Part 9 - The Making Of The Oscar-Winning 'My Fair Lady' (1963-1964)
George Groves receiving a Best Sound Oscar from Claudia Cardinale and Steve McQueen at the 1965 Academy Awards
In his oral history interviews, George devoted 78 minutes to the making of My Fair Lady (MFL), considerably more than any other picture. When the interviewer, Irene Kahn Atkins, first mentions MFL, George said:
My Fair Lady had been a big hit on Broadway and Warners paid a record $5.5 million for the film rights to Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical. Julie Andrews had played Eliza Doolittle on stage but the film role went instead to Audrey Hepburn. George felt that Jack Warner had reservations about Andrews as a dramatic actress.
Now you’re bringing up the love of my life. Of all the pictures that I’ve been associated with in any way, My Fair Lady was the greatest joy...it was a source of great enjoyment to me personally.
A Warners did not possess any 6 track recording or dubbing equipment, the pre-scoring was instead done at the Golden Studios in Hollywood. George commented how Rex Harrison did "a good job" and how Wilfred Hyde-White was "very, very funny...the whole pre-scoring operations sessions were very pleasant and went off very well”.
We were all full of anticipation as to how wonderful it was going to be to work on such a show …Mr. Warner after spending such a sum for the rights was prepared to go all out and make it one of the great classics of all time.
However, Rex Harrison suddenly dropped a bombshell. Despite completing the pre-scoring sessions, he surprised George by declaring his unwillingness to mime to a playback of his voice. He said every theatrical performance he'd given of Henry Higgins had been different and he didn't want to be an "automatic device mouthing in sync".
Rex Harrison in a scene from My Fair Lady as Henry Higgins on the balcony where his library was located
He remembered watching Sophia Loren on television conducting a guided tour around Rome using a radio microphone, which had worked quite successfully. However, radio mics were in their infancy and were not employed in large-scale productions as they were bulky, limited to a very low power transmission and suffered badly from interference:
George made test recordings of Rex Harrison on a scoring stage using radio microphones borrowed from a broadcast station to see whether it could be a practical solution and to determine how low orchestral playback could be. They realised that they would have to equalise the radio speech so it matched the standard microphone recordings. They also identified difficulties in disguising a bulky microphone under Rex’s clothing. George presented this problem to the wardrobe department and to Rex, because he was so enthused about the preliminary test that they'd made:
I’m sure that nobody had ever attempted or even thought of using radio microphones to do a big musical, particularly of the calibre of My Fair Lady. Because of the hazard that existed with radio microphones at that time of picking up extraneous material from radio sources outside the studio and picking up a lot of hash and background garbage that cluttered up the track. Not that the equipment didn’t deliver a good quality but you were subject to extraneous pick up all the time.
[Rex] thought it was the greatest invention, the greatest miracle that had ever happened...it gave him complete freedom of action. He was tremendously excited, tremendously enthused. He said "George, if there’s anything I can do, let me know and I will do anything you want to make this thing work."
Rex was very patient with the time involved in being dressed and in being sound-checked on the set. As George Groves put it, he thought "this is God’s gift to Rex Harrison". This profile still of Harrison (right), taken from the film, reveals the stockiness of his tie containing the microphone.
In this scene of My Fair Lady the radio microphone is concealed within Henry Higgins' scarf
Disguising the radio microphone for other scenes involved some creative thinking on George's part. When Henry Higgins returns to his home from the embassy ball where Eliza Doolittle makes her debut as a lady, he's wearing a dress suit and black cape with a white silk scarf around his neck. George Groves' oral history again:
At the end of the film Rex Harrison walks down the street to his house and sings I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face. This created a further difficulty for George due to the very low power of radio microphones at that time. George explained that they:
When he got into his house he threw off the cape but you’ll notice he never took off the white silk scarf until that number was over. The microphone was hidden in it. And that worked out again. They got a special white silk scarf that was a loosely woven material and we went to great pains to hide the microphone in that scarf. So he did that whole number live with a radio mic.
...had to keep the receiving antenna just out of the sidelines of the camera view and dolly it down with him to get the maximum pick up and the minimum of noise rather than putting the receiving antenna in some location at the end of the street and hoping to pick it up all the way down. It just wouldn't work.
Rex Harrison found singing 'I've Grown Accustomed to her Face' to be an emotional moment
Rex was absolutely delighted with the recording of I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face. He told George that the radio microphone allowed him to perform it much better than when he'd sung it on stage. Rex said he could "never in all of his life" have mimed to playback, as he was emotionally in the mood for a live rendition. According to one of Rex Harrison's biographers, Alexander Walker, the song held special memories for him. During the original Broadway run, Harrison used to sing it to his wife Kay Kendall, who would watch his performance from the wings. Harrison later said that when he sang the song in MFL he was thinking all the time about Kendall, who'd died from leukemia a few years earlier. George said that they were very lucky that they were able to record it in a single take:
We got a lovely break from God in that he kept all the extraneous radio signals under control.
Attention to detail with the sound in MFL extended to non-synchronous sounds. Director George Kukor asked George to: "Do what you can to get real sounds of the real thing". So for Henry Higgins' elocution recordings of Eliza, they took old phonograph machines - or as George dubbed them "wonderful old relics" - and recorded the sounds onto phonograph discs.
In order to get authentic sounds for the Covent Garden vegetable market scenes, George wrote letters to the BBC, Warners' studio in Elstree and EMI in London requesting recordings. Then the sound of Bow Bells and other background atmos was mixed in with the 'cloppety-clop' of horses' hooves and the dragging of carts to create a live atmosphere. It was important that the audience could suspend its disbelief that it was a studio set. "We went to a lot of trouble to get this stuff", said George.
Attention to detail was everywhere in the making of MFL. An electric tram conveyed the actresses to the studio stages to save their long dresses touching the studio streets. Audrey Hepburn extensively rehearsed her script with Cockneys to ensure that her dialect and inflections were authentic. Rex Harrison was very fussy about the material used in his costume and hat. George said:
Everybody was striving for ultimate perfection and striving for a flawless setting for everything concerned with My Fair Lady.
Rex Harrison presented George with a spirit measure in the shape of a thimble (pictured right) in appreciation of his efforts. The inscription around its perimeter reads:
'ONLY A THIMBLE FULL, GEORGE M.F.L. 1963 REX'
On April 5th 1965, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Warners Sound Department the Best Sound award for My Fair Lady. It was one of eight awards the picture scooped that evening.
A proud moment for George Groves - receiving his My Fair Lady Oscar from Claudia Cardinale and Steve McQueen
The ceremony was hosted by Bob Hope and held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. George accepted his Oscar from Claudia Cardinale and Steve McQueen with considerable pride:
I was very proud of it of course. The Oscar was presented by two very charming people, Claudia Cardinale and Steve McQueen. It was a very proud moment in my life. It’s the one I really treasure.