Comedic, romantic musical of a flower girl transformed.
As the crowd of swells in top hats and gowns depart the theatre, featuring Gounod’s opera Faust, in Covent Garden, London, a cloud burst pours down. Young aristocrat Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett), looking for a cab for his mother, accidentally bumps into poor little Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), an impoverished Cockney flower girl, knocking her to the pavement and spilling her violets into the mud.
After complaining about his clumsiness, she resumes her attempt to sell her flowers in her Lisson Grove lingo: “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong by speaking to the gentleman. I’ve a right to sell flowers if I keep off the kerb. I’m a respectable girl: so help me, I never spoke to him ‘cept so far as to buy a flower off me.”
Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a phoneticist, taking notes like a detective, interrupts: “There, there, there, there! Who’s hurting you, you silly girl?” Like Sherlock Holmes, Prof Higgins identifies the origins of several individuals by their speech.
Along with lecturing Eliza, Higgins questions in song the bystanders in general: “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?… One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get. Oh, why can’t the English learn to set a good example to people whose English is painful to your ears? The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears. There even are places where English completely disappears. Why in America, they haven’t used it for years.”
Boastfully addressing Eliza, Higgins claims: “Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf; you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns; you incarnate insult to the English language! I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba.”
By coincidence on the spot, Prof Higgins makes acquaintance with Col Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), a scholar of Indian dialects and author of Spoken Sanscrit recently arrived from India, who is in London to meet Higgins, the latter replying: “I was going to India to meet you.” As the pair of gentlemen leave the scene discussing linguistics, Eliza recalls Higgins’s assertion that he could transform her into a lady with a tongue genteel enough for a florist shop instead of selling flowers at the corner of Tottenham Court Road: “Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?”
This restoration gives back to Hepburn her own voice for all her songs, which in the theater release had been dubbed with Marnie Nixon’s vocals. “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” Directed by George Cukor, the nearly three-hours-long comedic romantic musical – book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe – based on the Broadway musical and George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor.
Eliza boldly appears at 27A Wimpole Street where she offers to pay for lessons. Intrigued but doubtful, Col Pickering (putting me in mind of Sherlock’s Dr Watson) challenges Higgins to make good on his boast, proposing to pay for all expenses of the experiment if he can pull off presenting Eliza at the Embassy Ball without her being found out.
Higgins tells the flower girl: “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.”
Col Pickering inquires of Higgins: “Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?” Higgins: “Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?” Col Hugh Pickering: “Yes, very frequently.” Higgins: “Well, I haven’t. I find that the moment a woman makes friends with me she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damn nuisance. And I find that the moment I make friends with a woman I become selfish and tyrannical. So here I am, a confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so…. But, let a woman in your life and your serenity is through, she’ll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome, and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you….”
Hearing that his daughter has sent for a few items, excluding clothes, to be delivered to her new residence, her father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), an “undeserving” common dustman, goes to see Prof Higgins. Col Pickering avers: “I’ll have you know, Doolittle, that Mr Higgins’ intentions are entirely honorable!” Doolittle: “Oh, ‘course they are, guv’nor. If I thought they wasn’t, I’d ask fifty.”
Professor Higgins, who has offered five pounds, replies shocked: “You mean to say you’d sell your daughter for fifty pounds?” Col Pickering: “Have you no morals, man?” Doolittle: “Nah. Nah, can’t afford ’em, guv’nor. Neither could you, if you was as poor as me.” Nevertheless, somewhat impressed with Eliza’s father, Higgins will recommend Alfred to the American millionaire Wallingford, who has founded Moral Reform societies.
Without sympathy or regard for her feelings but threatening punishment (“no lunch, no dinner, and no chocolates”), Higgins drills Eliza (“intimidated and bought up”) relentlessly (as did Demosthenes, putting pebbles in her mouth) in pronunciation, improving her vowels – “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” – to be practiced 50 times in place of her prayers each night, also harping on the dropping her hs.
Insisting, “I am always reasonable,” Higgins remonstrates with his pupil that she has voluntarily set out to conquer the English language: “And conquer it you will.” Following her early accomplishments, Eliza sings: “I could have danced all night.”
Her first test in public takes place at the races at Ascot on opening day, where Eliza, in a knockout outfit, has been instructed to keep to weather and health as topics of discussion. Employing what Higgins says is the “new small talk” in telling of her aunt’s death – “Yes, Lord love you. Why should she die of influenza, when she come through diphtheria right enough the year before? Fairly blue with it she was. They all thought she was dead. But my father, he kept ladling gin down her throat. Then she come to so sudden she bit the bowl right off the spoon” – Eliza snaps at Freddy’s sniggering: “What is wrong with that? I bet I got it right!” Then as the horses race around the track, Eliza blurts out: “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!”
Outside Prof Higgins’s threshold, Freddy, after leaving a bouquet of flowers for Eliza with Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper, willing to wait hours, days, weeks for Miss Doolittle, sings (dubbed by Billy Shirley): “I have often walked down this street before. But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before. All at once am I several stories high, knowing I’m on the street where you live.”
Uncomfortable with the possible consequences of the approaching evening at the embassy, Col Pickering declares: “This experiment is over.” Having changed a human being into another, finer form, Higgins ignores the colonel, concerned that Eliza’s fortunes are not being given due consideration, while assuring his friend that “She matters immensely”; Eliza emerges gorgeously gowned.
During the occasion of a reception in honor of the Queen of Transylvania and her son Prince Gregor, Zoltan Karpathy (Theodore Bikel), a Hungarian phonetician (fluent in 32 languages and knowledgeable of the important personages throughout Europe) who was Prof Higgins’s first pupil, confidently asserts to the maestro: “No imposter can escape my detection.” The hostess Countess, curious as to Miss Doolittle’s origins, asks Zoltan: “Find out who she is.”
Afterward back at the abode on Wimpole Street, Higgins reveals that Zoltan had determined that Miss Doolittle was a “fraud,” for her English was too perfect. His conclusion: “She’s as Hungarian as the Hungarian Rhapsody” and a princess. Col Pickering congratulates Higgins: “You did it!” Congratulations all around, except for Eliza, ignored in the shadows.
When everyone else has gone to bed, Henry returns to the laboratory for his slippers, which Eliza shies at his head, declaring, “I won your bet!” Eliza says despairingly: “What am I fit for?” Higgins: “You might marry.”
Losing his temper with her obstinacy, Henry exclaims: “Damn Mrs Pearce, damn the coffee, and damn you! And damn my own folly for having lavished my hard-earned knowledge, and the treasure of my regard and intimacy, on a heartless guttersnipe!”
Eliza demands of the hopeless Freddy: “Don’t talk of stars burning above; if you’re in love, show me! Tell me no dreams filled with desire. If you’re on fire, show me!” Later after Eliza has departed, Henry muses: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
In their next encounter, Eliza flames at Henry: “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! You, dear friend, who taught so well, you can go to Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire….”
Retorting, “You brazen hussy!,” afterward alone, Higgins, hurrying home in a huff, nevertheless admits: “Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn! I’ve grown accustomed to her face. She almost makes the day begin. I’ve grown accustomed to the tune that she whistles night and noon. Her smiles, her frowns, her ups, her downs are second nature to me now; like breathing out and breathing in. I was serenely independent and content before we met; surely I could always be that way again – and yet I’ve grown accustomed to her look; accustomed to her voice; accustomed to her face.” As have we all.
Alfie Doolittle, a groom against his better instincts, sings: “Get me to the church on time.”
Patrick is a regular contributor to Laramie Movie Scope. See many more reviews of his at: http://www.lariat.org/AtTheMovies/old/others.html