Lately I have been reflecting upon my past. What intrigues me is the intensity which derives from inconsequential events of my life. It has required patience for these trifling details to percolate. Last evening as I stumbled upon a rerun of an old movie, I began to assemble a collection of evocative memories which spring from three movies all from the same period in my life.
I first saw the movie production of “My Fair Lady” (Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and Stanley Holloway) in 1967. I remember the year because I had just graduated from high school and I was in Paris, France for the summer with a boarding school friend. Furthermore the woman with whom we saw the film was the mistress of my friend’s uncle with whom we were staying. The sight of this obviously “kept woman” with us in our school blazers and grey flannels raised a few eyebrows I know. What however I discovered last night when I saw a rerun of the movie on Turner Movie Classics was that the most memorable feature of the movie was not the circumstances in which I saw it but the movie itself. I can’t recall the name of the mistress or what she looked like (though I recollect she was very kind). On the other hand I remember almost all the lyrics of the songs in the movie. The movie was obviously such a universal hit that my classmates and I used to perform renditions of the songs. Seeing the movie again reminded me of the thrust of the songs. For example, “I’m an Ordinary Man” (which could well have been entitled “I’ll Never Let a Woman in my Life”):
BUT, Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through,
she’ll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome,
and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you…
My Fair Lady – I’m An Ordinary Man Lyrics | MetroLyrics
This was punctuated by the equally mocking (though containing more than a dribble of tell-tale truth), “A Hymn to Him”:
Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that!
Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating,
vacillating, calculating, agitating,
Maddening and infuriating hags!
Pickering, why can’t a woman be more like a man?
Pickering: I beg your pardon?
Why can’t a woman be more like a man?
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
Eternally noble, historically fair;
Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat.
Why can’t a woman be like that?
My Fair Lady – A Hymn To Him Lyrics | MetroLyrics
All this would have been tolerably amusing except for the last line of the movie when Miss Eliza Doolittle is reconciled to Professor Henry Higgins, and he (slumped in his study chair) calls for his slippers!
Higgins: Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?
One summary analysis of “My Fair Lady” is this:
A misogynistic and snobbish phonetics professor agrees to a wager that he can take a flower girl and make her presentable in high society.
While that encapsulation is correct it does however gloss over the many other slurs upon women in general. Couched as they are in glib terms, the insinuations against women may be taken with a laugh but they are certainly at the expense of women. More significantly the entire movie supports a male dominated culture in which intellectualism is marketed as the exclusive domain of men and one which legitimizes the sneering condescension of men to women whose preoccupations are considered trivial:
Let them buy their wedding bands for those anxious little hands…
I’d be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling
than to ever let a woman in my life
My Fair Lady – I’m An Ordinary Man Lyrics | MetroLyrics
Pointedly it is only his mother who is entitled to talk down to Professor Higgins, certifying him as gay or Italian.
A much different take on this thesis appeared in “The Pink Panther” starring Peter Sellers and David Niven. Coincidentally this production appeared in 1963, one year before “My Fair Lady”. The music – this time by Henry Mancini – was once again of paramount importance. The movie was originally intended to focus on David Niven’s role as Sir Charles Litton, the infamous jewel thief nicknamed “the Phantom” and his plan to steal the Pink Panther diamond. It was however Peter Sellers, the actor portraying Inspector Jacques Clouseau, a buffoon with an incredible knack for survival, who stole the show. Both leading male actors presented two different views of male suavity. Both obviously fashioned themselves “a lady’s man” but the laugh this time was certainly at the expense of Inspector Clouseau (who nonetheless ended having the last laugh).
Apart from the theme song, what I recall most vividly about “The Pink Panther” is the settings of the action which included glamorous homes, fashionable ski chalets, chic restaurants and fast cars. There was something decidedly synthetic and saccharin about the sets, always perfect and untainted by reality. Additionally the sight of men wearing capes for an evening out set a precedent hitherto unknown. Paradoxically it was Clouseau alone who maintained a foot on the ground.
Another 1964 movie of renown is “Goldfinger” starring Sean Connery as James Bond. Goldfinger was the first Bond blockbuster, with a budget equal to that of the two preceding films combined (“Dr. No” and “From Russia with Love”). The music once again was one of the most compelling features of the film, spotlighting Shirley Bassey singing the theme song:
The musical tracks, in keeping with the film’s theme of gold and metal, make heavy use of brass, and also metallic chimes. The film’s score is described as “brassy and raunchy” with “a sassy sexiness to it”.
Goldfinger is said to have started the tradition of Bond theme songs being from the pop genre or using popular artists, although this had already been done with Matt Monro singing the title song of From Russia with Love. Shirley Bassey sang the theme song “Goldfinger”, and she would go on to sing the theme songs for two other Bond films, Diamonds are Forever and Moonraker. The song was composed by John Barry, with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse that were described in one contemporary newspaper as “puerile”.
Of the three movies, “My Fair Lady”, “The Pink Panther” and “Goldfinger”, James Bond’s character presented the least consumable picture of virility because his antics were so utterly preposterous. The music on the other hand transported me. It is even possible that the enigmatic character of the music did more to capture the personality of Gert Fröbe as the title character Auric Goldfinger, certainly not because of his physical appeal but rather for his command of the material world. All three movies were plainly not grounded in reality. They each presented a sumptuous and ornate material world. They depicted a world of high society, mischievous cunning and limitless money. I don’t for a minute pretend that any one of these movies taught me anything in the nature of a lesson (other perhaps than the literary theme of “My Fair Lady”) and they certainly didn’t provide a standard of male conduct which to emulate. The music of each was however unforgettable!