Fifty years ago Audrey Hepburn stood at the top of a statelyLondon townhouse staircase, the actress dressed in a stunning white ball gown, white operagloves and up-swept hair replete with a tiara, in one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.
The film, of course, was “My Fair Lady” — directed by the legendary George Cukor and starring Hepburn as the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, alongside Rex Harrison’s Oscar-winning turn as the egomaniacal linguistics Professor Henry Higgins, inthe big screenversion of Lerner and Loewe’s stage musical retelling of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
Fans of the movie can now experience “My Fair Lady” in a completely upgraded, frame-by-frame restoration of the film viaCBS Home Entertainment’s50th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray release. The eight-time Oscar-winner (including best picture) plays outin a new 4K restoration of the original 65mm negatives (and other surviving 65mm elements) painstakingly restored by acclaimed film historian and preservationistRobert A. Harris.
The story: Professor Higgins (Harrison) wagers his best friend and colleague Col. Pickering (Wilfred Hyde White) that he can turn a lowlyflower girl (Hepburn) into an elegant lady in time for an upcoming embassy ball. He gets way more than he bargains for in the musical, which features iconic songs such as “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
“The [first]restoration began in 1993 [CBS got the rights to the film in 1971],” said Harris, who spearheadedthe project.
“The original negative had not been touched since 1971 at that point. So prior to 1994 [when the restored laserdisc edition was released], wewere working off 35mm dupes, which were heavily faded. Every 70mm print back then was struck from the original camera negatives and thus damaged by theaters over the years. …So wehad to go back to the foundation and work from the ground up, recreating it by doing single frames by hand and cleaning them up. … But because of the technical situation at the time, we couldn’t do all the fixes. We could only preserve what was there. … [Given the digital technology of the time], what they created in 1994 is still considered one of the most elegant laserdisc sets produced.”
More than two decades later, Harris got the call again from CBS to revisit a “My Fair Lady” restoration. There was no hesitation.
“The fact that the film was shot on 65mm didn’t hurt. The fact that it was recorded in six-track stereo in 1964 didn’t hurt,” Harris said. “Back then that audio quality left people sitting stunned in their seats with their mouths open. … We were able to take those original six tracks and assemblethe audio from those in 96k, and did a re-recording in 96k. … We put the [film’s] separation masters together within a quarter of a pixel for this latest restoration, thanks to technology advances. We were able to run the original main title from the master. We were able to reconstruct the film in ‘A’ and ‘B’ rolls. We had all the pieces we needed this time out.”
The look of the restored film is in a word, stunning. The visual grandeur of Harry Stradling Sr.’s Oscar-winning cinematography, Cecil Beaton’s Oscar-winning costumes and Gene Allen’ssets is breathtaking.
“Allen is now 94,” Harris said, “and for the 1994 restoration, we had him with us to help figure out what color the sets actually were when they were photographed. That’s how much the film had deteriorated by that point.”
This time aroundvisuals were only half the battle. Audio was a whole other matter, Harris said.
“Although we had all of the reels of the original six-track audio, one reel had problems. … Special playback equipment was created by Nick Bergh [of Endpoint Audio Labs in L.A.] to clean it. He was able to get the originals to lay one more time. … So on Blu-ray, the audio is being run at full 96k. People will be hearing [Audrey Hepburn’s singing stand-in] Marni Nixon’s wonderful voice for the first time at full resolution since the film premiered in 1964.”
That Harris has a passion for film is an understatement, which is why restoring the classics is a labor of love.
“I fell in love with movies when I was 14 and saw ‘The Alamo’ for the first time,” Harris said. “Then I saw ‘Lawrence’ [of Arabia’] and that did it. [Harris has restored both ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Spartacus’ two times]. The next year I saw ‘Tom Jones’ and I was hooked even more. I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do but make sure these films were preserved for generations. … Old films are not antiques. Whether the actors are with us or not anymore, they’re very much with us on film. And the quality of the old [ways of making] films is in may ways far better than film today. Yes, we can get bigger explosions. We can have an army of 20,o0o creatures on the screen [via CGI and other special effects]. But when you look at the set design for ‘My Fair Lady’ or the 10,000 extras in ‘Spartacus’ — they’re all real. And there’s nothing like that. While I do love digital film, there’s just something about a film shot in analog.”