"My Fair Lady," a confection of a film, had a touch of bitterness to the taste when it was made in 1964. Julie Andrews created the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, but the film role went to Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn, who had warbled sweetly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," expected to sing her way through the great Lerner and Loewe songs, but her voice was dubbed.
Andrews got her own back when she won the Oscar for best actress for "Mary Poppins" that year. And now Hepburn will get a little justice as well. In the course of restoring "My Fair Lady," two film conservators have discovered some of the vocal tracks she recorded in pre-production and, using a little sleight of hand, have rescued two of the recordings from oblivion, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "Show Me."And when the fully restored film is shown for the first time at a benefit at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan on Sept. 19, the Hepburn version of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" will play as the final credits roll.
The Hepburn tracks resurfaced in the course of a one-year, $750,000 frame-by-frame restoration of the film by James C. Katz and Robert A. Harris, who restored "Spartacus" three years ago. The restoration was commissioned by CBS, which financed the Broadway musical and gained possession of the film materials in 1971 from Warner Brothers. Warner had bought the film rights for $5 million in 1964, a staggering sum at the time.
CBS plans to rerelease the film in selected markets and produce 30th anniversary laser-disk and videotape versions that include some of the archival material that Katz and Harris have unearthed.
The first public screening is Sept. 21.
The film, a smash hit in 1964, has led a tough existence over the last 30 years. In January, when Katz went out to the CBS vaults in Van Nuys, Calif., he found that most of the material Warner Brothers turned over to CBS had been thrown away.
What remained, several thousand cans of film in 10 rooms, did not look promising. For one thing, most of the cans lay in piles on the floor, having been dislodged by the big quake of Jan. 17. Katz had to crowbar his way into the vaults.
So many duplicate prints had been made from the original negative that it began falling apart as soon as it was removed from the can.
"The negative was scratched, the splices were falling apart, and there were no usable main titles," said Harris, who worked on the restoration of Abel Gance's "Napoleon" and David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia."
The three color separations, which had to be recombined for the full-color version of the film, were seriously defective, in part because Warner Brother had for some reason begun running off duplicates before it made the separations.
Most of the labels on the cans had fallen off, so their contents were a mystery. To make matters worse, as Katz inspected the trove, the vaults were rocked by two mighty aftershocks, and film cans went flying.
"I thought, `There's got to be a better way to die,"' Katz said. "I said to myself, `At least let me get crushed to death by `Citizen Kane,' but I was being hit by `Scrooge' from one side and `The Royal Hunt of the Sun' from the other."
When the dust settled, Katz removed "My Fair Lady" to a film lab, and he and Harris embarked on the arduous process of sorting through the cans, correcting color, fixing ripped film and filling in gaps.
They also interviewed members of the original production to obtain technical information, notably from Gene Allen, set designer, and John Burnett, an assistant film editor.
Film restoration poses a touchy diplomatic problem. In the past, the studios discarded vast quantities of material that has turned out to be valuable, either financially or historically. In many cases, the material has found its way into the collectors' hands. "The studios regard these people as thieves," Katz said.
It was a collector who came up with the Hepburn songs, which no one knew existed.
"We found umpteenth-generation tracks of Audrey doing the worst takes possible, almost like a blooper reel," Harris said. By picking out the best bits of the outtakes, the two men were able to produce two complete songs.
The restored film will retain the singing by Marni Nixon, who also sang for Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" and Deborah Kerr in "The King and I."
The Rex Harrison vocal tracks also turned out to be peculiar. In carrying out the restoration, Katz and Harris noticed that Harrison's soundtrack and lip movements were perfectly synchronized, something that was not true of the other singers.
It turned out that Harrison insisted on performing the role of Henry Higgins as he had onstage, doing each song in a single long take, and singing directly into a tiny microphone, visible as a bulge in his tie. This newfangled invention, the lavaliere microphone, picked up more sounds than the primitive playback equipment of the time revealed. Katz and Harris had to edit out the sounds of not only rustling cloth, but also police radio signals, taxicab calls and flies buzzing in the studio.
The missing labels turned out to be a blessing in disguise, or at least not a hindrance. "We never, ever believe what's written on the can," Katz said. Often the studios mislabel or simply don't know what they own. By going through each can, Katz and Harris unearthed an eight-minute documentary in which Cecil Beaton, costume designer for the film, takes the viewer on a backstage tour and discusses his work on the film.
Most audiences remember the Ascot scene as a symphony of black-and-white costumes. When Katz and Harris played it back, it went from purple to yellow to green because the film stock had deteriorated and faded.
In certain cases, to correct color, they searched out original costumes, but on occasion, the big fish got away.
"You get obsessed," Katz said. "There have been more sightings of Audrey Hepburn's Ascot dress than there have been of the Loch Ness monster."