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Restoration of "My Fair Lady"

This article first appeared in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: 20th Century Fox's press release about the restoration. Issue 38 - April 1995
1994 "My Fair Lady" has undergone a miraculous transformation from tatters to splendour. Found disintegrating in a quake-ravaged vault in the Northridge Fault Zone (Los Angeles, California), the original camera negative was taken under the wing of Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, two film producers who have made a second career of preserving cinema's pinnacle achievements with such acclaimed restorations as "Spartacus" and "Lawrence of Arabia".

Lovingly, painstakingly, the team worked to smooth "My Fair Lady" rough spots, restore her beauty and melody, and prepare the once torn and faded film elements for its debut to a new generation of film lovers, both in a theatrical release from 20th Century Fox and in a special home video edition from CBS Enterprises. Although she is thirty years older, the great lady of American musical comedy is now more loverly than ever. In their efforts to rescue "My Fair Lady" from the brink of destruction, Harris and Katz also discovered related treasures nearly lost to time, including rare behind-the-scenes footage and the controversial and long-sought-after original soundtracks sung by Audrey Hepburn before she was dubbed by Marni Nixon. This material will become available to the public for the first time as part of the restoration celebration. "People who have seen the film have never seen it like this," said Jim Katz. "And those who have never seen it will be blown away by the performances, the music, the kind of production value that could never be done today. It is "My Fair Lady" the way it should be seen in 1964".

Yet, a mere thirty years later what those tremendous artists had worked so hard to capture was very nearly lost. Although there is a feeling that once something is filmed it remain forever, it is sadly not the case. Images are fragile, their colors and tones easily washed away, and celluloid grown brittle and old. In fact almost 50% of all films ever made have been lost to the ravages of time. "It is an outrageous thing that an industry that is only 100 years old should already have lost so much," says Jim Katz. "Fortunately, things are better today. But the conditions of prints just twenty years old can be abysmal".

To recover lost film, you don't call in a detective or an archaeologist but someone very akin to both -- you call in film preservation and restoration experts such as Harris and Katz, two producers who have taken a special interest in preserving state-of-the-art films from Hollywood's lavish era of large-format features. "It's a lot harder to fix a film than it is to make one," admits Katz who has produced such contemporary features as "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills" and "Nobody's Fool". "You have to go into it not believing anything, because whatever you find is going to just be the beginning of your problems". "What we do is part digging through history, part film production, part science mixed in with a whole lot of bull doggedness", adds Bob Harris, who is one of a handful of people in the world with the skills to extract the buried treasures that can lie beneath decades of dirt smudges, tears and neglect. Currently, he is the world's foremost expert on fully restoring large format films, including those shot in Super Panavision 70, a skill he particularly relishes. "Very few kids have seen wide format film but when they see the brilliant image of a 70mm print on a 70 foot screen they walk out of the theatre stunned. It's whole new experience", he says. "This was the last great large-format musical of its time. There was nothing like it afterwards, and probably will be nothing like it again".

Once they began on the project, Katz and Harris spent weeks rounding up every surviving element of the film -- from daily continuity reports to the various existing prints -- and found themselves crow-barring open vaults whose contents had been upturned by the recent quake. Most of the material was held by CBS to whom the rights reverted in 1971 (CBS originally financed the Broadway play in order to produce the soundtrack album). Unfortunately, much of the original material -- including original soundtrack elements, main title elements, trims and outs and B negatives -- had been thrown away. "All we had at this point was a negative held together by tape and spit, and the real work was about to begin". says Bob Harris. "It was up to us to figure out how to put it back together the way it was meant to be".

The restoration itself took eight months of intensive research, digital manipulation, sound re-recording and splicing negatives. It was as if Harris and Katz had to take the negative through the entire post-production process again -- only this time with the technology of the 90s at their disposal. "The industry is more sophisticated today and so are filmgoers. There is a lot that can be done to make a 30 year-old film look even better today than the the day it premiered", says Katz. "For example, "My Fair Lady" is the first production to take advantage of digital technology". The main titles sequences were marred by huge nicks and scratches including a black hole under Jack Warner's so big, according to Harris, "you could drive a Buick through it". Once considered unfixable, these flaws were digitally "erased" in the computerlined studios of Cinesite, where digital artists turn film into malleable digital information and then back again. By using digital information, Katz and Harris could literally remove and replace individual pixels, until the hole were patched without so much as a trace that they were ever there.

Many sequences in the negative suffered from multiple frame tears. In some cases, they were able to go back to the black and white separations to produce new dupe negative. When that was not possible, they resorted to digital restoration -- and extraordinary expensive process that was used only for the most horrific problems, such as the light spot that bounced around Audrey Hepburn's otherwise perfect face through parts of the film.

Even as Katz and Harris worked to fix the film, it continued to disintegrate. The negative was so fragile that during the first attempts to reprint it, it continued to tear and break. Sometimes, the only plausible option was to tape the torn negative by hand. In each case, it was a matter of deciding what would be best for the film. "Everything can't be perfect and not all problems can 100% fixed", Harris admits. "There is no magic machine we can run the film through to make it all right. In some cases, you have to decide what would be the leat objectionable thing".

The team faced an equal challenge restoring the film's sound to the aural brilliance and clarity so necessary to its full enjoyment. In 1964 it was announced that "My Fair Lady" would utilize the most sophisticated sound recording system ever used for a motion picture -- state of the art six track recording. Harris and Katz wanted to use today's state of the art -- digital sound and Dolby Stereo -- to heighten the immediacy of the Lerner and Loewe score even more. But as they prepared to re-record the picture's soundtrack, it became apparent that the original vocal and music tracks had not survived. The only sound available was a six track composite print master and a three track foreign version of music and effects.

Most of the voices could be fixed, but today's sophisticated sound reproduction equipment picks up even subtle background noises yesteryears playback equipment never revealed -- meaning Harris and Katz found themselves listening to flies buzzing around on Cukor's set! Other problems also arose with the sound, some of them having to do with the productions colorful history. In 1964 it was reported that Rex Harrison refused to lip-synch his musical numbers like all the other actors and insisted singing "live", performing each song in a single live take while wearing one of the very first wireless microphones (which incidentally can be seen as a bulge underneath Harrison's tie throughout the film). The unusual request may have forged a performance of sublime spontaneity and presence, but it also caused major headaches for the restoration. Due to the difference in technology, Harrison's "live" songs have a harsh and brittle sound, not the lush, warm sound he would have had if he recorded them on today's equipment. And the mic, though sophisticated for its time, ended up registering such very un-Shavian sounds as police radio broadcasts and taxicab calls. Still, the restoration team was cautious to use sophisticated new sound technology only to preserve and not to add any newfangled effects. "Obviously we were working with Academy Award winning sound so we didn't want to get too gimmicky", says Katz. "Our aim was to reflect the intention of the filmmakers to the best of our technological ability". One of the most obvious examples of how new technology was put to work to enhance the original spirit of "My Fair Lady" can be heard in the scene in which the horses fly by the grandstand in Ascot Park. Here the restoration utilized state-of-the-art surround sound so that the sound moves with the horses, from right to left, fading as they disappear. For the first time, the audience can sense the full presence and power of the horses as they furiously round the bend, something Katz and Harris feel certain the filmmakers would have done if they could have in 1964.

Knowing what the original filmmakers would and would not have done is all part of the process of properly restoring a beloved film. This is where the detective work comes in -- the team not only dug through vaults and inspected mysterious unmarked film cans but built an entire dossier on the production and all its participants in order to understand everything they did. They even tried to track down the costumes and sets -- discovering among other things, that there have been more unconfirmed sightings of Audrey's Ascot Park dress around the world than Elvis sightings and that her famous ball gown is gone forever, accidentally thrown into a dumpster when it was shipped to a benefit in a Ralph's Grocery bag! "We end up knowing more about the production than the people who were there, because we are seeing everything, all the memos and audio tapes and correspondence, and we have the advantage of hindsight", explains Harris. "We find out what the problems were. In many cases we found that the truth doesn't necessarily jibe with people's memories".

One of their truly astonishing finds are the original soundtracks sung by Audrey Hepburn. Although it was widely reported in 1964 that another singer was going to "help" Audrey with some of the higher notes, she was excited about doing her own singing and trained vigorously with a voice coach. Only later was it revealed that the vast majority of the songs were sung entirely by Marni Nixon. Harris and Katz now believe that Cucor may have encouraged the belief that most of the singing would be Hepburn's own in order to keep her spirits for her performance as the unsinkable Eliza Doolittle. They spent several months recording her singing the songs, yet all along were planning on using Marni Nixon. "She has a sweet voice but it's definitely not operatic" says Katz. "It was good enough for a song like "Just you wait Henry Higgins" but many of the songs were just out of her register. We can't say for sure what the filmmakers were thinking, but everything points to the fact that she didn't know she wasn't going to sing the songs. A similar thing happened to Jeremy Brett, who did not find out until after the movie opened that his songs were dubbed by a singer named Bill Shirley". In the end Audrey Hepburn sings only one complete song, "Just you wait", and bits and pieces, including some intros, on the actual soundtrack -- yet she publicly accepted the fact with the grace and warmth for which she remains idolized today.

"The reconstruction is an homage not just to the film but to Audrey Hepburn", says Katz. "During the reconstruction, we were very moved to learn of the birth of Audrey's grand-daughter. It really choked us up to know that our work was going to enable her to see her grandmother's performance the way it should be seen. That's what real restoration is all about".

Katz and Harris hope the restoration will allow all kinds of people to discover Audrey Hepburn's and Rex Harrison's wondrous performance in their new pristine condition. "Even I didn't really know the film that well when we started, but I've come to love it", says Harris. "It's just a really great movie, a movie that's more and more fun the more you see it. It's a great discovery not just for film buffs and for people who haven't seen it in decades but for young people who have never seen it before". Katz adds: "I think a lot of people will find they know the songs, even my kids know the songs, but they don't know they're from "My Fair Lady". They know Audrey Hepburn but they haven't seen her on the big screen. And the great thing is, now "My Fair Lady" can be shown into perpetuity the way she was always meant to look and sound".

Further in 70mm reading:

Note from Robet Harris and James Katz

"My Fair Lady" restoration credits

and a comment

The Reconstruction and Restoration of John Wayne's "The Alamo"

Restoration of "Spartacus"

Restoration of "Lawrence of Arabia"

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