Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Fair Lady - Movie Review

If I was to imagine what the Protagonist of this movie had to say, was he was to review it; here is how it would go, "Surely you've watched this one? If you haven't, I believe you've been deprived of some cultural upbringing, old chap. It's not you that's at fault. It's what's lacking in you. If you were to watch this movie carefully for six months, and learn every dialogue carefully, I'm sure you could give one Mr. Roger Ebert a run for his money.Or perhaps run a video store successfully, because at the very least, you'll possess a taste in cinema once I'm done with you."

Ludicrous as it sounds, but such is the rationale of Professor Henry Higgins. A word or perhaps two about this renowned academician - patronising and overbearing. Professor Higgins in a gifted linguist in his own eyes, while being an egotist par annoyance in full public view. He's the kind who may not take offence at what the author just called him, but would frown at the improper use of "par", and writhe in pain at the unsuccessful attempt at wordplay. Here's what he thinks of English speaking peoples ( "People!" as Higgins would insist)  - 

This is what the British population, 
Calls an elementary education.

Hear them down in Soho square, 
Dropping "h's" everywhere. 
Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? 
This verbal class distinction, by now, Should be antique. 

If you spoke as she does, sir, 
Instead of the way you do, 
Why, you might be selling flowers, too! 
Hear a Yorkshireman, or worse, 
Hear a Cornishman converse, 
I'd rather hear a choir singing flat.
Chickens cackling in a barn 

Just like this one! 
(Eliza responds with "Garn!")I ask you, sir, what sort of word is that? 
It's "Aoooow" and "Garn" that keep her in her place. 
Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.

At this juncture, we are introduced to Eliza Doolittle. Clearly a woman who's made it on her own as a flower seller, Eliza refused to be mocked at her modest upbringing. At which point, Henry makes a claim that would go on to define the movie. He would wager any amount to turn this modest flower girl into a woman who would be mistaken for royalty if only he was to impress upon her the virtues of the English language. While it was spoken in jest, the offer of a better lifestyle in exchange for a few days' lessons seemed too much to resist for poor Eliza. And she duly took up on the offer by appearing unannounced at the Professor's regal mansion.

The Terms and Conditions were agreed upon. " Eliza, you are to stay here for the next six months learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist's shop. If you work hard and do as you're told, you shall sleep in a proper bedroom, have lots to eat, and money to buy chocolates and go for rides in taxis. But if you are naughty and idle, you shall sleep in the back kitchen amongst the black beetles, and be wolloped by Mrs. Pearce with a broomstick. At the end of six months you will be taken to Buckingham Palace, in a carriage, beautifully dressed. If the king finds out you are not a lady, you will be taken to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls! But if you are not found out, you shall have a present... of, ah... seven and six to start life with as a lady in a shop. If you refuse this offer, you will be the most ungrateful, wicked girl, and the angels will weep for you."

What follows is easily the most romantic movie you'll see never to feature a kiss. The build up comes from an interesting chemistry that the two protagonists share in their battle of egos. On one corner, you'll find a paragon of chauvinism with a penchant for PR that's Victorian in its form. Here's exhibit one,Why can't a woman be more like a man? 
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square; 
Eternally noble, historic'ly fair; 
Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat. 
Well, why can't a woman be like that? 
Why does ev'ryone do what the others do? 
Can't a woman learn to use her head? 
Why do they do ev'rything their mothers do? 
Why don't they grow up- well, like their father instead? 
Why can't a woman take after a man? 
Men are so pleasant, so easy to please; 
Whenever you are with them, you're always at ease. 

On the other corner is a skinny Eliza Doolittle who by the sheer heart for a fight manages to punch well over her weight to stand up to condescending upper-class pricks like Higgins. Eliza 1 : Circumstances 0

" There'll be spring every year without you. England still will be here without you.
There'll be fruit on the tree. 
And a shore by the sea. 
There'll be crumpets and tea without you.

Art and music will thrive without you. Somehow Keats will survive without you.
And there still will be rain on that plain down in Spain, 
even that will remain without you.
I can do without you. "

Critics believe this movie was a triumph. Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison were suitable, if not the ideal selections for the characters they played. The screenplay was perhaps nothing more than a tasteful screen rendition of GB Shaw's Pygmalion, from which much of the wit is inherited.And the movie was perhaps not as entertaining as the Broadway production. It's impossible for us to make such a comparison. But to me, the movie is a triumph for reasons far beyond cinematic excellence.  

What I loved about this war of words is the underlying theme. A man is always judged by the words he speaks. It allows the world to place him immediately. At times, it also allows him the luxury of taking his place in society for granted. His actions however will always finish a distant second. It's a disease that's as rampant in India today, as it was in England when GB Shaw wrote Pygmalion. This sentiment is best expressed by Mr. Doolittle, father of Eliza, when he offered to "Sell" his daughter for a mere 50 pounds. When asked if he had any morals at all, the man replies in his inimitable dialect, " 
Nah. Nah, can't afford 'em, guv'nor. Neither could you, if you was as poor as me."

Rarely has such a powerful statement been made in a manner that's so delightful. Here's another dialogue that aptly sums up what the 3-hour movie is all about, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated." To me, this is the essence of My Fair Lady.


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