Romantic Elements in the Film "My Fair Lady" (1964)

Examining the Likelihood of a Romantic Union between the Phonetician Henry Higgins and the Cockney Flower Seller Eliza Doolittle

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2018

21 Seiten, Note: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Depiction of Eliza as a Young Woman in Love

3. Depiction of Eliza as a Beautiful Cinderella at the Embassy Ball

4. Depiction of Freddy as a Possible Romantic Alternative to Higgins

5. Depiction of Eliza as an Independent Woman

6. Depiction of Higgins’s Feelings for Eliza

7. The Ambiguity of the Film’s Ending

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography
9.1. Primary Sources
9.2. Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

When George Cukor’s screen version of the musical My Fair Lady was released in 1964 the film neatly seemed to conclude “a half-century of attempts by actors, directors, and adapters alike to romanticize Bernhard Shaw’s Pygmalion” (McGovern, Shavian Elements 160). In fact, from the very first moment that Shaw’s play was performed in front of a public audience in 1914, there was the implication of a romantic union between the phonetician Henry Higgins and the Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle, as the actors Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Mrs Patrick (Stella) Campbell spoke improvised lines which implied to their audience that Eliza would stay with Higgins and marry him (cf. McGovern, Shavian Elements 160). To Shaw however, it was extremely important that Eliza becomes independent from Higgins at the end of the play. According to McGovern, Shaw even stated that a Higgins-Eliza marriage would be “a revolting tragedy” (Shaw, as cited by McGovern, Shavian Elements 160). In order to refute any further misinterpretations of a romantic relationship between Higgins and Eliza, Shaw appended an epilogue to the first English-language publication of Pygmalion in book form (1916), in which he shortly outlined Eliza’s married life with Freddy. Moreover, in 1934 Shaw used the chance to write his own screenplay adaptation for the first German film version of Pygmalion in which he removed any suggestions of a romantic resolution between Higgins and Eliza. He also granted screen adaptation rights to Dutch- and English-language productions on the contractual condition that the filmmakers would stick to his scenario (cf. McGovern, Shavian Elements 160). However, all filmmakers ignored Shaw’s obligations and continued to imply a possible romance between Eliza and Higgins to varying degrees.1 As all three films were quite successful and Shaw recognised the movies’ “worrisome potential to influence future stage productions of the play” (McGovern, Shavian Elements 161), he began to revise his 1914 stage-version of Pygmalion twice in 1939 and 1941. In both editions he made several revisions to emphasize the unlikelihood of a Higgins-Eliza marriage and to increase the likelihood of a Freddy-Eliza marriage.2

Soon after Shaw’s death in 1950 Gabriel Pascal, the producer of the 1938 film, acquired the musical adaptation rights for Pygmalion despite Shaw’s “often-stated opposition to the musicalization” of his play (McGovern, Shavian Elements 161).3 Pascal asked screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner to write the Broadway musical adaptation for Pygmalion. When Alan Jay Lerner and his partner Frederic Loewe first tried to adapt Shaw’s play Pygmalion into a musical in 1952 they found it quite difficult to find a way of how to expand the play without losing the “flavour of Shaw’s play” (Lerner 4). According to Lerner, it was not possible to just introduce more secondary characters to the play because “Shaw knew very well what he was doing [and] [e]very character was there for a precise purpose” (Lerner 4). It was only two years later that they finally realized that “the thing to do [...] was to dramatize all the things that happened off-stage, and also, as much as possible, to illustrate with music and lyrics, the background of Eliza’s life [...]” (Lerner 4). However, when writing the songs and texts for the musical My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe completely ignored Shaw’s strong opposition towards the romanticization of his story and included many suggestions of a romantic relationship between Eliza and Higgins. Even though the Lerner and Loewe used Shaw’s third and final 1941 edition of the play as the basis for their Broadway musical, and were told by the Shaw estate to adhere to the original play as much as possible, they left much room for speculation about a romantic resolution between Eliza and Higgins. In a note, which has been added to the printed version of the musical, Lerner even justifies why his interpretation of the ending differs so much from Shaw’s original intention: “I have omitted the sequel because in it Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and - Shaw and Heaven forgive me! - I am not certain he is right” (My Fair Lady 6).

As the Broadway musical My Fair Lady was a great success in terms of critical esteem, longevity and popular appeal (cf. Block 358), the Hollywood film industry decided to produce a screen version of the musical which was released in 1964 and directed by George Cukor.4 Derek McGovern claims that the musical from 1956 was more an adaptation of the 1938 Pygmalion film, rather than Shaw’s play, while the subsequent film version of the musical My Fair Lady from 1964 was in some ways “more faithful” (McGovern, Shavian Elements 161) to Shaw’s third and final 1941 edition of the play than its stage counterpart. In fact, Lerner made “numerous changes to the musical, rearranging the order of songs, deleting certain scenes and adding new ones, while incorporating a huge amount of new dialogue material drawn from Pygmalion (the play) and the 1938 Pygmalion film (non-Shavian dialogue)” (McGovern, Shavian Elements 161).5 However, the screen version of the musical My Fair Lady continued to dramatize and romanticise many off-stage situations and encourages the expectation of a romantic union between Higgins and Eliza.

The short outline of the intermedial adaptation process of Shaw’s Pygmalion has shown that the most central and controversial aspect of any adaptation has been the romantic resolution between Higgins and Eliza. Surprisingly, there are only few academic articles which focus on the analysis of the cinematic adaptation of the My Fair Lady musical in greater detail.6 It has therefore not been widely discussed yet in what specific ways the film’s plot and its aesthetics convey or deny the likelihood of a Higgins-Eliza romance. However, as every movie should be considered as an individual work of art (cf. Chapman 31), it is highly important to not only examine the depiction of the relationship between Eliza and Higgins in Shaw’s play Pygmalion and Lerner’s musical adaptation, but also to have a look at the film version of My Fair Lady. The paper therefore seeks to analyse to what extent the cinematic adaptation of My Fair Lady conveys or denies the likelihood of a Higgins-Eliza romance. In order to do so, it will be important to look at different scenes of the movie while examining to what extent the film’s plot and aesthetics suggest the possibility of a romantic relationship between Eliza and Higgins and how these romantic implications change our perception of the main characters. It will be shown that even though the screen version of My Fair Lady includes many romantic elements which hint at a possible romance between Higgins and Eliza, the film is still quite ambiguous on their relationship and leaves the audience much room to speculate about the nature of the character’s feelings for one another.

The most important findings of the paper will be summarized in the conclusion which will also point out further fields of academic research.

2. Depiction of Eliza as a Young Woman in Love

In contrast to Shaw’s play, the film temporarily depicts Eliza as a young woman who falls in love with her older teacher, Henry Higgins, during one of her phonetic lessons. While in Shaw’s play Eliza’s lessons happen off-stage between the second and the third act, the film includes several scenes showing how Eliza struggles with learning how to pronounce the sounds correctly while being constantly bullied and oppressed by her teacher Higgins (cf. My Fair Lady 0:57:18-1:12:34). It is important to notice that a certain tension and intimacy is created between Higgins and Eliza during their phonetic lessons as they are constantly shown together while arguing with each other or doing diverse speaking exercises.7 Moreover, all servants are talking about the extreme length of the lessons and Higgins’s great commitment which seems a bit too excessive as he is all day long on his feet, slaves away and does neither rest nor eat (cf. My Fair Lady 1:03:50-1:04:19). All these implications hint at the beginning of a romantic relationship between Higgins and Eliza.

It is striking that in the film Eliza just starts making progress when Higgins stops bullying, provoking and threatening her. Thus, Eliza’s breakthrough is initiated by Higgins sitting down right next to her on the sofa and talking to Eliza with a sudden gentleness:

“Eliza, I know you’re tired. I know your head aches. [...] But think what you’re trying to accomplish. Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language. [...] That’s what you’ve set yourself to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.” (My Fair Lady 1:08:55-1:09:40)

By reminding Eliza why she is going through all of these strenuous phonetic exercises and by expressing confidence that she will succeed, Higgins unexpectedly switches his role from an insulting bully to a sympathetic, friendly and supporting teacher. Eliza, who seems to have been frozen into a motionless statue while Higgins is sitting next to her and talking gently to her, therefore first looks at him in utter bewilderment (cf. My Fair Lady 1:09:38- 1:10:05), but then she suddenly manages to pronounce the phrase “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” accurately. In a certain way the scene undermines Shaw’s original idea that Eliza’s transformation is realized through her own efforts and determination. However, her progress in the film seems to be mainly initiated by Higgins’s sudden gentleness and his belief in her success. Besides, Cukor uses several over-the-shoulder- shots which add to the intimate atmosphere between the two characters in the scene. Hence, the viewer gets the impression that there is a growing bond of affection between Higgins and Eliza. At least Eliza seems to be completely stunned when she recognizes that Higgins can also be sympathetic and friendly to her.

The following scene, in which Higgins, Eliza and Pickering celebrate Eliza’s breakthrough by laughing, dancing and enjoying themselves together, includes many elements which suggest that the future relationship between Higgins and Eliza might be of a romantic nature. Eliza, for example, is constantly looking at Higgins with a bright and happy smile, while Higgins even grasps Eliza to dance a short tango with her (cf. My Fair Lady 1:10:39-1:12:38) - a dance which represents strong passion and sexual desire (cf. Petridou 59). Hence, one could conclude that Higgins also feels a certain attraction towards Eliza.8

However, after Higgins and Picking have left the scene and gone to bed, Eliza still sits dreamily on the sofa until she is sent to bed by the housekeeper. On her way to bed Eliza starts singing the song “I Could Have Danced All Night” (cf. My Fair Lady 1:13:57- 1:17:42). The lyrics of the song, the romantic melody, Eliza’s bright smile and her celebrating gestures clearly show Eliza’s growing affection for Higgins (cf. Martin 54) and imply that Eliza has fallen in love with him. At this point of the story, however, her emotions are clearly stronger than his.

Martin points out that the music and the lyrics of the songs in the musical and its screen version reveal the characters’ intimate feelings and emotions while mainly commenting on “what Shaw excludes from his text, namely, romance” (Martin 53). It is therefore not surprising that Hepburn’s Eliza displays a wide range of emotions, while Shaw’s Eliza keeps her feelings more strictly under control. In the film “Eliza [thus] goes from the anger of ‘Just you Wait Henry Higgins,’ which includes a daydream in which she has a tyrannical Higgins executed, to ‘I Could have Danced all Night,” when she celebrates her newly discovered passion for Higgins” (Martin 54). Due to the fact that Hepburn’s Eliza is quite excessive in emotions and able to reach extremes, it seems more plausible that she falls in love with Higgins so easily after he has been friendly to her and danced with her.

The melody of Eliza’s romantic song “I Could Have Danced All Night” is frequently repeated throughout the film in order to romanticize certain scenes (cf. McGovern, Shavian Elements 167). The theme of the song is, for example, played again when Eliza slowly walks down the stairs in her beautiful, glittering ball gown and when Higgins offers Eliza his arm to accompany her through the corridor and the front door of his house to the ball as if she were a princess. The scene clearly implies the possibility of a romantic relationship between the Eliza and Higgins (cf. My Fair Lady 1:36:08-1:37:45). It has to be noted however, that Eliza still seems to be quite more attached to Higgins than he is to her. When Higgins admits in front of Pickering that Eliza “matters immensely” (My Fair Lady 1:35:50) he does not mean that she matters to him in an emotional way. In this scene the film clearly follows Shaw’s intention to clarify that Eliza is only important to Higgins because she serves as a tool for him to fulfil his great aim to “take a human being and change her into a different human being by creating a new speech for her” (My Fair Lady 1:35:53). When Eliza appears on the landing it is only Pickering who is overcome by her beautiful appearance, while Higgins treats her like an object by circling her and inspecting her carefully. Moreover, as everyone is ready to leave Higgins briskly walks towards the door until he realizes that the others do not follow him and that it would be more gentleman-like to offer Eliza his arm and accompany her outside.

Eliza, on the other hand, looks hopefully at Higgins when he inspects her appearance and shyly turns down her eyes as she waits for him to compliment her. The viewer therefore gets the impression that she is still quite attached to Higgins and hopes to impress him. Ray even points out that Eliza “appears more docile and obedient” than before as she “speaks in hushed tones, her posture is erect, and her eyes are cast downward” (Ray 299). Moreover, Eliza seems to be quite hurt when Higgins starts to brush out of the room without paying any attention to her. She stands quietly in the middle of the room, holds her fan tightly with both hands and stares to the ground until Higgins approaches her and offers his arm to lead her through a door like a real lady. It is only then that she gives him a small satisfied smile. However, her initial refusal to follow Higgins to the outside may also be interpreted as a sign of protest against Higgins’s rude behaviour. The scene is nevertheless strongly romanticized, as the couple’s peaceful exit at the end of the scene is accompanied by the background melody of Eliza’s love song “I Could Have Danced All Night” which leads into the intermission. Another romantic element is the use of the colour red which is pictured in Eliza’s coat and in the flowers of the intermission picture which emphasize Eliza’s romantic feelings for Higgins.

It has been shown that the film adds certain romanticized scenes to Shaw’s play in order to stress Eliza’s growing affection for Higgins and to portray her as a young woman who has fallen in love with her much older teacher. Martin argues quite convincingly that the film functions as a classic Hollywood movie which “tended to please male cinema goers by offering them fantasies in which middle-aged men seduced young women” (Martin 56). Besides, the dramatic tension of the plot is increased by the fact that Higgins does not really seem to reciprocate Eliza’s feelings. The audience therefore gets the impression that the film tells a typical love story which will culminate in a happy ending between Eliza and Higgins.

3. Depiction of Eliza as a Beautiful Cinderella at the Embassy Ball

In contrast to Shaw’s play the musical and its screen version show the very important event of the embassy ball which “evokes some of the glamour of the royal ball in the Cinderella story” (Reynolds 244). Eliza herself is portrayed as a beautiful Cinderella: She wears a gorgeous ball gown and lots of glittering jewels and is admired by everyone. Even the queen and the prince of Transylvania are caught by her enchanting loveliness and the prince even asks Eliza to dance the opening dance with him. Moreover, everyone is interested in her and language expert Zoltan Karpathy tries again and again to approach Eliza in order to reveal the secret of her origin (cf. My Fair Lady 1:38:56-1:48:41). Hence, there are many fairy tale elements in the scene which add to the magic and romantic atmosphere of the ball.9 Besides, one could argue that the “controversial decision to cast Audrey Hepburn instead of [Broadway star] Julie Andrews as Eliza” (Martin 49)10 may have largely contributed to the romanticization of Eliza’s character because Hepburn was an international movie star who had already impersonated other Cinderella figures, like for example in Sabrina (1954) or Funny Face (1957) (cf. Moseley 139).11 Mast even states that Hepburn brings her own meaning to the film as she represents “the [typical] Cinderella who emerges from a gray pumpkin to fall for the older magician who taught her to make the transformation” (Mast 310). Moreover, as Ray points out, “Hepburn’s very slight frame looks much more docile and delicate than Andrews’s more commanding presence” (Ray 310). It is therefore very likely for the spectator to associate Hepburn’s Eliza with Cinderella.


1 Please see more detailed, McGovern, Shavian Elements, pp. 160-161.

2 Please see more detailed McGovern, From Stage Play to Hybrid, pp. 9-30.

3 Shaw had often argued that for him the play was good enough “with its own verbal music” (Shaw, as cited by Martin 37). The reason for Shaw’s strong opposition against the musicalization of Pygmalion was that his anti-militaristic play Arms and the Man had been adapted into the musical The Chocolate Soldier without his permission and he was extremely annoyed by the result. Thus, he “absolutely refused to have one of his most popular plays, Pygmalion 1914, ever turned into a musical” (Martin 37).

4 For more detailed information on the production of the film please see Levy, George Cukor, pp. 274-300; and Martin, Resistance and Persistence, pp. 46-58.

5 For a more detailed overview of the many changes which Lerner made in the film adaptation of his own musical please see McGovern, Shavian Elements, pp. 161-165.

6 Please see Martin, Resistance and Persistence; McGovern, Shavian Elements; Ray, ‘My Fair Lady’.

7 Shaw’s play on the other hand “provided no indication of emotional or physical intimacy” between Eliza and Higgins at all (Ray 301).

8 It has to noted, however, that the dancing scene is underlined by a homo-erotic subtext. When watching the scene closely, it seems that Higgins is less interested in Eliza than in Pickering. Higgins is, for example, not talking to Eliza but addressing Pickering when he triumphantly repeats: “By George, she’s got it! By George, she’s got it!” (My Fair Lady 1:10:53-1:10:53). Moreover, when Eliza tries to get closer to him, Higgins pushes her aside in order to shake hands with Pickering. The homo-erotic subtext of the scene is additionally emphasized by the fact that Pickering plays the bull to Higgins’s matador, that they dance a few flamenco steps together, and that Higgins even touches Pickering on the stairs in order to imagine Eliza’s dress for the embassy ball on his male friend (My Fair Lady 1:10:57-1:13:49). When analyzing the relationship between Pickering and Higgins throughout the whole film, the attentive viewer might notice several “gay codes in the material” (Garebian 41) which add to the film’s overall ambiguity and have lead to many speculations about Higgins’s homosexuality in the 1960s. Please see more detailed Garebian, Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, pp. 40-42; and Ray, ‘My Fair Lady’, pp. 300-302.

9 For more detailed information on the story’s affinities to the Cinderella-fairytale please see McHugh, Loverly, pp. 80-88, 172; as well as Reynolds, Shaw’s Pygmalion, pp. 244-245.

10 The reason why it was problematic to choose Hepburn as Eliza was her lack of an appropriate singing voice. Even though Hepburn took singing lessons, she did not manage to sing up to the standard the film required. Her voice was therefore dubbed by Marnie Nixon. Please see more detailed Martin, Resistance and Persistence, pp. 49-50. Some critics have even claimed that there is a huge “gap between Hepburn’s body and Nixon’s voice” which would weaken the impression of “the heroine’s vocal empowerment” (Ray 294).

11 For more detailed information on the Cinderella theme in Hepburn’s films please see Moseley, Growing up with Audrey Hepburn, pp. 131-169.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 21 Seiten


Romantic Elements in the Film "My Fair Lady" (1964)
Examining the Likelihood of a Romantic Union between the Phonetician Henry Higgins and the Cockney Flower Seller Eliza Doolittle
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
576 KB
romantic, elements, film, fair, lady, examining, likelihood, union, phonetician, henry, higgins, cockney, flower, seller, eliza, doolittle
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Sabrina Rutner (Autor:in), 2018, Romantic Elements in the Film "My Fair Lady" (1964), München, GRIN Verlag,


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