Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor prison. The guards look for him. They go to a cottage near by, where they believe he is headed to. Then, in one of the great transitions to a flashback, using intertitles as both a cut and spoken words, we are told what has happened. And what we are told is one of the swansongs of (British) silent cinema, one that keeps you hooked, and certainly one of my favourites.

Director Anthony Asquith's reputation has been defined by his sound films, seen too often as film versions of well-made plays, in particular those of Terence Rattigan. This is unfair for two reasons: the first is that the films themselves are sometimes quite good ("Pygmalion", "The Importance of Being Earnest", "The Browning Version"); and the second is that it neglects his four silent features. Recently, both "A Cottage on Dartmoor" and "Underground" have been restored by the BFI, made available on DVD (or will soon) and reassessed for the wonderful works that they are. Of course, “A Cottage on Dartmoor” is a dreadful title, which probably hasn't helped – suggesting too much an idyllic England and very little going on the screen. And what goes on the screen feels, to modern audiences anyway, more like Hitchcock than theatre. Asquith's use of effects, camera angles and photography, borrowing a bit from German expressionism, is both confident and original.

The film is full of wonderful little moments - the suggestion to see a talkie (oh, the irony...); the sequence at the cinema; the lost card that was supposed to come with the flowers; and above all the reality and regrets of relationships, in one of cinema's most honest moments - for once, we get to see what really goes on after the "happily ever after". Asquith's direction is certain but it also benefits from a great script and an astonishing trio of leads (one Swede, one British, one German), in particular Uno Henning (as the barber). I definitely think I'll try to see more of his work.

To finish, I should mention something about the actual screening (well, actually two things). One is that I saw this a few months ago, and the post is based on notes I did at the time: reality has been biting and time to blog has not been much. So if I don't make full justice to the film, is because I saw it over three months ago. The second thing, is that, like most silent film screenings, this one had a live piano accompaniment, this one by Stephen Horne, who provided one of the best accompaniments of a silent film I have had the chance to listen to and certainly enhanced my experience of the film.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Man's Castle (1933)

Frank Borzage's "Man's Castle" is, like a few of his other films, the story of two misfits (in this case, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young) whose love brings a hitherto unknown depth to their lives. Yes, this sounds incredibly pretentious, but the films are usually better than they sound. And "Man's Castle" really has a lot of fans out there, some who consider it one of the director's best film, if not the best. Borzage is a director that can as easily engage me as well as leave completely cold. In the first category are the Margaret Sullavan MGMs, "Mannequin", "Desire" and the first 70 minutes of "7th Heaven"; in the second, the rest of "7th Heaven", "The Spanish Main" and "Strange Cargo" (which I really, really, really hated, but that's another story). "Man's Castle" lies somewhere in the middle. With so much praise going around, I really wanted to like it. Alas, its gender politics and misplaced over-romantism really got on my nerves.

Borzage had a tendency to idealise the world in his films, his characters inhabiting something slightly nobler than the world that surrounds them. In "7th Heaven" he pulls it off, creating a self-contained world, where two almost magical beings live (Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, both possessing an ethereal quality, also shared by Margaret Sullavan in the MGM films) and a medium (silent film) that help it all work. "Man's Castle" on the other hand, belongs to the hard world of the Depression: poverty, shanty towns, unemployment, hunger, alcoholism, crime, are all here. Not a place where for ethereal characters, clearly not helped by the casting of Spencer Tracy, one of the most earth-bound actors ever. But it was Loretta Young's character "look at me, I'm making a home now" that lost me entirely. She spends most of the film washing, cooking or taking care of the house for a man that is hardly ever there and when he is, is not exactly the most engaging of partners, wishing clearly he was somewhere else. This idea that all a woman wants is a man that might leave her at any moment and a stove is something that sent several shivers down my spine - when she said she'd give up her baby if that would make him happy, I cringed.

There are some positives as well - the opening sequences are quite good (perhaps Young is too clean and composed for someone with nowhere to live, but I put that down to 1930s Hollywood) and got my attention. Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young do a wonderful job of what is, in my opinion, a very flawed script, Tracy in particular. The supporting cast, lead by Glenda Farrell and Walter Connolly are excellent, although Arthur Hohl overdoes the sliminess from time to time. Finally, as a Pre-code title, there's plenty of sexual innuendo as expected (mostly cortesy of Ms Farrell, while trying to seduce Tracy) and an out-of-wedlock baby.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Precious (2009) poster

Another example of a Saul Bass inspired poster. I am yet to see "Precious", but from what I know of it, the poster gets the main message spot on. I hadn't seen the poster before, which I suspect is the US one, but it came up on a search of Saul Bass images.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

La Piel que Habito (2011)

Two years ago, when "Los Abrazos Rotos" came out, I wrote that it could be the beginning of new phase in Almodóvar's career. Having seen his latest film, "La Piel que Habito" I saw nothing that contradicted me. The most obvious, are the absence of his trademark random strange characters (again, no transexuals, no drag queens, although there is a surrogate mother) and the colour palette which has toned down the reds and oranges that intoxicated "La Mala Educación" and "Volver".

I'm still at odds on how much I liked it. In some ways it is an honourable failure, but it kept me interested, even if the first twist was predictable way too soon (partly from the way it's shot and introduced). It is well acted, and the cast, with the exception of the actor playing Vicente and the attemps of Brazilian accents, are very good. The three leads are excellent (I never noticed the leading lady before despite having seen a few films with her). Almodóvar has, I think, admitted the debt he owes to "Les yeux sans visage" ("Eyes without a Face") rather obvious from the iconic mask in the poster but I also picked "Vertigo" (more to that later), the Argentinean film "El Secreto de sus Ojos" (a scene that rhymed with that film's ending), Almodóvar's own "Átame!" and something else that I couldn't identify.

In a house in Toledo, a surgeon (Antonio Banderas) has been testing a new type of artificial skin, one which is strong enough to resist burnings. His guinea pig is a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) - but who is she and why is he been keeping her prisoner? This is a film which I feel very hard to write about without giving a lot of the plot away - so please consider this a spoiler warning, as I will give most of it away.

While the film's beginning is fairly straightforward, is the second act (the two flashbacks) that make it truly fascinating. The flashbacks are meant to explain to us how and why things have happened. They present a truly dark vision on human nature: whereas the first act could be read partly as a case of Stockholm's Syndrome, the second adds to it a whole new dimension. We now have a rapist being punished by the victim's father (and later raped by the man who started the whole cycle of death and violence) and a much more disturbing case of Pygmalion-like Stockholm's Syndrome. It is also a case of "Vertigo"-like necrophilia, where Banderas's character recreates his dead wife in his prey. And just going a step back, it is interesting how the key moment of the film, the second rape scene, relies heavily on the viewer's perception of the characters involved more than on anything shown. The young man (under the influence of recreational drugs) has no idea that the girl is taking for a walk is incapable of giving consent (or even of understanding sex, as she is just an overgrown child). As the final act starts, we move from sexual politics and a dark thriller, and it crashes down into a convencional ending that reaffirms life and preaches that art can save your soul. I am not so sure if was the ending to expect for such a necrophiliac work - Almodóvar seemed to have lacked Hitchcock's courage.

I like to make two final brief poins: First, the true connection to Brazil isn't explained, but that's just bad editing or writing). Unless the connection is Vera Cruz, the name of Anaya's character - meaning True Cross, it was the original of Brazil. Second, I quite like the unexplored aspect of the bioethics of the film, but sadly that is kept to a small scene where Banderas argues why he should play God.
PS - there are some Spanish posters for the film (like the one just above) which are definitely worth a look.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Gilda (1946)

How to start talking about “Gilda” without mentioning Rita Hayworth? Is it possible? I considered it for a moment and quickly gave up. Actors and actress that achieve legend status often they get there with a unique part or a unique moment. For Rita Hayworth, it was “Gilda”. Watch the film and try to take your eyes from her, I dare you. She’s mesmerising – even if the part, the script and her own acting ability leave a lot to be desired.

In Buenos Aires, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a gambler, forges a friendship with the owner of a casino (Ballin Mundson, played by George Macready) and becomes his right hand man (and possibly more, but let’s go there in a moment). One day, after a business trip, Macready returns suddenly married (i.e. Hays code for a new mistress) to Gilda (Hayworth), a woman from Johnny’s past.

Up to the moment Hayworth makes her unforgettable entrance (known to most people these days as the old film clip in “The Shawshank Redemption”), the two men’s relationship exudes homoeroticism – their initial encounter is staged as a pick-up with, if memory doesn’t betray me, Ford lighting Macready’s cigarette (it could be the other way around). Later on, Gilda reinforces this by saying that Johnny is pretty (I don't think that's meant as a simple compliment). But after she walks in, the balance of the relationships is changed. Ballin is now obsessed with Gilda. And Gilda, it turns out, is still in love with Johnny despite what happened in the past and is dying to get him into her bed (she claims the marriage was done on rebound from him). Johnny on the other hand keeps obsessing about Ballin, shielding him from the truth about his wife (she seems to be very fond of the opposite sex) and showing an ingrained misogyny which is shown full blast against her. Jealousy does come to mind.

Until the last ten minutes this surreal, convoluted but rather engaging story works thanks mostly to Hayworth and Ford. However, in the last ten minutes the Hays code kicks in. I remembered the general ending from years ago, but I was rather surprised how little it resembles the rest of the film. Suddenly all is resolved (and quickly), as if touched by a magic wand (And spoiler alert now…): Rita has always been pure (yes, really…); Glenn was never really a misogynist and just loved her; the villain is punished and there is a general happy ending, including a return to home (the US). Yeah, it’s really that bad. More interesting is the fact that throughout the film, the voice over (Johnny's), narrating after the fact, does not seem to be aware how the story will end, and shows the desdain he feels for the woman he ends with. I don’t really object to the happy ending per se, but rather how it unfolds. It is rushed, leaving me feeling it was last minute affair to finish something no one really knew how to end. More important, we never know what happened between the two leads, so why are we asked to believe that they will work over it?

Hayworth aside, the film’s other mesmerising features are Rudolph Mate’s unforgettable cinematography, full of shades and contrasts, unique framings and clearly one of the key moments of film noir imagery; and the iconic strip-tease scene when Hayworth sings (dubbed, I think) and dances to the sound of “Put the blame on Mame”.

PS - I don't particularly like the original poster, so I chose these. However, it's worth noting the mistake in the last one - the film is attributed to King Vidor, rather than Charles Vidor... someone needed to pay a bit more attention.

Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011)

Raúl Ruiz (or Raoul Ruiz if you prefer the French spelling) died today. I only saw two of his films, "Le Temps Retrouvé" (1999) and "Mistérios de Lisboa" (2010, poster above). I liked both without loving them, but since the second is a major adaptation of the work of a Portuguese writer, Camilo Castelo Branco, shot in Portugal and with a Portuguese cast, I realised I could not but pay homage to him. After all, he has managed to make this XIX century novel a small success in XXI century France. Obrigado.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Margaret Tyzack (1931-2011)

She was amazing as Claudius' mother Antonia in "I, Claudius" and got to see her at least twice on stage - although I missed her in "The Chalk Garden" (for which she won an Olivier), I got to see her in "Phèdre" along Helen Mirren.

I haven't seen that much of her elsewhere (there was also a "Miss Marple" BBC adaptation) but wherever she was, she was a pleasure to watch.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Animation is something I quite enjoy and I probably should have included something here sometime ago. The Disney 50 season that the BFI is showing throughout the year was meant to act as a catalyst and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was meant to be the first post back. Unfortunately, time and motivation (and even subject matter) have been lacking in the last few months, often all at the same time and thus the blog has been a bit less active that it should have. So, instead of having the first animated feature film, I decided to have one of my favourites, “Sleeping Beauty”.

I am perfectly aware that this film is dismissed by some as inferior to “Snow White…” and “Cinderella” or simply described as an honourable failure. I have always disagreed and after watching all three in a short period of time, I still prefer it. The gender politics of “Snow White…” are a bit too 1930s for my taste and “Cinderella”, despite a certain amount of sarcasm from the heroine, drags a bit too much at times, particularly in the ball sequence, or those with the king. "Sleeping Beauty" on the other hand has a much better pace, particularly in the second half, from the moment where the fairies and the princess return to the castle - people talk about Bambi's mother, but my biggest childhood Disney-induced trauma was probably Malificent's movement of the robe to reveal the sleeping Aurora. The battle sequences are great cinema and still very effective, even if they used the rotoscope a tad too obviously, and I am also a bit partial to the stylized look of the film, inspired by medieaval art.

Of course, "Sleeping Beauty" doesn't appear out of nowhere in the Disney cannon - the fairies are indeed not so distant relatives to the dwarfs in "Snow White..." and like them work wonderfully as comic reliefs; there are a lot of irritating dancing animals (who ever found these cute?); Aurora is not exactly a feminist role model and although not as bad as Snow White, Cinderella had more personality. And then there's Malificent - that astonishing character that runs away with the film. It is this character that beats both films - she's both deadlier and sharper than the Evil Queen or Lady Tremaine (the same actress voices Malificent). She oozes sarcasm throughout the film - my favourite is the description of what she'll do to Prince Phillip and how she'll release him... eventually...
But it's interesting as well, that while drawing from both these films, it was to "Sleeping Beauty" that the Disney animators paid homage in the late 1980s, early 1990s when of the Disney renaissance: in "The Little Mermaid", the final confrontation between Ursula and Eric and Ariel has some echos of the battle and the final sequence in "Beauty and the Beast" is clearly inspired by the ending of this film.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

One more thing that shouldn't happen in a cinema

Showing a Technicolor cartoon (a Disney Silly Symphony, to be more precise) in a black and white copy. I wonder who made that decision... ("Birds in the Spring" shown before "Sleeping Beauty", last night at the BFI)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

While I am mildly curious about propaganda films, I confess I never really went out of my way to watch them – the exceptions being some animations produced during WWII, particularly the “Private Snafu” cartoons and Disney’s superb “Education for Death”. If they are done properly, as the latter is, they become powerful tools, but they can still hold on their own merits. I have shown it to several people, who, slightly expecting something Disney-esque were truly surprised and shocked. On the other hand, if they are badly done, and often they are, they become clunky - independently if you agree or disagree with its politics.
Fortunately for me, Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” fell in the first category. And of course, not just for me. It is one of the most influential films of all time – not only the incredible amount of homages and parodies of prams going down long magestic stairs, but also the editing style of the whole sequence of the Odessa steps, the film’s most powerful and celebrated sequence: the faceless soldiers, the horror of the faces, the cuts, the masses, all used incredibly effective to recreate, in the most emotional possible way, the panic and oppression of tsarist Russia. And by the way, that is a fictional event, although I have no doubt inspired by many other real ones.

The film recalls the events of the mutiny of the crew of the Potemkin, ignited by the poor conditions on board and the brutality of the officers, while stationed nearby the port of Odessa. At only 70 minutes, the film commands your attention from the start. There aren’t many superfluous moments – it’s not just because of the Odessa steps sequence this is considered one of the great examples of the art of film editing. The build-up to the ending is a good example too – especially if, as I, you have (had) absolutely no knowledge how the whole episode ended.

Contrary to what I was expecting, the cast isn’t full of demonic looking actors to play the antagonists. Most officers look either the same or more human than some of the sailors – or the people in the steps, for that matter. This makes them harder to hate them at first, but then the hate becomes almost rational – you can justify it: it’s purely their actions that condemn them. (There is one exception, the ship’s priest, who clearly looks insanely evil). Thus, whether you believe in communism or not, you side with the sailors, as our empathy will automatic go to those unfairly oppressed and in the most communist element of the whole film – while you don’t care for a particular character, as they are very much anonymous (with one or two exceptions), you do care for them as whole.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Pearls before Swine for film buffs

I am not like this, but I still have fun spotting Hitch in his films, even when I know where he is.
(c) Stephan Pastis

Friday, 25 March 2011

Jezebel (1938)

“Jezebel” is undoubtedly the most important film in Bette Davis’ career. I don’t think it’s her best and it’s not my favourite of hers (although is probably in my top ten), and is so much an attempt to cash on “Gone with the Wind” that it is very hard to judge it without reference Scarlett O’Hara. But it is one of her best performances and one that would make her one of the great bitches ever to grace the screen. Up to this, Davis had raised from a starlet into a promising young actress. The previous year (1937), WB placed her in four films that showed she was becoming a valuable commodity. Yet, it was only in the hands of William Wyler, the first director who really got her to show us, the audience, her full potential, that she learned to control herself for better effect. It won her a second Oscar and the rest is history.

Co-written by John Huston, the film boasts a crew selected among the best of WB’s technicians – cinematographer Ernest Haller, composer Max Steiner and costume designer Orry-Kelly, just to name a few. This was a major production, one that represented a change of direction in the WB output – up to “Jezebel” this had been a studio dominated by men like Cagney, Robinson and Flynn, where the women were as hard as any of them (Davis, Blondell, Stanwyck, Dvorak, Kay Francis) or decorative objects. The only exception, somewhere in the middle, was Olivia de Havilland’s pairings with Flynn. The films were tough and quickly, often cheaply made. Over the next few years, however, prestige productions gained momentum including a string aimed at women, most often led by Bette herself (de Havilland got a couple towards the end of the war).

The remaining cast is also worth looking at: Henry Fonda (before his own stardom with the John Ford films); George Brent; Donald Crisp; Margaret Lindsay; Spring Byington and especially Fay Baiter who, defeated by Davis at the Oscars as best actress, deservedly took home the best supporting actress one.

The film tells the story of a spoiled southern belle, Julie, who, to spite Preston, her fiancée (Henry Fonda) and since she thinks herself above all rules (“This is 1852 dumplin', 1852, not the Dark Ages.”), she decides to wear a red dress to a ball – when she was meant to wear white, the colour of choice of unmarried girls. As a result he teaches her lesson, humiliating her in public, showing that actions have consequences and breaks off the engagement, departing to Boston. A year later he comes back, married and to what turns out to be an outbreak of yellow fever. Unfortunately for every one involved, Julie still hasn’t fully learned her lesson.

This is a film full of wonderful moments – the subjective shots of the cane (ok, there’s a technical name but I am too lazy to look for it); at the ball, when we get the full extent of what’s happening (accompanied by a wonderful “twist” in Steiner’s waltz); Davis’ whole facial range in the sequence where she meets Fonda after his return (Fay Bainter’s expressions in the porch just before, while I am at it); Bainter’s defeated exit in the background; Julie as a Madonna and Preston as Christ in the end. There is also strong hints that Fay Bainter’s character was somehow like Julie in her youth and that she’s now paying the price (spinsterhood), and that maybe, the man she lost (or wasn’t allowed to get) was Donald Crisp’s idealistic doctor.

Part of course is Wyler, part is the wonderful Ernest Haller, but this being WB, I was wondering if there isn’t a bit of Curtiz’s influence in last act of the film, when things turn darker. Of course, there are some silly moments as well, like the mosquito scene at the plantation, which hits you with an off key note at the piano.

I like the ending, but somehow I am less convinced by the appearance of self-sacrifice than I am meant to. (Note: some spoilers coming…) Throughout the whole film, Julie behaved like a spoiled brat (actually, a bitch) but she now offers herself to follow Pres to the island to nurse him back to health (or more likely to die with him). Her reason, she states, is to clean herself from her sins (in particular, orchestrating the duel that ended with Brent’s Buck Cantrell’s death). Despite the pietà imagery of the last shot, all she wants is to be with him at last – and if she can’t have him in life, she’ll have him in death. Of course, this is a much darker interpretation, and one the Hays Office might not have been terribly happy with.

The film has of course, one major aspect of controversy for modern audiences – the depiction of slavery. None of the black characters in the film have much depth, with perhaps the odd moment of Julie’s butler conversation with Preston. This of course is usual 1930s fare. What really bugs me is that the red dress that causes such offence, is not only the dress of a prostitute, but is also coveted by Julie’s personal maid (a slave, obviously).

At the Oscars, the film got three other nominations: for best film, cinematography and score (not “best original score” though, although I don’t understand the difference). It should have won the last two clearly (Korngold won the “best original score” category). As for best film, considering that “La Grande Illusion” (I know, French, so it would never win) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” were in the race, I’d rather have either getting it. In the end all three lost to Frank Capra’s mediocre “You Can’t Take it with You”. Wyler, the script and the art direction weren’t even nominated and costume design wasn’t yet a category.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

She was never a personal favourite and after “Cleopatra” she developed a style of acting that consisted mostly of shouting around (“Boom” being a case in point). She denied Shirley MacLaine a much deserved Oscar for “The Apartment”, although she fully deserved her humanitarian award for raising awareness for AIDS before it was fashionable.

Yet, for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “Suddenly, Last Summer” and “Cleopatra” she has a place in my affections.

And in “A Place in the Sun” and pretty much every film she made in the 1950s she was one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen.

Monday, 31 January 2011

John Barry (1933 - 2011)

One of the truly greats of film music has died. His legacy will forever be Bond, but personally, I will personally remember him for his amazing scores to "Hanover Square"'; "Somewhere in Time" (a terrible thing that does not deserve his exquisite score); "Body Heat"; "Chaplin"; "Enigma" (his last and not very well known score) and his masterpiece, "Out of Africa" for which he deservedly won one of his 5 Oscars (the others being for the scores of "Born Free", "The Lion in the Winter", "Dances with Wolves" and best song for "Born Free").

I know he hadn't done a score since 2001, but now I know he will never do one again. As a film lover, the loss is astonishing.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

My Fair Lady (1964)

After I watched George Cukor’s “My Fair Lady” on the big screen for the first time I was more than ever convinced that I should watch as many old films at the cinema as possible. It was an amazing experience – for the first time I was noticing details I couldn’t see on TV: minor changes in expressions and details in the costumes and decors, including the wall paper details. This was a film designed to fill screens that were bigger than ones at the average multiplex – and it shows: the film has loads of long and medium shots that showcase these elements. Far from being obsessive fan behaviour, it actually helped me understand in today’s shrinking cinema screens what might have been to experience a film in the grand theatres of the 1930s – I would love to see something half decent at the Radio City Music Hall in NY (which hardly shows films these days) if I ever go there again.

Thanks to the BFI ongoing Audrey Hepburn season I got the chance to see it projected again. It’s interesting to consider the film history in her career – from something tainted from her casting over Julie Andrews (who originated the role on Broadway) to being the most loved of all her films. It’s sadly not a full performance, as the dubbing robs us its full impact of her Eliza, despite Marni Nixon’s very good Audrey inflections. (There are two songs with her audio on the WB DVD, which I think were created from multiple takes but leave me wanting for more. On the other hand I also heard some really weak takes).

Another major criticism generally made is that she’s never a flower girl. I think Audrey the myth works against her – hardly anyone can go there without knowing her in Givenchy, not the dress of choice of cockneys in Victorian London. Personally I think she’s not half as bad as all that. Moreover, I don’t think she’s less convincing than most actresses who would have been considered for the part in 1964. And do people really believe that Julie Andrews’ flower girl be more realistic in what really is a piece of stylization? Andrews’ singing would of course be astonishing, as can be proved by listening to the original Broadway Cast Recording and personally, my favourite Eliza is Wendy Hiller. Of course, as time went on, and Audrey became less of an actress and more of a deity (I like the actress, but I am not willing to idolize her) the whole polemic died down and this became the great opus in her career. However, watching the film again I was mesmerized not by her, but by Rex Harrison who, on each new viewing, has becoming my favourite thing in the film.

I’m not going to bother anyone by telling the film’s storyline – It’s pretty much on public domain. What I am going to do – and this might shock some people – is explain why I actually like the film versions (whether musical or not) far more than I like Shaw’s play. The play is a satire on the British status quo from both ends: on one hand, the upper classes kept the lower classes uneducated for their advantage; and on the other, it highlights the position of women in society, and how the higher up they were the tighter the corset of options was so that in the end they could trade in themselves – or as Somerset Maugham put it, they became “prostitutes who do not deliver the goods”. There is no romance other than a minor hint of infatuation, and in the printed versions Shaw writes the most depressing of epilogues on how he expects Eliza to end. My problem with Shaw is that he seems to write plays only as a vehicle to his politics – which works brilliantly on paper but less so on stage. The worst offender among the four or five plays of his I saw staged were the last twenty minutes of “Major Barbara” where the characters preach endlessly to the audience. “Pygmalion” is not as bad but it still drags immensely at times. The worst example in both this and the musical is Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle (yes, that name…). Since the first time I saw the film more years ago than I remember, and afterwards read and saw the play, I keep wondering what is the point of the character from a dramatic point of view. Yes, I understand why he is there from Shaw’s perspective – his is another finger being pointed at the audience – but dramatically, well, I can’t stand him.

The films cut all that fat to the minimum but the satire is there (although they keep Doolittle) – in “My Fair Lady”, listen to the words to “Why Can’t the English” (very Shavian) or look for the confrontation between Eliza and Higgins, when she tells him that in Covent Garden she’d sell flowers, not herself. I admit I am a romantic at heart, and I really like the romantic element of the film. I like to think that Eliza and Higgins will, somehow, find a balance in their relationship – maybe not marry, maybe strictly platonic – but still something that allows the two of them to find something in the other.

Along with Hepburn and Harrison, the third key player in the film is not Cukor but rather Cecil Beaton. His work here won him deservedly two of the film’s 8 Oscars (Cukor also got one) for his costumes and decors. Higgins house feels incredibly real, as much as Ascot is made belief. However, he made one huge mistake – and I taking the director’s cue here: Eliza’s dress in the Ascot is way too magnificent for the scene. It should have been an oppressive dress that highlighted the discomfort of her situation. Instead, it’s the best known of her dresses and makes her evening dress look poor by comparison – which should never be!

Finally, a hitherto unnoticed bit of Britishness in the film that made me smile. When Doolittle goes to Higgins house, Stanley Holloway, the actor, makes a rather rude but very English gesture involving two fingers. I am pretty sure that was only allowed because it I suspect most American audiences were not aware of its meaning (I wasn’t until I came to the UK).