As a writer, I’m always examining how I react to things. Why does ZeFrank’s Chillout Song make me cry? Why do I think that Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is brilliant, even though it’s littered with footnotes, which I normally despise?
A couple of days ago, I watched My Fair Lady, the capper to an orgy of movies that included The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Blithe Spirit. The last time I’d watched My Fair Lady, I was a teenager watching it with my father, who thinks it one of the best movies ever.
As I watched it, I realized that most of the musical numbers irritated me. There are 23 musical numbers, including the overture and the finale. Of those, I like The Rain in Spain, and nothing else.
Every other number was either boring or offensive, because to me, the characters themselves were offensive. BUT WAIT! That’s the most important feeling in the world to me. When something bothers me, I feel the need to pick it apart and think about why I feel offended.
On the surface, My Fair Lady has a lot in common with one of my favorite movies ever – A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. There are dirty old men, young men in love, a lovely young woman, relationships scorned by society. So why is one patently offensive and one a hilarious good time?
What I finally worked out is that in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, everyone is perfectly above board about who and what they are – a discontented husband, a horny teenager, a pimp, a narcissist military jerk, a self-serving trickster – in My Fair Lady, everyone is pretending to be something they’re not. Henry Higgins pretends to be a civilized social scientist. Eliza Doolittle pretends to be an independent-thinking young entrepreneur. Albert Doolittle pretends that being shiftless and lazy is what everyone secretly wants, so no one should look down on him for it. The conceit that Henry Higgins, who shows concern for no one but himself and whose only mode of interaction is bullying and badgering, is actually a swell guy, beloved by his household staff and his good pal Colonel Pickering is ridiculous. Do these people not see what an utter jerk he is? The idea that Eliza Doolittle is such a milquetoast that after six months of abuse at the hands of a domineering monster she would mourn the fact that he doesn’t love her is incredible. Sitting through the scene where Eliza Doolittle’s father Alfred comes to Professor Higgins demanding money, in essence pimping out his own daughter – an act that Higgins supports by giving him the money while Colonel Pickering offered the barest token resistance – was almost physically painful it its awfulness.
Every time I watch AFTHOTWTTF (even shortening it to an acronym is long and awkward), I glory it my favorite song – Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.
Here are four men dancing around and singing about how much fun it is to sexually take advantage of women in no economic position to fend off their advances. While that’s certainly reprehensible, the accompanying video shows no sexual exploitation or objectification of women, but instead makes the men themselves the objects of fun, making the song more about the impossible desires of dirty old men. And nobody in this film is pretending anything different.
Contrast this with the song “With a Little Bit of Luck” from My Fair Lady (I won’t link to it because I hate the song). This song is three men dancing around and a street in London and playing strange pranks on the people they encounter while singing about how “with a little bit of luck,” they’ll be able to evade responsibility, cheat on their spouses, stay intoxicated and con money out of people. And, just to underscore the point, by the end of the picture he’s been rewarded with financial success.
In Forum, everyone gets a happy ending, but at least in that movie, I could believe it. The military jerk gets the twin courtesans, the horny teenager gets the pretty virgin next door, the mother and father get a renewed lease on love, and the trickster gets his freedom. At the end of My Fair Lady Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle get each other, but it’s hard to believe either one would be happy about it. The father is made middle class but resents it, the boy who was in love with Eliza Doolittle gets absolutely nothing.
What have we learned here? I guess that I’ll happily sing and dance with my children to any song in Forum, but if I ever let my kid watch My Fair Lady, there’ll be a huge amount of editorializing going with it.