Cinema: Still the Fairest One of All

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My Fair Lady is indestructible showmanship. The Lerner and Loewe Cinderella tale based on Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion sets Shavian sparkle to music with such unerring good taste that it could probably be performed in Urdu by a cast of untouchables without suffering serious damage. Hollywood, praise be, can do a whole lot better than that. In this literal, beautiful, bountiful version of the most gilt-edged attraction in theater history, Jack Warner has miraculously managed to turn gold into gold. Last week, sporting all her familiar tunes along with a fall collection of eye-popping new finery, Fair Lady conquered the qualms of a Manhattan premiere audience that sat down whistling Show Me and got up feeling it could've danced all night. When the excitement abated, it seemed a safe bet that, come Oscar time next spring, some of Lady's $17 million investment will be returned in handy carry-home sizes.

The film's richest asset may well be Rex Harrison, making capital of the closeup in his 1,007th performance as irascible Professor Henry Higgins, who masterminds the metamorphosis of the cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Harrison still talks his songs and sings his dialogue in a triumph of stylized, polished acting that would be memorable with or without music. Another holdover from Broadway is Stanley Holloway, raffishly repeating his role as Eliza's father, a dustman-turned-moralist who speaks some of Shaw's most corrosively funny lines-wisely preserved intact-then stops the show with the gritty low comedy of Lerner's Get Me to the Church on Time.

The burning question mark of this sumptuous adaptation is Audrey Hepburn's casting as Eliza, the role that Julie Andrews had clearly been born to play. Purists may cavil that Hepburn's singing voice, most of it dubbed by Soprano Marni Nixon, sounds too much like Julie and not enough like Audrey. But after a slow start, when the practiced proficiency of her cockney dialect suggests that Actress Hepburn is really only slumming, she warms her way into a graceful, glamorous performance, the best of her career.

Guided by Director George Cukor, who had played Pygmalion to many a Hollywood Galatea (Garbo in Camille, Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight), she exquisitely personifies "a squashed cabbage leaf" transformed into an English rose. Her comedy scenes are delectable, her charm ineluctable, and her first appearance among society folk at Ascot-in a gown created by Designer Cecil Beaton, whose art nouveau sets and costumes are a splendid show in themselves-is one of those great movie moments seldom accomplished without the help of brass bands and fireworks. And Hepburn tops that when she begins describing, in precise Mayfair accents, the drunken demise of her old aunt: "Gin was mother's milk to her."

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