My Fair Lady (1964) is one of my favourite musicals. Even though I agree that it is long and that not all of the songs are overly enjoyable (many have complained that Rex Harrison speaks rather than sings his songs), the film is fantastic fun.
Harrison is perfect as Professor Henry Higgins (he knows the role inside out) and Audrey Hepburn, although they decided to dub her singing in most of the songs, was hilarious as the common-talking flower girl, and enchanting as the transformed Miss. Eliza Doolittle. And yes, I know that many cannot forgive Hepburn for beating Julie Andrews to the part when Andrews had received acclaim for her portrayal of Eliza on stage - but to all those people, if Andrews had gotten the part she wouldn't have been able to play Mary Poppins that same year - a legendary role which won Andrews the Best Actress Academy Award.
But yes, I love Harrison, I love Hepburn, I even love Wilfrid Hyde-White as Colonel Pickering (some of his lines make me cry with laughter) and even the smaller roles filled by Gladys Cooper and Jeremy Brett are wonderful to watch. Bursting with laughs, good-humour, but also with a charming love story floating in the background, My Fair Lady is a great musical, and improves with every viewing.
Even though the film is most famous for it's songs like Wouldn't it be Loverly?, I Could Have Danced All Night, and The Rain In Spain, there is one musical number which really stands out in the film. This blogpost will analyse the scene at the Ascot races where the Ascot Gavotte is performed. Here is a clip of the scene for you to watch if you want to refresh your memory or if you haven't already seen it.
What are we looking at? The actors, the choreography, and the song.
The scene starts with an array of extras stood motionless, silent, and wearing the most fabulous costumes designed by Cecil Beaton - in short, these actors look like mannequins in a boutique window. As the song nears the vocals the actors begin to move in very controlled, military-like fashion, until they are stood facing the race course (the audience). They then begin to sing the Ascot Gavotte. The first section of lyrics is as follows:
Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here
Ev'ryone who should be here is here.
What a smashing, positively dashing
Spectacle: the Ascot op'ning day.
Reading these lyrics one would expect these people to be smiling because they are at the Ascot opening day, and that there would be a buzz amongst them because of the impressive list of visitors to the event. But no, everybody is still stood motionless - posing to ensure that they remain looking immaculate - the only thing that moves is their singing mouths. But let us read some more...
At the gate are all the horses
Waiting for the cue to fly away.
What a gripping, absolutely ripping
Moment at the Ascot op'ning day.
Again, the lyrics do not change much and the actors movements certainly do not either. The excitement and adrenalin of this 'gripping' and 'ripping' race are not visible. The spectators actually look more bored and uninterested than gripped by the sport. I mean, they'd look more at home at a wake rather than this fun-filled day of horse-racing.
Pulses rushing! Faces flushing!
Heartbeats speed up! I have never been so keyed up!
Any second now They'll begin to run. Hark!
A bell is ringing, They are springing Forward Look!
It has begun...!This is the verse that really divides what is being said to what is actually happening. Nobody has a red face of excitement or thrill, nobody looks like they even have a pulse... nobody looks like they are even watching the race let alone enjoying it. The verse ends with 'Look! It has begun...!'. A command to ensure that they don't miss the finish of the race - even though so far it looks like none of them even care about the outcome of this race. The final lines of the song, however, really do sum-up the entire number.
What a frenzied moment that was!
Didn't they maintain an exhausting pace?
'Twas a thrilling, absolutely chilling Running of the
Ascot op'ning race.
The word 'frenzied' was never more inappropriately used to describe a group of people. Not a sign of frenzy, chaos, or hysteria is present. And as for exhaustion, none of the spectators looked like they had much life or energy in them to begin with. If any of them did find this race thrilling and chilling, they fooled us completely.
I think what the makers were trying to achieve here was to show the contrast between Eliza at the beginning of the movie - she doesn't talk 'proper' enough to work in a flower shop. Even Professor Higgins who has studied all manner of accents and voices finds her particularly vulgar. He has trained her for a very short period of a time when he takes her to Ascot, so when we see the perfectly poised, motionless and emotionless spectators of the upper class, we know that Eliza will stand out like a sore thumb. She isn't quite ready yet.
Also, the scene makes these posh folk look dull, boring, lifeless, and bordering on stupid when they can't get into the spirit of a day at the races. All in all - they look stuck-up. So we wonder, how will Eliza ever fit in with these people? And do we even want her to? Do we want her to become as dull and lifeless as these people? Do we want Professor Higgins's lessons to transform her into one of them? I don't think that we do.
Yes, Eliza will benefit from improving her speech because it will enable her to work in a flower shop and earn a better wage, but does that mean that Higgins has the right to look down on her? Does he have the right to not act the gentleman and treat her like a lady? Not at all, and Colonel Pickering highlights this flaw in Higgins later.
There is more life in Eliza than any of the other people at Ascot, just as Freddy (Jeremy Brett) notices and falls for when he speaks to her at the races, and which Higgins learns later.
The point of the song and the choreography? To show the facade of it all - behind all of the fancy words and apparent wonderful times these rich people boast about, they actually are not at all interested, nor do their fancy words match their personalities or character. Whereas Eliza, who's only flaw is her incorrect use of the English language, has personality, character, and then some, and not only stands out at Ascot because of her beauty and fantastic outfit - but because of the charisma and vitality she possesses. She is the only person who cheers on her horse and who allows herself to become fully engulfed in the hysteria of the race.
The choreography in this scene is really exceptional - I love the movements of the actors, the way that they are like mannequins in a Parisian boutique, flouncing about and perfectly poised; the song is just superb. A great scene, from a great film.
If you haven't seen My Fair Lady then please do. It's a great watch for a Sunday afternoon. Be prepared for plenty of songs though if you aren't a musical-lover. But enjoy the songs, and enjoy the humour. There are many brilliant lines in this that just get funnier every time you watch it.