Sunday, 31 March 2013

My Fair Lady: Analysis of the 'Ascot' scene.

My Fair Lady
(1964) is one of my favourite musicals. Even though I agree that it is long and that not all of the songs are overly enjoyable (many have complained that Rex Harrison speaks rather than sings his songs), the film is fantastic fun.

Harrison is perfect as Professor Henry Higgins (he knows the role inside out) and Audrey Hepburn, although they decided to dub her singing in most of the songs, was hilarious as the common-talking flower girl, and enchanting as the transformed Miss. Eliza Doolittle. And yes, I know that many cannot forgive Hepburn for beating Julie Andrews to the part when Andrews had received acclaim for her portrayal of Eliza on stage - but to all those people, if Andrews had gotten the part she wouldn't have been able to play Mary Poppins that same year - a legendary role which won Andrews the Best Actress Academy Award.

But yes, I love Harrison, I love Hepburn, I even love Wilfrid Hyde-White as Colonel Pickering (some of his lines make me cry with laughter) and even the smaller roles filled by Gladys Cooper and Jeremy Brett are wonderful to watch. Bursting with laughs, good-humour, but also with a charming love story floating in the background, My Fair Lady is a great musical, and improves with every viewing.

Even though the film is most famous for it's songs like Wouldn't it be Loverly?, I Could Have Danced All Night, and The Rain In Spain, there is one musical number which really stands out in the film. This blogpost will analyse the scene at the Ascot races where the Ascot Gavotte is performed. Here is a clip of the scene for you to watch if you want to refresh your memory or if you haven't already seen it.

What are we looking at? The actors, the choreography, and the song.

The scene starts with an array of extras stood motionless, silent, and wearing the most fabulous costumes designed by Cecil Beaton - in short, these actors look like mannequins in a boutique window. As the song nears the vocals the actors begin to move in very controlled, military-like fashion, until they are stood facing the race course (the audience). They then begin to sing the Ascot Gavotte. The first section of lyrics is as follows:

Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here 
Ev'ryone who should be here is here. 
What a smashing, positively dashing 
Spectacle: the Ascot op'ning day. 

Reading these lyrics one would expect these people to be smiling because they are at the Ascot opening day, and that there would be a buzz amongst them because of the impressive list of visitors to the event. But no, everybody is still stood motionless - posing to ensure that they remain looking immaculate - the only thing that moves is their singing mouths. But let us read some more...

At the gate are all the horses 
Waiting for the cue to fly away. 
What a gripping, absolutely ripping 
Moment at the Ascot op'ning day.

Again, the lyrics do not change much and the actors movements certainly do not either. The excitement and adrenalin of this 'gripping' and 'ripping' race are not visible. The spectators actually look more bored and uninterested than gripped by the sport. I mean, they'd look more at home at a wake rather than this fun-filled day of horse-racing. 

Pulses rushing! Faces flushing! 
Heartbeats speed up! I have never been so keyed up! 
Any second now They'll begin to run. Hark! 
A bell is ringing, They are springing Forward Look!
It has begun...! 

This is the verse that really divides what is being said to what is actually happening. Nobody has a red face of excitement or thrill, nobody looks like they even have a pulse... nobody looks like they are even watching the race let alone enjoying it. The verse ends with 'Look! It has begun...!'. A command to ensure that they don't miss the finish of the race - even though so far it looks like none of them even care about the outcome of this race. The final lines of the song, however, really do sum-up the entire number.

What a frenzied moment that was! 
Didn't they maintain an exhausting pace? 
'Twas a thrilling, absolutely chilling Running of the 
Ascot op'ning race.

The word 'frenzied' was never more inappropriately used to describe a group of people. Not a sign of frenzy, chaos, or hysteria is present. And as for exhaustion, none of the spectators looked like they had much life or energy in them to begin with. If any of them did find this race thrilling and chilling, they fooled us completely. 

So, what is the point in the choreography being so opposite to what is said in the song?

I think what the makers were trying to achieve here was to show the contrast between Eliza at the beginning of the movie - she doesn't talk 'proper' enough to work in a flower shop. Even Professor Higgins who has studied all manner of accents and voices finds her particularly vulgar. He has trained her for a very short period of a time when he takes her to Ascot, so when we see the perfectly poised, motionless and emotionless spectators of the upper class, we know that Eliza will stand out like a sore thumb. She isn't quite ready yet. 

Also, the scene makes these posh folk look dull, boring, lifeless, and bordering on stupid when they can't get into the spirit of a day at the races. All in all - they look stuck-up. So we wonder, how will Eliza ever fit in with these people? And do we even wa
nt her to? Do we want her to become as dull and lifeless as these people? Do we want Professor Higgins's lessons to transform her into one of them? I don't think that we do.

Yes, Eliza will benefit from improving her speech because it will enable her to work in a flower shop and earn a better wage, but does that mean that Higgins has the right to look down on her? Does he have the right to not act the gentleman and treat her like a lady? Not at all, and Colonel Pickering highlights this flaw in Higgins later. 

There is more life in Eliza than any of the other people at Ascot, just as Freddy (Jeremy Brett) notices and falls for when he speaks to her at the races, and which Higgins learns later.

The point of the song and the choreography? To show the facade of it all - behind all of the fancy words and apparent wonderful times these rich people boast about, they actually are not at all interested, nor do their fancy words match their personalities or character. Whereas Eliza, who's only flaw is her incorrect use of the English language, has personality, character, and then some, and not only stands out at Ascot because of her beauty and fantastic outfit - but because of the charisma and vitality she possesses. She is the only person who cheers on her horse and who allows herself to become fully engulfed in the hysteria of the race.

The choreography in this scene is really exceptional - I love the movements of the actors, the way that they are like mannequins in a Parisian boutique, flouncing about and perfectly poised; the song is just superb. A great scene, from a great film.

If you haven't seen My Fair Lady then please do. It's a great watch for a Sunday afternoon. Be prepared for plenty of songs though if you aren't a musical-lover. But enjoy the songs, and enjoy the humour. There are many brilliant lines in this that just get funnier every time you watch it. 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

What if LOTR was made during Hollywood's studio era?

This blogpost is not going to be a book review or a film review, rather a 'what if' discussion. After reading LOTR and thinking about how it had been adapted for the screen, it dawned on me how it would have been near impossible to do the books justice before CGI. Thousands of orcs and uruk-hai, how to make Shelob believable, how to make the landscapes of Rivendell and Lothlorien extra magical. It would have been very hard to show the epicness of landscape and numbers in battles before Jackson embarked on his own little adventure (or at least to do the books justice).

However I did wonder this: if the films had been made during the 1920s-1940s, who would have been picked for the roles? Choosing the male actors would be very difficult because the actors of that era were so very different from the male roles in the books. I've had a few ideas like Peter Lorre to play Smeagol/Gollum (sneaky, mischievous, large eyes, cunning) but other than that it was difficult to put an actor from that time in the role of Aragorn, Legolas, or Gandalf.

On the other hand, the actresses for the female roles seemed a lot more fitting. Now before anybody criticises - yes each of these women belonged to their own studio and were in their prime at various times so technically it wouldn't have actually happened. But still, if it were possible to have these women work at the same time in the same films, and the LOTR trilogy was made during the era of the studio giants, just who would have played Galadriel, Arwen, Eowyn, and even Rosie Cotton? Here are my ideas. 

Galadriel - Greta Garbo.
This was an obvious one for me, and I'm sure that many of you will agree with my choice. Tolkien describes Galadriel in these words:

"Very tall [Galadriel and Celeborn] were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold… but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory."

Garbo has often been referred to as the most beautiful creature of the screen. Her face was one that revealed so much and yet said so little - expressing sorrow, anger, and all of the emotions more profoundly than most of her peers ever could; she told her story through her face. But aside from her physical beauty, height, and captivating eyes, Galadriel had characteristics that are resonant with many characters whom Garbo played, for example, Queen Christina. Powerful, strong, wilful, mysterious - each of these characteristics can be applied to both women. Even the final scene of Queen Christina where Garbo stares out at the front of her ship, it could easily be Galadriel on her journey to the Undying Lands. This image of Garbo from The Temptress is how I picture her as Galadriel except she would need much longer hair. Galadriel had more presence than anyone in Middle Earth with her incredible wisdom, as well as being dangerously intimidating; yet there she is hugely kind to those who are good. Nobody from that era could have played Galadriel other than Garbo.

Arwen - Vivien Leigh.

Arwen is supposed to be the most beautiful elf and being in Middle Earth; such a beauty that she is supposed to have spellbound Aragorn at first sight... who better to play this role convincingly than Vivien Leigh? To me, no actress could match Leigh's beauty therefore she has to play Arwen. When you compare Leigh's features there are certainly similarities between her and Arwen:

"...and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver. "

The darkness of her hair, her porcelain skin - of course her eyes are a different colour but Leigh was famous for her cat-like eyes as well, so her eyes are equally convincing at being show-stoppers. Furthermore, her eyes are described to reveal much of the past and the future. In the film Waterloo Bridge, Leigh's eyes did most of the acting because they showed the emotions, sorrow, and the "sordid" past of her character. Leigh also had a very pixie like appearance with her dainty frame (see this image of her from a production of A Midsummer Nights Dream), whilst her achievements on film and stage gave her the air of royalty - it's fair to say that Leigh had presence and an enchanting quality in abundance even before her fame. To play Arwen convincingly you need to have an aura of royalty, grace, unmatched beauty, but also the sadness and wisdom of many years passed, and the knowing of the painful sacrifice you will have to make in order to be with your love, Aragorn.

Eowyn - Ingrid Bergman.
When wondering who would have played Eowyn, I couldn't think of any actresses suitable. Yes there were many actresses that could play strong, female roles, but to have that delicate balance of a flower and ice that the Lady of Rohan possessed is rare. However, when I thought about the scene were Eowyn confronts the Witch King, I could picture Ingrid Bergman (possibly because she played Joan of Arc) but Bergman played strong women in emotional turmoil so brilliantly, it suddenly became obvious that she would be perfect for the role. Because Eowyn had long blonde hair, Bergman would have to wear hers like she had it in Dr.Jekyll & Mr.Hyde, but a lot lighter.

“It was an evil doom that set her in his path. For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak of her. When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel."

This idea of fragility and steel is embodied in Bergman. She has a fairness, warmth, and soft appearance, yet there is definite strength and coldness visible in her features and expressions that give her a warrior like feel. Bergman challenged the star system - she didn't want to be typecast, she wanted a challenge; characteristics not to far from those belonging to Eowyn who thought it unfair that she should not fight in battle because she was a woman.

Rosie Cotton - Rita Hayworth.
Rosie Cotton has a very minor role in the books, but she is given importance in the films because she is Sam's sweetheart. At the beginning we see that he has a crush on her, and at the end of the film where he stands on the brink of doom, his thoughts are of her. This just made me think of those Second World War stories, where pin-up cards were sent to soldiers to help them hope that back home a beautiful woman was awaiting their return. Rita Hayworth of course was the second most popular pin-up of the war, and with her glorious red curls (Hobbit-like) and beautiful face - was there a more lovelier woman for Sam to come home to? I pictured Hayworth as Rosie from this photo of her in a dream sequence from the film You'll Never Get Rich. Hayworth was a terrific dancer meaning she would catch Sam's attention at Bilbo's birthday like in the film, and even though she was a sex symbol of her time, there was a wholesomeness to Hayworth that suits the homeliness and purity of the Shire.

If you have any thoughts or preferences of who you think would be more suitable, please let me know in the comment section. As I said, this isn't anything enlightening or analytical, I just thought I would share my thoughts on the subject and see if anybody had thought of it before too.