The late great film critic Roger Ebert called My Fair Lady “the best and most unlikely of musicals, during which I cannot decide if I’m happier when the characters are talking or when they are singing”. It’s a cinematic marvel, marrying a whip smart stage play with a joyous musical score, bolstered by pitch-perfect performances and stunning cinematography. So stunning that Ebert, who reviewed 10,000 plus films over the course of his life, thought it “one of the best looking movies ever made”.
The sad truth is that beauty fades. In My Fair Lady’s case, quite literally. When archivist Robert Harris unearthed the film’s negative from its Burbank vault, he found that the vibrant colours that the camera captured in 1964 had lost some of their lustre in the intervening five decades. While it’s easy to imagine that classic films exist in some kind of age-proof lockbox, the truth is more earthbound. According to Harris, the negatives had been kept “in a single, non-air-conditioned vault, atop part of a nitrate library… Had something gone wrong below it would have taken all of My Fair Lady with it.” While the archivists were retrieving the elements, an earthquake hit. Thankfully My Fair Lady (and the archivists) survived to see the film was given a glorious 4K restoration.
Of course the process of restoration is not as simple as running some kind of Instagram-ready filter over the movie. An 8K scan was made of the negative that picked up not just the wonderful cinematography but 12 million faults, such as dust, tears and scratches in the film. These had to be painstakingly removed digitally. The film’s sound mix was restored using an original magnetic print master and remixed in a six-track mix (faithful to the original), Dolby Surround and DTS 5.1. All of which is to say that when the lush strings of I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face strike up, it sounds like you’re sitting in the orchestra pit.
There were also deeper, non-technical issues Harris had to face. Like doctors, preservationists pledge first and foremost to “do no harm” to the film they are restoring. Their mission is to honour the original by fighting off time’s decay, not replace key elements with CGI pyrotechnics. My Fair Lady’s production designer was consulted to get the perfect tonalities for the interior of Gladys Cooper’s home. The opening credits were digitally reconstructed from the few surviving frames. Harris rebuilt the film so that it honoured the original vision, recreating the movie a 1964 patron would have seen on glorious 70mm.
But occasionally Harris bumped up against the weird reality of reconstructing a film that shows even more clarity than its original 70mm form. “We were shocked when we saw [Audrey Hepburn’s] dental work the first time we watched it on a 25-foot screen,” Harris says. “Jack L. Warner [the film’s producer] would never have permitted this to be seen, so we digitally removed her fillings. Though if you look really hard for it, you might catch a glimpse of the adhesive on Rex Harrison’s toupee in some shots.”
Come see My Fair Lady in all it’s 4K glory (minus Audrey’s dental work) from tonight till Sunday. It’s going to be loverly.