May 24, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Wednesday, 23 November 2011 11:33
Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help families choose what to share. This week, take a fresh look at the new Blu-Ray editions of two classic Hollywood musicals, West Side Story and My Fair Lady.The movie musical reached its peak in the 1960s when nine song-and-dance films were nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and four took home the top Oscar. Two of these winners, West Side Story and My Fair Lady, are now restored to pristine condition in new Blu-Ray video releases. While both Oscar winners look and sound beautiful in their restorations, they survive the passage of time with varying degrees of success.
At first glance, West Side Story might seem out of date. After all, how many gangs dance through Manhattan in 2011? Even in 1961, when the film was released, the idea of tough guys breaking into step was a creative risk. But it all works in this contemporary telling of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet because of the daring of the filmmakers. And while the movie’s language and clothing may look dated, the excitement of its visual style is timeless.
What makes West Side Story age so well is the creativity of its cinematic approach. Instead of a film about the early 1960s, this looks like a period piece that happened to be made during its period. Every visual detail enhances what we savor in stage productions. The lush score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim sounds beautiful; the choreography by Jerome Robbins is thrilling; the direction by Robbins and Robert Wise is perfectly paced; and the screenplay by Ernest Lehman magically rethinks what worked on stage. Instead of simply transferring the show to film, the creators make a thrilling movie from its Broadway elements.
My Fair Lady, on the other hand, ages less well. While the film looks lovely in Blu-Ray, it feels oh so much slower than when it opened in 1964. While West Side Story offers a visual rhythm in sync with movies today, My Fair Lady settles for filming how the show played in live performance. As much as West Side Story dares to reinvent its stage magic for the movies, My Fair Lady seems intent to preserve it for a Broadway time capsule.
As I tell my family, though, we should view every film through the context of its time. In 1964, when My Fair Lady (the film) opened, perhaps we so loved the Broadway show that we could forgive anything. At the time, maybe we overlooked that Jack L. Warner cast a non-musical Audrey Hepburn in the lead role created on stage by Julie Andrews (who would win an Oscar the same year for Mary Poppins). And maybe we didn’t notice that Rex Harrison often looks as if he has played Henry Higgins thousands of time (which, of course, he had).
What ages My Fair Lady is its artificiality. That Audrey Hepburn isn’t permitted to use her own singing voice is not the issue; what matters is she fails to convey the joy of musicals. This lovely lady, who could play so many roles, looks uncomfortable every time she lip-syncs to Marni Nixon’s voice. George Cukor, who won an Oscar for his direction, seems to set the camera in front of the actors and expect them to turn it on. He makes few attempts to give the film any visual movement and refuses to use the camera to contribute to the musical excitement. Cukor creates a static My Fair Lady that, years later, no longer seems to sing.
Home video offers us easy access to the rich history of Hollywood. Just be prepared that some films, even Oscar-winners, age better than others. On Blu-Ray, West Side Story feels like a film of today while My Fair Lady reveals how much movies have changed.
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