Sunday, August 22, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #1

1. My Fair Lady (1964)

For my #1 spot, I have chosen what I believe is the perfect musical. It has the best musical score in Broadway history. It has the best script and the best characters perfectly established by George Bernard Shaw in his fantastic comedy Pygmalion. I have loved this musical ever since I first saw the movie (and heard the original Broadway soundtrack) very long ago. I knew every song (and every scene) by heart and would try to see any production I could (which explains why I dragged my parents to a skimpy college production when we were vacationing in North Dakota). The musical tells the story of phoenetics Professor Henry Higgins as he trains flower seller Eliza Doolittle to speak beautifully. The film version, directed by the great George Cukor and featuring a phenomenal cast (two of which were from the Broadway production), is a perfect edition of the stage musical I have loved since childhood. The musical has been special to me for as long as I can remember and is extremely deserving of the number 1 spot on both my movies list and my musicals list.

Film producer Gabriel Pascal, who produced the 1938 film version of Shaw's Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, devoted the last two years of his life to getting a stage musical made of Shaw's classic. With the help of friend Herman Levin, he got the Brigadoon composer-lyricist team of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner to adapt Shaw's work (after uncsuccessfully trying to convince Rodgers and Hammerstein and then Cole Porter). Librettist Lerner decided to use Shaw's original script rather then rework it because he felt that his words lent themselves perfectly to musical storytelling. The show opened in March of 1956 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (which is now the Times Square Church) starring Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins, Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle and (in her second Broadway show) Julie Andrews in the role of Eliza Doolittle. The musical was a critical and box-office success running for over 8 years and 2,000 performances. Harrison, Andrews and Holloway repeated their performances in the hailed London production in 1958 (in which the first performance was attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip).

The film rights were purchased by Jack Warner. Warner's casting choice has been a controversy amongst Broadway fans for the past 40 years. While he had Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway reprise their roles, he chose not to ask Julie Andrews repeat her Broadway triumph because he wanted his Eliza to be an actress with star power. He instead chose Academy Award-winning actress Audrey Hepburn to play the role. Hepburn was a gorgeous choice (acting-wise) to play Eliza. She exudes her undeniable beauty even in flower seller mode. When she's singing, even though it is dubbed by the beautifully voiced Marni Nixon, Hepburn looks like she is actually belting it out! Harrison (in his Oscar-winning performance) is a charmingly codgerish Higgins. His grumpy moods fill the role perfectly the way Shaw created him. Holloway leads an amazing supporting cast in addition to his British Music Hall-style performance. Wilfred Hyde-White, Jeremy Brett, Gladys Cooper and Theodore Bikel are among the great character actors that fill this sumptuous musical. The film won several Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for George Cukor and Best Actor for Rex Harrison. Julie Andrews, ironically, was not to be forgotten as she won that year's Best Actress for #11: Mary Poppins. Yet, My Fair Lady is the single greatest movie-musical that I will enjoy for the rest of my life!

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