Intro

In looking at the pyramid of cast and crew pedigrees for George Cukor's 1964 My Fair Lady, the top is laden with Old World credentials:  source material by George Bernard Shaw, a leading lady born in northern Europe, a leading man who began his career on the London stage, and a nearly ceaseless cascade of top- and second-rung British thespians who could walk the West End blindfolded.

Nevertheless -- despite its European credentials -- My Fair Lady is as much a product of Southern California as Sherman Oaks or the Santa Ana Freeway.  According to the Internet Movie Data Base, My Fair Lady was shot at Warner Brothers' soundstages in Burbank.  And despite the intelligent craft and design that went into the production, a viewer can still read that this is an L.A. confection by the one ingredient that could not be fabricated:  the unknown performers who fill out the crowd scenes, AKA the movie extras.

In the fifty years from the day D. W. Griffith filmed the exterior Babylon scenes for Intolerance on a lot at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue (jokingly called the only day in motion picture history when every extra in Hollywood had work) to when My Fair Lady's regal ball scenes were shot in Burbank, that half-century of moviemaking produced two distinct generations of professional extras and full-time Los Angelenos.  Originally, hopefuls emigrated to Hollywood en masse in search of work in the film industry, allowing them the possibility of a vocation which they believed would give them The Good Life.  Those coming to Hollywood in its early days (and especially in the 1930s) were prompted by needs similar to the Dust Bowl refugees who headed West, but who were motivated by goals generally higher on Maslow's pyramid than those of the Joad family.  

Scan the body language and self-possession of the extras of a Depression-era costume drama such as 1935's Becky Sharp and one can see the level of earnest yearning in the average extra, and the lack of socio-economic privilege in the average American of that time.   Those who left the farms of the Midwest or the tenements of steel mill towns are valiantly trying to mix in as Central Casting peers and courtesans in plaster-facade ballrooms, attempting to pass themselves off to producers and audience as both believable characters and future movie stars.

My Fair Lady's extras were neither fresh off the farm nor migrant urban urchins.   Many were natives of Los Angeles, whose population exploded after World War II.  And by 1964, the California Zeitgeist was not so much informed by hoping and desiring for The Good Life, but by living The Good Life.  My Fair Lady was released in the mid-point of America's most affluent and mobile decade:  the binary opposite of the Great Depression.  The lifestyle signified by actress Sandra Dee -- tanned, breezy, relaxed, and outdoor-loving -- was in full development in the Southern California of 1964.

Comparison

Examine another popular medium of the time:  surf music.  While pop music had long held sway over listeners with songs of yearning for a lover, or planning a life around a lover, the music from Brian Wilson and the other Beach Boys was a celebration of what you have:  a world beyond desiring where the only goal is continued expansion of the senses.  The extras in My Fair Lady are not so focused on possible superstardom as on their established lifestyle.  Working as an extra and being a co-creator of Heightened Cinema was a measured task compared to the infinite pleasures of their leisure time.

In order to comprehend this, one must examine the socio-economic development occuring in the Southern California of the 1960s.   At that time, the sprawling suburbs were a social panacea and not a conceptual pejorative.  The hunger of the Great Depression had morphed into the Relaxed Sensuality of swimming pools, surfboards and sports cars.  For the day-workers on this film, being in an A-movie was definitely second-tier to their daily Southern California lifestyle.

In looking at it this way and by inspecting the homegrown extras in the crowd scenes, one can see that My Fair Lady was more about Sunset Strip than Edwardian London



- Doug Bonner, © 2008

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