My Fair Lady: a most loverly musical


You can’t, the cliché goes, choose who you fall in love with. Perhaps the same holds true for classic movie comfort blankets, the films you watch when the world is grey and nothing goes right. At least, I hope it does, because how else to explain my penchant for George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, a film feel-good tale of transformation that comes with a healthy dose of sexism. Eliza Doolittle’s (played by Audrey Hepburn) metamorphosis from Cockney flower seller to high-society lady simultaneously comments on the class system in Britain whilst reinforcing patriarchy and gender roles.


Of course, My Fair Lady sits firmly in the ‘musical’ genre. Its very purpose – from the floral-filled overture to the romantic closing scene – is to delight and enthral. Visually, in terms of costume and set, it’s seductive. Art director Cecil Beaton and cinematographer Harry Stradling went all out of the stylized studio sets, made all the more the beautiful because of the lack of authentic realism. Covent Garden flower market is a riot of colour and blooms, Henry Higgins’ (Rex Harrison) book-lined library is filled with countless artefacts and oddities, Mrs Higgins’ (Gladys Cooper) conservatory is the epitome of elegance. And of course, the stylized Ascot scene is a monochrome triumph in an otherwise sumptuous production. Although all of Eliza Doolittle’s costumes are wonderful, it’s the white lace floor-sweeping dress, detailed with black and white stripes and bows and topped with a wide-brimmed, feather-bedecked hat, which sticks in the memory.



The musical numbers are wonderfully buoyant, although often overshadowed by the fact that Audrey Hepburn ‘didn’t do her own singing’. Much was made of the fact that her musical lines were dubbed by Marni Nixon, especially after Hepburn was chosen for the role over Julie Andrews, who had played Eliza Doolittle alongside Rex Harrison in a West End stage production. Much was made of Hepburn’s poor lip-syncing and limited vocal range; in the actresses’ defence many other famous roles (including Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story) also received the Nixon treatment. As Roger Ebert observes, ‘that Hepburn did not do her own singing obscures her triumph, which is that she did her own acting’. Apparently that wasn’t enough for the Academy – even though the film won eight actors, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor – Hepburn didn’t receive a nomination for her efforts. In a cruel twist of irony, the Best Actress gong went to none other than Julie Andrews for her role in Mary Poppins.

What the Academy failed to notice was that Hepburn’s portrayal of Doolittle was passionate, sensitive and moving. The ease with which she was able to play the character might well have been her undoing – anyone who was so comfortable as a raggedy flower seller with a dirt-smudged cheek surely didn’t need to be rewarded for their efforts. That the film remains watchable and relevant is in part thanks to Hepburn’s performance, but also the witty script that’s a cut above musical standards. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, itself a riff on Ovid’s Metamorphosis (mostly the part when a sculptor named Pygmalion falls in love with his statue of the perfect woman) it has an acerbic wit and a theoretical undertones.



Yet despite the sets and the costumes, the musical numbers and the witty script, I’d never been able to get over the fact that My Fair Lady is, in a nutshell, a story about a male ‘genius’ transforming a young woman from a waif to a duchess, and getting most of the credit for her hard work in the process. But that’s an oversimplified version of the truth. Henry Higgins might be deeply misogynistic (choice lines include: ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ and ‘you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language’) but his disrespect doesn’t only extend to Eliza. He also has some less than complimentary things to say about (in no particular order) Americans, the French, women in general, Eliza’s father Alfred, and Freddy, an interested suitor. As is so often the case with musicals, his meanness is an exaggerated characteristic, played up for theatrical purposes. As Higgins himself observes to Eliza: ‘The question is not whether I’ve treated you rudely, but whether you’ve ever heard me treat anyone else better’. It’s a fair point.



As for the transformation story, it’s actually Eliza that presents herself at Higgins’ house, ready to sign up for lessons (‘I know what lessons cost as well as you do, and I’m ready to pay’). The contest – to pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy ball – is born from Higgins and Colonel Pickering’s (Wilfrid Hyde-White) competitive banter, a stereotypical one-upmanship that sees Pickering pledge to pay for all the expenses should Higgins succeed. Although Eliza is present during the decision, hampered by the intellectual capabilities of her class she is unable to participate in the discussion about her own future. In short, she might be the initiator of her own transformation, but when she becomes a short-term, amusing vanity project, autonomy is taken from her. What’s important though is that Higgins’ response to Pickering’s challenge (‘She’s so deliciously low. So horribly dirty’) frames the rest of the film. Higgins might teach Eliza how to talk ‘like a lady’ but she teaches him humility, respect and decency – even if it takes him a while to realise it.


My Fair Lady might not be a feminist film that subverts gender norms, but it does have something revolutionary to say about class. The ‘happy’ ending only comes after Eliza forces the obnoxious Higgins to see that, although she’s cultivated an air of superiority, it means very little because he can’t treat her as anything but a common flower girl. Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that it paved the way for feminism in the 1960s, but it certainly raised issues about entitlement as a birthright, rather than something that can be earned. Well that’s one way to make me feel better about my classic movie comfort blanket!

This post is part of the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social, hosted by the wonderful Movies Silently. So grab yourself a big bowl of whatever-floats-your-boat and get reading!

Snow White & the Evil Queen: who is the wickedest of them all?


For a generation of impressionable children, the Evil Queen in Disney’s feature-length animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves might well have been their first encounter with villainy. The jealous, merciless queen, desperate to be the fairest of them all, transforms herself into a hunchback hag and tricks Snow White with a shiny, poisoned apple, only to fall to her death trying to roll a boulder over the seven dwarves, the owners of the house in which the exiled Snow White resides. It’s a simple story, a riff on a Grimm Brothers tale, and one that has been reimagined and reinterpreted many times, both by Disney and other writers, filmmakers and playwrights.


Grimm purists might, not unfairly, dismiss the Disney version as sentimental confection, but the film was a critical and commercial success upon its release. At the Hollywood premiere, none other than Charlie Chaplin claimed the film ‘even surpassed our high expectations. In Dwarf Dopey, Disney has created one of the greatest comedians of all time’. The New York Times’ film critic Frank S. Nugent commented: ‘If you miss it, you’ll be missing the 10 best pictures of 1938’. Other critics were surprised that animated characters had the power to reduce moviegoers to tears. High praise was matched only by sell-out runs and high box office returns.


Of course, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was very much a product of its time. Appreciation of the film’s animated achievements might not have diminished over the intervening years, but the reading of the characters has changed. Much has been written about the ‘Disneyification’ of femininity, and indeed Snow White was the first in a long line of heroines to succumb to passivity. She’s a woman who needs a prince (and one she has laid eyes on only once) to ‘save’ her. She’s good at cleaning and keeping house – all admirable female qualities in the mid-1930s. Hard work (both Snow White and the dwarves have a Depression era work ethic) and good behaviour were the morals Disney preached. Perhaps the novelty of the animation stopped audiences from critiquing the plot; perhaps it didn’t even occur to them to try. In the 1930s, Snow White’s virtue was an aspiration. Anything that challenged her honour (in this case, the Evil Queen) would receive the ultimate punishment.


It’s fitting that the Queen’s image was an early archetype of the femme fatale. That wasn’t always the case – apparently, early versions of the character were fatter, frumpier and more comical, inspired by the Silly Symphonies. But after Albert Hurter, the art director responsible for the overall look of Snow White, introduced more realistic character designs to the Disney animators, it was decided that the Queen should be beautiful, cold and sinister. Were the Queen’s perfectly arched eyebrows, cut-glass cheekbones and rosebud lips inspired by Joan Crawford? The Disney studio never confirmed or denied the rumours, but it seems reasonable that the animators would have taken cues from one of the top-earning actresses of the decade. Similarly the Evil Queen’s attire, which shares visual similarities with a gown worn by Helen Gahagan in the 1935 film She. For the ‘hag’ transition, the animators worked from live-action footage of actors Don Brodie and Moroni Olsen, who apparently performed in drag. Perhaps those origins inspired the hag’s more masculine qualities and made the witch more masculine and aggressive than the Queen.


Whilst discourse around the treatment and depiction of women in fairy-tales was spearheaded by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (published in 1949), it took until 1979, and the release of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, for in-depth analysis of the Evil Queen. Gilbert and Gubar argued that Snow White, the childlike, docile and submissive heroine, actually has no story. She’s shipped off to the woods by the Queen, the huntsman saves her life, she waits for a Prince to ‘save’ her. It’s the Evil Queen – and her desperate desire to be the fairest of them all – that drives the story. When the huntsman fails to carry out her wishes, she resorts a more complex and sophisticated plot that subverts a typical feminine persona – that of the kindly, harmless pedlar woman – to trick Snow White. The Evil Queen is a schemer, an impersonator, an inventive plotter… and plenty more in between. There is a twisted irony in the knowledge that the Queen resorts to using feminine wiles (persuasion, a motherly figure) to get to Snow White, and that it’s a small act of disobedience (going against the dwarves’ advice to let strangers into the home) that allows the Queen initial success, but ultimately leads to downfall.


Snow White and the Evil Queen are inexplicably linked. They are two sides of the same coin, mirror images of the other. The Queen is self-absorbed, a slave to the mirror; Snow White is oblivious of her reflection. Where the Queen sees bad, Snow White sees good. Where the Queen seeks to advance herself, Snow White gives selflessly to others. Is the overarching narrative the battle for love and everlasting happiness through marriage? Disney might have wanted that to be the takeaway theme. But re-watching the film with a contemporary eye, it seems much more about reconciling the contradictions that can exist within the female psyche – or indeed anyone.


Uncomfortable as it may be to admit it, the Evil Queen’s emotions – if not her actions – speak to the very core of human behaviour. Jealousy, insecurity and anxiety are complex but all too familiar feelings. It’s possible to overlook Snow White’s docile passivity because the Queen is such a believable and plausible character. And that just might be why the syrupy sweet confection of Disney’s Snow White continues to resonate with children and adults alike. The animators might’ve been striving to create animated characters that looked and moved like humans but they also successfully created a villainous character with relatable foibles. In fact, the Evil Queen just might be the ultimate Disney villain. Her wicked ways, showy transformation and gruesome death are ‘evil’ enough for the kids but the fear that we might, on some level, be capable of her envy is enough to drive fear into the heart of even the most rational adult viewer. Fairy tales. They’ve never really been about the happy ever after….

This post is part of the Great Villain blogathon, hosted by the wonderfully wicked Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin. Be sure to check out all the posts as there are some dastardly entries!

Purple Reign: a tribute


It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it was that drew me to Prince. Sure, I loved his music, I respected his talent, I was in awe of his stage performances and his singular vision, his ability to stay true to exactly what he believed in, no matter how it aligned with popular opinion. Over the past few days, so much has been written about the artist formerly known as ‘the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’, a collective outpouring of respect and grief that proves ‘superstars’ can only attain greatness when they resonate on a global and a personal level. As an artist, Prince’s innovative musicianship earned him a place in music history and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And although I’m not a musician, I felt a connection to the artist that went far beyond lyrics.

I first became aware of Prince when I was seven or eight years old (I was a little too young to appreciate the 80s while they were actually happening). It wasn’t the music that drew me in. It was Prince himself. I was confused: was this strutting, high-heel wearing, eye-liner loving creature a man or a woman? A mix of the two? Even though I was too young to understand the tension around gay and straight, I recognised that boys did this and girls did that – gender was something you were given and you didn’t challenge the parameters it defined. But this prancing peacock didn’t seem to respect them – or even acknowledge that they existed. I grew up in a normal suburban town on the outskirts of London. Prince was my first introduction to the idea that not everyone played it safe.


Later, I realised that people dismissed Prince as (at best) ‘eccentric’ and (at worst) ‘a freak’, because those were easy labels to apply to what we don’t understand. A label that helps us forget our own prejudices and narrow-mindedness, that justify convention and etiquette. Yes, Prince was sometimes flamboyant for vanity’s sake, but it was never a surface act. His identity, and questions what identity, behaviour and perception meant, were embedded deep into the lyrics he penned (“Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”, from 1981’s Controversy, and “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand”, from 1984’s I Would Die 4 U, are the two most obvious and widely cited examples, although there are many more). The Love Symbol that he adopted in 1993 fused the shorthand for man and woman and was, according to designer Mitch Monson, slightly off-balance to highlight the imperfectness of humanity.

Yet gender fluidity was just the beginning. The thigh-high boots, the bikini bottoms and the bum-less trousers Prince embraced re-wrote a new definition for masculinity, building on a narrative of ambiguity that the late, great David Bowie and a wave of new Romantics (including Boy George) had started, and proving that there was more than one way to be a man. Yet they also allowed Prince to objectify, fetishize and commodify his body in a way usually reserved for female musicians and actresses. In a culture that demands women be pretty and concerned about their looks, Prince flipped the coin and celebrated his own beauty unashamedly – and proved that you could look and behave however you wanted. His sex-positivity still seems visionary in a culture prone to slut-shaming women.

Of course, like his music, Prince was always in control of how he presented himself (surely the angelic nude pose he adopted for the Lovesexy album cover could only have come from him?). He didn’t sexulise for column inches, rather because wanted everyone – straight, gay, black, white – to want him. And even if you didn’t, the fact that you had made the choice not to was victory enough – his was a sexuality that even if not approved, was impossible to ignore.

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Looking back, in an era defined by increasingly liberal views on gender and sexuality, Prince was to be ahead of his time. But he had to live through his time – and the negative reactions that came with it. In the early 1980s, musician Rick James claimed: “He’s a mentally disturbed young man… He’s out-to-lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest.” And when Prince supported the Rolling Stones in 1981, he was pelted with cabbages. Even Jagger’s evangelists didn’t know how to take this prancing performer that meshed rock and R&B. Yet – through arrogance or sheer determination – Prince didn’t bow to the haters. Instead he responded with Controversy, which included the unsubtle Jack U Off and Do Me Baby, alongside the title track.

In his later years, Prince would tone down his performances and, after he became a Jehoavh’s Witness in 2001, seemed to shrug off some of his former liberalism. In a now infamous New Yorker profile he responded to questions about gay marriage and abortion by tapping his Bible and replying “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’” Perhaps his views did change with age or religion. But the sexual fluidity and genderless freedoms he preached at the height of his influence – and the permissions he granted – remain tightly interwoven into the public perception of ‘Prince’. They gave many young people – including musician Frank Ocean, who penned an emotional tribute to the late star the day after his death – the courage to construct public identities that reflected their true self, rather than the one convention demanded.

And as for me? The questions Prince awakened in my seven year-old self are still ones I think about today. They shaped the way I think about and look at the world, the way I treat other people and instilled values that are intrinsic to the person I have become. Prince wasn’t always an easy artist to worship but worship him I did. The lessons he taught me- and many others – will transcend death.

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Further reading: Prince and the queer body / How Prince led the way to our gender fluid present / I am your Conscious, I am Love

Bette Davis: classic Hollywood’s forgotten feminist?

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Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve (Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950)

‘I’ve always had the will to win. I felt it baking cookies. They had to be the best cookies anyone ever baked. But there was a price to pay. If a man is dedicated to his work, he’s more of a man. If a woman feels that way, she’s less of a woman.’

When you think about feminist star personas from Hollywood’s golden age, the first actress that usually comes to mind is the great Katharine Hepburn, whose legendary forthrightness and independence shines through every character she ever played. Yet Hepburn is not the silver screen’s only feminist role model – plenty of other women were trailblazers, on and off screen, breaking boundaries and challenging gender roles. It’s often observed that once film became a profession and a business it became a man’s game; that the early women of cinema got left behind. And whilst there is some truth in that observation, it doesn’t mean that the women who challenged convention in the 1930s and 1940s should be overlooked.

One name often omitted from Hollywood’s feminist discourse? Bette Davis. Davis might never have self-identified as a feminist (indeed many of women I like to think of as feminist figure heads talked very little about gender equality or waged political campaigns) but her credentials are impeccable. To begin with, Davis played some of the most memorable female characters ever written. Many of those characters weren’t memorable for their charm. Indeed the more unlikeable they were, the better Davis played them. Consider the heartless Mildred Rogers in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934). In the New York Times, film critic Mordaunt Hall described how the audience was so frustrated by Rogers conduct that ‘when Carey [Leslie Howard, playing a sensitive artist-turned-medical-student] finally expressed his contempt for Mildred’s behavior applause was heard from all sides’.

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Davis as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (Dir: John Cromwell, 1934)

Davis didn’t just want to be unlikeable or unsympathetic – she was self-confident enough to look bad on camera too. She reportedly argued with Archie Mayo on the set of Bordertown because the director wanted her to wake up in bed wearing a wig and full make-up. She preferred curlers and cold cream for authenticity. For Elizabeth and Essex she shaved her head. As Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? she relished the opportunity to be the dowdy counterpart to the glamorous Joan Crawford (her long-time rival).

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Davis as Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Essex (Dir: Michael Curtiz, 1939)

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Davis as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1962)

Both on screen and off, Davis showed little desire to be liked. She wanted to get the job done to the highest standard, with little regard for personal vanity or popularity contests. Edmund Goulding, who directed Davis in 1939’s Dark Victory, warned Joseph L. Mankiewicz before he directed All About Eve (1950): “That woman will destroy you. She will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And she, not you, will direct. Mark my words”.

Although many of Davis’ characters explored the accepted parameters of female behaviour, her influence was not solely limited to the screen. Throughout her tenure at Warner Bros. (which eventually lasted from 1931 to 1948), Davis was engaged in on-going battles with studio bosses. She was regularly suspended for refusing to play mediocre parts or holding out for more money. She threatened to move to England to find the roles she thought she deserved. In 1936, she filed a lawsuit against the studio claiming her contract was a ‘form of slavery’. She lost the suit but, remarkably, wasn’t blackballed. Instead she was rewarded for her tenacity with a lead role in William Wyler’s Jezebel and later, an independent corporation (B.D Incorporated) that meant she received 35% of the net profits from her movie.

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Davis as Julie in Jezebel (Dir: William Wyler, 1938)

Those acts of rebellion probably guaranteed her career. Jezebel – and the character of Julie Marsden – was the perfect showcase for Davis’ talent, but also allowed the actress to shape a screen persona that was provocative, fiercely independent feminine and – perhaps most importantly – totally her own. Marsden is one cinema’s great feminist heroines. She’s outspoken, free-spirited and bored of patriarchal conventions that dictate women’s behaviour (remind you of anyone?). In a memorable moment of defiance, she decides to wear a bright red dress to the Olympus ball – a formal occasion at which women are ‘supposed’ to don virginal white gowns. Both Davis and Marsden can be seen as rebelling against male authority – both the actress and the character were important counterpoints to the perceived ideals of femininity in the 1930s.

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Davis as Julie in Jezebel (Dir: William Wyler, 1938)

But in typical Davis style, the crusade didn’t stop there. Not content with being the highest-paid woman in America, Davis was also elected as the ninth president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She held the post for two short months, then resigned, complaining that the role was little more than a figurehead and actually came with very little influence.

So why – in the light of these achievements – is Davis not the poster girl for feminism in classic Hollywood? That moniker is most often reserved for the great Katharine Hepburn – although Hepburn was far from the only woman to challenge convention and re-shape notions around femininity in her professional and personal life, the accolade belongs to her. Perhaps of all the ‘feminist’ Hollywood icons (as well as Hepburn and Davis, I’d also add Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West to the list), Hepburn remains the most visible because her politics were deeply embedded into her psyche. In short, she was a feminist first, an actress second. Hepburn attended Bryn Mawr College, where her mother, her aunt Edith and several of her mother’s friends had also studied. The college’s president, M. Carey Thomas, had instilled feminist ideals into Hepburn’s mother; it’s likely that the young Katharine grew up in a household where female equality was the norm, not a choice.

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Davis was raised by her mother after her father Harlow Morrell Davis, a Harvard Law School graduate, filed for divorce. In Charlotte Chandler’s biography The Girl who Walked Home Alone, Davis describes her mother Ruthie as her ‘best friend’, someone who held down multiple jobs whilst studying photography to put Davis and her younger sister through school. Acting came in her teens, when she read for Eva Le Gallienne, whose Civic Repertory Theater was then one of the most popular touring companies – although her ‘break’ didn’t come until 1929, at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, in Virgil Geddes’s The Earth Between. A contract with Universal Pictures followed, although it wasn’t until Davis met the English actor George Arliss (who remained her mentor until her death) that she was noticed by Warner Bros.

If ever there was a scenario that culminated in success, a mother prepared to make any sacrifice and an estranged father who would barely acknowledge her existence, was almost made to produce an actress. As Davis recounted to Chandler: “I never really wanted to fit in. I wanted to fit out. Little did I understand that I didn’t have to try. My desire to be special and to be different already showed that I was”. Rule-breaking was embedded into her psyche and that – combined with her determination to impress her absent father – meant she challenged the status quo not to make a point, but to construct the career and find the roles that she believed she ha the talent to play. Unlike Hepburn, she was an actress that just happened to be a feminist (even if she never labelled herself with the term).

Davis as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (Dir: William Wyler, 1940)

But her aggressive pursuit of success and her natural honesty were qualities society often (and still does) punished women for. Despite the supposed progression of women’s rights since the 1930s and 40s, women who are aware of their power and are willing to wield it are still contentious and warily regarded. Davis can’t be the feminist icon because we’re still not completely comfortable with women who take exactly what they need and forge their own path. Hepburn’s ‘safer’ legacy is bound up with a fight to be allowed to wear trousers, of being blunt and outspoken but never rude. In contrast, Davis revelled in her notoriety – “I was a legendary terror… I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind, and it wasn’t always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and ofttimes disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life.”

Instead of a feminist pioneer, Davis is most often remembered as a prolific and talented actress who was willing to trade-in her beauty for a challenging role. She was all those things – but she was also so much more. In fact, the last words probably belongs to her:

This post is part of the Bette Davis blogathon celebrating the actresses’ 108th birthday. Hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – check out all the entries here.