If at first you don't succeed....
In 2011 CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures released My Fair Lady to Blu-ray. They did a horrendous job, one of the worst Blu-ray movie transfers I had ever seen or heard. However, in 2015, thanks perhaps to a multitude of complaints, they rereleased the film to Blu-ray, this time with completely remastered picture and sound for a flawless 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition. It was a long wait, but it was worth it for one of filmdom's great, classic musicals.
My Fair Lady is, of course, one of the best and most-popular stage musicals of all time. It has what so many other musicals do not have--an intelligent script, great acting, clever dialogue, and an endless stream of memorable tunes. The film won eight Oscars in 1964 for Best Picture (Jack L. Warner), Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Director (George Cukor), Best Art Direction (Gene Allen, Cecil Beaton, George James Hopkins), Best Cinematography (Harry Stradling, Sr.), Best Costume Design (Cecil Beaton), Best Music (Andre Previn), and Best Sound (George Groves). Yes, I said it was good.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe based the story on George Bernard Shaw's popular 1913 stage play Pygmalion, which Shaw in turn had based on the classical myth about the sculptor who fell in with the statue of a maiden he created, brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite. The Lerner and Lowe musical stage play was an instant success on Broadway in 1956, coming to the screen in 1964 under the supervision of producer Jack L. Warner and director George Cukor.
The plot centers on the idea that the way things appear is not always the way they are; or, conversely, if you can change the way things appear, it makes them the way they are. In the story it is phonetics Professor Henry Higgens's proposal that he can take any lower-class citizen off the streets of London and pass him or her off as a cultured lady or gentleman simply by teaching the person to speak properly. Of course, it was Shaw's satiric dig at society that we judge people on how they look and sound, not on who they really are. The object of the professor's interest in this pursuit becomes Eliza Doolittle, a poor, largely uneducated flower girl. Taking her under his wing, the professor makes a bet with his friend and colleague, Col. Hugh Pickering, that he can successfully introduce her into high society within six months. Needless to say, Eliza winds up teaching Professor Higgens as much about life and about himself as he teaches her about how to be a proper lady. The story is endlessly engaging and has as much appeal today as it did when Shaw first conceived it.
The part of Miss Doolittle went to Audry Hepburn, and therein probably lies the movie's major point of contention. Julie Andrews had made the role her own on Broadway and record albums, and for audiences who had seen or heard her, it was inconceivable that anyone else should get the part. But the studio felt otherwise, unconvinced that Ms. Andrews had the necessary drawing power they thought the film needed and also a little wary of Ms. Andrew's photogenic qualities. So they went with what they considered a sure thing in superstar Audry Hepburn, causing not a little bitterness on the part of theatergoers everywhere. Meanwhile, Ms. Andrews went on to do Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music in the next year and half; and while the Academy didn't even nominate Ms. Hepburn for My Fair Lady, they gave Ms. Andrews the Best Actress Oscar for Poppins.
None of which is to suggest that Ms. Hepburn's portrayal of Eliza is anything but delightful and charming. Yet the controversy was not to end there. Despite Ms. Hepburn's insistence that she do her own singing, Warners dubbed her voice by uncredited singer Marni Nixon, who had previously done the singing dubs in the movie versions of West Side Story and The King and I. Again the studio got its way, and again there was a degree of bitterness involved, this time on the part of Ms. Hepburn, whom the studio had apparently assured could do the vocals and for which she had even rehearsed and filmed several. But it's all history now, and we will never know what more Ms. Andrews might have done with the role or, except for two songs mentioned below, what Ms. Hepburn might have done with the rest of the singing. Eliza's most celebrated songs include "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "Just You Wait," "I Could Have Danced All Night," and "Without You," among others.
The songs, cast, dialogue, direction, costumes, and set designs combine to make My Fair Lady one of the all-time great movie musicals in Hollywood history. The newest Blu-ray does it proud.
The first time around on Blu-ray (in 2011), the CBS/Paramount engineers apparently used the same 1994 restoration that had looked good on DVD, but they made no effort to restore the film any further for BD. Worse, they introduced some ugly artifacts into the BD, including some occasional white flecks and specks and an unconscionable blooming at the edges--maybe exposure issues, fading--in the lower sides of the screen that intensified as the film went on; and by the second half the print looked as though someone were shining a bright light on the image
Fortunately, for this new My Fair Lady 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray edition, CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures asked restoration expert Robert Harris (who had done excellent work twenty years earlier with the restoration of the DVD) to head up the team restoring this new Blu-ray version of the film. The results look splendid. The colors are vivid; the object delineation is well-nigh perfect; the screen is clear and clean. The whole thing is gorgeous.
It was remarkable that the first time around on Blu-ray, the CBS/Paramount audio engineers couldn't correctly transfer the sound of possibly the greatest musical of all time to disc. Through a misplaced enthusiasm in the use of the surrounds, the solo vocals on the older BD often appeared soft and hollow and the orchestral accompaniment too reverberant, sometimes cavernous. What's more, the engineers even cranked up the bass in a few scenes. It was pretty awful, and if you still have that older disc, you might consider making a 100% better upgrade to this newer BD edition if only for its improved audio.
For the current edition, the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio is excellent. That is, it reproduces the sound of the movie pretty much as I'm sure its original creators intended, but with a little more ambient action for a home setup equipped with multichannel sound. Instead of going all crazy with the surrounds and making the musical interludes appear as though the engineers recorded them in a barrel, the engineers perfectly blend the singing and orchestral accompaniment in the front channels where they belong, with a touch of ambient bloom from the surrounds to provide depth and dimension. Voices sound natural, whether in song or dialogue, and the orchestra sounds realistic. The frequency extremes are maybe a little less extended than we find today, but it's hardly an issue.
The extras include a second Blu-ray disc with a ton of extras, plus a third disc containing a DVD version of the movie. But it's the second BD that has most of the bonus items, starting with a 1994 making-of documentary, "More Loverly Than Ever: My Fair Lady Then and Now." Next, there is a series of vintage featurettes, including the 1963 production kickoff dinner; the film's Los Angeles and British premieres; a Rex Harrison radio interview; George Cukor directing the Baroness Rothschild; some production tests; alternate Audrey Hepburn vocals; and comments on the film by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Martin Scorsese.
Following these items are several more things, including "The Story of a Lady," "Design of a Lady," and "The Fairest Fair Lady"; Cecil Beaton sketches, black & white stills; color production stills; documents and publicity; plus seven different trailers, and three awards featurettes.
The disc extras conclude with fifty scene selections; English, German, Spanish, Italian, French, and Japanese spoken languages; English, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, CBS/Paramount have packaged the three discs in a beautiful, glossy, trim-line, foldout case that is among the most attractive I've seen. It is in itself a small work of art.
As pure entertainment My Fair Lady makes other musicals seem almost crude by comparison, and it deserves to be the standard by which we judge other musicals. Movie fans' concerns about Julie Andrews notwithstanding, the film is absolutely loverly, now with Blu-ray picture and sound to do it justice.
To watch an official trailer for the restored version of "My Fair Lady," click here: http://www.myfairlady50.com/
Picture quality: 10
Sound quality: 9
Entertainment value: 10