Time ravaged the original negative of "My Fair Lady," but it has been kind to this lavish movie musical all the same. Never a great film but always a glorious confection, it was even more glorious as it reopened last week 30 years after it was made.
Audiences were once jaded when it came to wide-screen Super Panavision musicals, which were losing their novelty value by 1963. But today, an extravaganza on this scale looks like a treasure. Especially when the treasure features Cecil Beaton's astounding costumes, George Cukor's stately direction, the best-loved, most hummable of all Broadway scores and a sublime cast headed by Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Not to mention the considerable contributions of George Bernard Shaw.Sublime was not a word originally used to describe Hepburn's performance here. Too much controversy surrounded the choice of such a divinely decorative actress in the singing role that Julie Andrews had played triumphantly on stage.
There was also carping about the adaptation itself, since the Broadway "My Fair Lady" was fresh in viewers' memories. Today, the surprise is how serene and dazzling Hepburn appears in a role that seemed so strenuous at the time.
A vision in Beaton's deliriously fanciful outfits, she also shines as an inspired comic actress: the Ascot sequence, during which Eliza Doolittle's imperfectly ladylike manners yield some great gaffes, remains a hilarious high point of the film.
Of course, this scene can be watched for its millinery alone, but few eyes will stray from Hepburn even when the hats are at their craziest.
Her magnetic presence fits perfectly with the debonair wit displayed by Rex Harrison in his most celebrated role.
Filled out by a marvelous supporting cast (this film would be worth watching for Stanley Hol-lo-way's rendition of "Get Me to the Church on Time" alone), "My Fair Lady" seems to exist in its own world.
It's hard to believe that news of the Kennedy assassination interrupted shooting of one of the Covent Garden scenes. It may also be hard to realize how badly damaged this film could become in only three decades, but today's bright, colorful print is the result of major restoration efforts.
Once again, Robert Harris and James Katz, the team behind the "Lawrence of Arabia" restoration, have performed an invaluable labor of love.
But you won't see what they've done, at least not very often. You won't see the holes and cracks in the film that have been filled in digitally, using the same kinds of high-tech methods that more commonly accompany special effects tricks (a la "Forrest Gump").
Nor will you hear flaws on the soundtrack that have been carefully removed, so that the film now meets contemporary standards.
Another thing you won't hear, unfortunately, is Hepburn's heartbreakingly sweet rendition of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," which has been restored separately and is not part of the finished print.
Too bad: Harrison was way ahead of his time in insisting on performing in his natural voice. Hepburn's singing was dubbed prettily by Marni Nixon, but it's a greater pleasure to hear the star really struggling to communicate her own personality in song.
Except for some minor color variations, which only serve as a reminder of how hard Harris and Katz worked restoring this film to near-mint condition, "My Fair Lady" may not look all that unusual to viewers brought up on home video. Those viewers may even start off thinking it looks a lot like the bright, cropped-off television version. If so, mention the lost, hypnotic power of wide-screen movie magic. Tell them to sit back and enjoy the show.