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My Fair Lady (Best Picture, 1964)

A detail I’ve never noticed: At the beginning of MY FAIR LADY, as the posh crowds leave the opera, there’s a sign saying that the opera playing at Covent Garden that night is FAUST.  A man makes a deal with the devil – foreshadowing, coincidence, or a bit of humor on the part of the production staff?

One of the great under-praised performances in this movie is that of Mona Washbourne, the actress who plays Mrs. Pearce, Professor Higgins’ housekeeper.  Her interactions with Eliza are heartwarming and a breath of fresh air compared to the uncaring arrogance of Higgins, the gentlemanly condescension of Col. Pickering, and puppy-love of Freddy Ainsford-Hill. Mrs. Pearce is maternal in a calm, sensible, and undemonstrative kind of way.

MY FAIR LADY is one of the most popular and well-loved musical films of all time, and I enjoy it hugely.  However, it’s one of those stories that’s fun and even romantic until one looks beneath the surface.  Professor Higgins (admirably played by the incomparable Rex Harrison) is arrogant, selfish, and completely without either empathy or sympathy.  And yet the film implies Eliza is in love with him. She returns to him without any hope of acknowledgment or expressed affection.  I just don’t get it. In some ways, I find this relationship even more bothersome than Scarlett O’Hara/Rhett Butler, Jane Eyre/Edward Rochester, and any in which the female is entranced by a man who bullies and patronizes her.  Higgins ought to have to acknowledge his bad behavior and try to change his ways.

That said, I still love the movie. Cecil Beaton’s costumes and art direction makes it visually lush, full of beautiful patterns and colors. The famous race at Ascot, with all the black-and-white outfits, is still one of the most brilliant uses of color symbolism I’ve ever seen – and it’s a very funny scene to boot!  The song lyrics are perfect.  They are funny and sharp and communicate exactly what is intended.  I think my favorites are Higgins’ first song, “Why Can’t the English?” in which he deplores the educational system that fails to teach correct English pronunciation, and “On the Street Where You Live,” which is still one of the most innocently romantic songs I’ve ever heard.

When you watch this, try, as I do, to set aside the distasteful and problematic relationship between Eliza and Higgins.  Try to see only the surface, and enjoy the wonderful musical.

The Sound of Music (Best Picture, 1965)

I admit, THE SOUND OF MUSIC is not my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.  I’ve always preferred THE KING AND I or CINDERELLA.  One of the funniest pages to read on imdb.com is the trivia page for THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which contains some real gems.  They mostly have to do with Christopher Plummer, and here’s one of my favorites:

“Christopher Plummer intensely disliked working on the film. He’s been known to refer to it as ‘The Sound of Mucus’ or ‘S&M’ and likened working with Julie Andrews to ‘being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card, every day.’ Nontheless, he and Andrews have remained close friends ever since.”

But to be a bit more serious.

All of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals have the saccharine, sanitized feel of the period in which they were created, but they all have a dark thread running through them that makes them stand out.  In OKLAHOMA it’s the creepy farmhand, in THE KING AND I there’s an undertone of racial bigotry and a subtle satire of colonialism, and in SOUTH PACIFIC there’s the tragedy of war all around (plus even less subtle racial bigotry than in THE KING AND I).  The darkness in THE SOUND OF MUSIC is not even a little bit subtle.  The seemingly heartwarming story about a widowed father reconnecting with his children and falling in love with their engaging and adored governess is driven by the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany in 1938.

Historically speaking, the Anschluss is a particularly distasteful moment in a period that sometimes seems made up of nothing but distasteful moments and horrors.  What makes my teeth hurt when I think about it is the fact that it was an occupation/annexation handled by politicians and there is film footage of Austrian citizens welcoming the troops of the Third Reich.  I’m sure Captain Von Trapp was not alone in his dislike of the annexation and his refusal to participate – I don’t know the statistics on those who fled, ended up in jail, or were otherwise punished for disobedience.

When the historical context is taken into account, the film brings up an interesting idea.  It’s been noted that the Baltic states, especially Estonia, held onto their distinctive cultural identity and protested their nations’ occupation during the Soviet era.  A powerful way of doing so is through singing.  Traditional songs, in Estonian, were a subtle form of rebellion when other kinds were too dangerous.  This is effectively what the folk music festival in THE SOUND OF MUSIC provides.  It allows those in favor of Austrian independence, such as Captain Von Trapp, to make that clear in a way that is actually sanctioned by the officials of the Third Reich occupiers.  One of the most moving moments in the film comes during that festival, when the Captain takes the guitar and starts singing “Edelweiss” and is joined by nearly the entire audience.  It’s unspoken, but it’s clear that the song and what it represents are important to Austrian culture.  The effect of the song makes it seem like the Captain is singing some sort of national anthem.

Up Next: A Man For All Seasons (Best Picture, 1966) and In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture, 1967)