My Fair Lady

There isn’t a spanking scene in My Fair Lady, the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical based on Bernard Shaw’s 1913 comedy Pygmalion. And there isn’t a spanking scene in that, either. So why does this series come to be running a feature on My Fair Lady? All will be revealed in due course…

The story is well known: a professor of linguistics, Henry Higgins, wagers that, with only six months’ training, he will be able to make the cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle pass for a lady fit to be presented before royalty; after an arduous and often frustrating course of education, he wins his bet and loses his heart to her.

Shaw wrote the part of Eliza for an actress he adored, Mrs Patrick Campbell.

Pygmalion Mrs Patrick Campbell

In the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, the fragrant Julie Andrews took the role.


And in the 1964 movie, Eliza was Audrey Hepburn,

My Fair Lady Audrey Hepburn

who had been threatened with a spanking by Cary Grant in Charade the year before.

And though there’s no spanking scene in either Pygmalion or My Fair Lady, there’s certainly what you might call a ‘spanking vibe’ around Eliza in the early scenes (which feature broadly identical dialog in both versions). When she comes to Professor Higgins asking to be trained in how to talk proper, like, he threatens to whack her with a broomstick, prompting the retort, ‘Anybody would think you was my father.’ ‘If I decide to teach you,’ retorts the Professor, ‘I’ll be worse than two fathers to you.’ And once he has accepted her as a pupil, he sets out the terms on which she is to participate in his educational experiment: luxury if she behaves well and works hard, but ‘If you are naughty and idle, you shall sleep in the back kitchen with the black beetles, and be walloped by Mrs Pearce with a broomstick.’ Mrs Pearce, the housekeeper, is tasked to clean her up – ‘and if she gives you any trouble, wallop her!’ ‘I won’t let nobody wallop me,’ insists Eliza. But in the next, memorable scene, screams and crying are heard coming from upstairs – not because Eliza is being spanked, more’s the pity, but because she objects to being bathed!

Eliza isn’t joking when she indicates that the Professor’s threat reminds her of her father. In a scene added to the musical, Alfred Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) makes his first appearance intending to cadge money from her, pointing out to his friends that, after all, she owes her very existence to him. ‘If that ain’t worth half a crown now and again,’ he says, ‘I’ll take my belt off and give her what for.’ It’s a development of a theme that’s already present in Shaw’s script, when Doolittle sells his parental rights in Eliza for five pounds and gives Professor Higgins a piece of parting advice: ‘If you want Eliza’s mind improved, do it yourself – with a strap.’ In the film he reinforces this by giving her a farewell smack on the bottom as he goes out.

My Fair Lady smack

And that, regrettably, is the closest the charming Audrey Hepburn gets to a spanking, because the Professor doesn’t take Doolittle’s advice!

But three years before the movie, in 1961, the Egyptian playwright Samir Khafagy made his own adaptation of Shaw’s play, also entitled My Fair Lady (or the Arabic equivalent) but otherwise completely unconnected with the musical. In this version, the character of Eliza becomes Sudfa, a street pickpocket who is taken in by Kamal, not a professor but a courtier who needs, under threat of forcible conversion into a eunuch, to find a sophisticated, sexy, feminine woman to present to the lecherous Viceroy of Egypt. So he decides to take the risky course of making that woman, using the rather unpromising raw material of the guttersnipe Sudfa. And unlike Professor Higgins, his teaching methods are, shall we say, ‘traditional’:

My Fair Lady

That’s the actress Shwikar and Fouad el-Mohandes rehearsing for the first production. (They later married in 1963.)

What’s remarkable about the play is that, in the course of the teaching scenes that are at its core, Kamal puts Sudfa across his knee and spanks her no fewer three times. Here are the three spankings in a televised version of the play: first, second, third.

And in between, Kamal also whacks her on the bottom and chases her with obvious punitive intentions, making the whole central sequence well worth watching in almost its entirety even if you don’t understand Arabic. But it’s worth stressing that ‘almost‘. As Sudfa’s lessons take effect, she grows in understanding and poise, becoming more of an equal to her teacher. And if your tastes are like mine, you might not want to bother watching for too long after the third spanking…

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