilogue is available for free, as well as the 1938 film version.  Although the film My Fair Lady is not available for free, much of it, including the musical numbers, can be viewed in short clips at no cost.

The role of Eliza was played by the late Audrey Hepburn.  If you have never seen her in a film before, you just may be, like Freddy, pleasantly “done in” by her enormous talent and gracious charm.

P.S.

Not everyone believed that Eliza should marry Professor Higgins instead of Freddy Eynsford-Hill.  The actor who played Freddy, Jeremy Brett, was so handsome and the song he sung (“On the Street where You Live”) so beautiful that he could melt the heart of any woman, young or old.   But Eliza never heard him sing, although his sentiments would surely have been expressed in the daily love letters he sent her.   We never hear Eliza express any deep affection for Freddy either, in the original play or the musical:  his main function is to make Professor Higgins jealous and/or show him that she could get along without him very well.  It is obvious that Shaw was skeptical that women married for love; given the disparity in power and money between the sexes at that time, they could hardly afford to do so.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *