It seems temporally appropriate that George Cukor’s screen version of My Fair Lady should have been released in 1964, since it neatly concluded a half-century of attempts by actors, directors, and adapters alike to romanticize Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. From the very moment, in fact, that Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Mrs. Patrick (Stella) Campbell—in their respective roles of phonetician Henry Higgins and Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle—had improvised lines and stage business to imply to their opening-night London audience in 1914 that a romantic union between their two characters was inevitable, Shaw was embroiled in a perpetual struggle to control his conception of the play.
To Shaw, the culminating point of Pygmalion was that Eliza achieves independence from the bullying Higgins. An Eliza-Higgins marriage, he declared, would have been “a revolting tragedy.”1 To that end, Shaw appended a prose sequel to the first (1916) English-language publication of Pygmalion in book form, in which he outlined Eliza’s married life with the youthful Freddy Eynsford Hill, a minor character in the play. However, the public, in general, “went on preferring its own version.”2 The advent of talking pictures offered Shaw an opportunity to reassert his wishes, and to this end he wrote his own screenplay adaptation in 1934 for the first (German) film version of Pygmalion (Erich Engel, 1935), making it a contractual requirement that the filmmakers adhered to his (translated) scenario, in which any suggestion of a Higgins-Eliza romance had been carefully removed. Without having seen the resulting film, Shaw also granted screen adaptation rights on the same condition to Dutch- and English- language productions (Pygmalion, Ludwig [End Page 160] Berger, 1937; Pygmalion, Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938), revising his 1934 screenplay for the latter.3 However, the makers of these film versions ignored their contractual obligations, and to varying degrees implied a romantic resolution between Higgins and Eliza.
All three films were domestic commercial successes, but it was almost certainly the international popularity of the British film, with its worrisome potential to influence future stage productions of the play, that compelled Shaw to revise his published stage text twice in 1939 (for, respectively, his 1939 and 1941 editions), on both occasions emphasizing (again) that Eliza did not marry Higgins.4 Following Shaw’s death in 1950, the executors of his Estate—ignoring their late client’s often-stated opposition to the musicalization of Pygmalion—granted the musical adaptation rights to the play to Gabriel Pascal, producer of the 1938 film version. The resulting Broadway musical, My Fair Lady (Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, 1956) was essentially an adaptation of the 1938 film, rather than the play, while the subsequent screen version of the musical eight years later was in some respects more faithful to Shaw than its stage counterpart, notwithstanding its continuation of the romanticization of the Higgins-Eliza relationship.
This essay examines the 1964 My Fair Lady film, addressing the following questions: (1) to what extent is the film a faithful adaptation of its stage musical counterpart? (2) In what specific ways do the film’s aesthetics convey the likelihood of a Higgins-Eliza romance? (3) In what respects is the My Fair Lady film more faithful to the stage version(s) of Shaw’s play than the 1938 film version of Pygmalion?
In spite of its inclusion on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest American Films in 1998 (at No. 91) and its ranking at No. 8 on the same organization’s list of the 25 Greatest Musicals in 2006, the screen version of My Fair Lady has received scant attention from film scholars. Gerald Mast attributes this neglect to a perception that the film is “too reverential for a ‘real movie musical’—giving up the clever game between stylized song and credible movie storytelling.”5 Its fidelity to its stage source has been overstated, however. In his adaptation of his own stage libretto,6 screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner makes numerous changes to the musical, rearranging the order of songs, deleting certain scenes and adding new ones, while incorporating a...