In the mid-1950s Stanley Donen established himself as director of peerlessly elegant and frothy entertainments. Donen’s career stretched all the way back to being hired as a dancing extra in Broadway’s Best Foot Forward. When MGM bought the rights to that play they imported Donen along with several other principle cast. Broadway’s loss/Hollywood’s gain. For in the intervening decades, Donen would make a friend of MGM premiere musical/comedy star, Gene Kelly and remain the creative genius behind the camera on many of Kelly’s best loved musicals, including Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather. This union was to eventually have its falling out over differences of control by the mid-1950s, with Donen proving he could hold his own without Kelly’s influences.
But in the mid-1950s MGM – the leading purveyor of musicals – had begun to sink into the mire of frequent mismanagement at the executive level and the toppling of their iconic star system. Donen left to become a freelancer and quickly established his forte for romantic comedies and musicals elsewhere with a leitmotif for more serious subject matter told with effortless aplomb and much sought after in Hollywood. One of his most sophisticated offerings is undeniably, Funny Face (1957); a grand holiday abroad with two of the biggest stars to ever grace the screen on board: Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. On this outing Donen also brought Kay Thompson into the spotlight. Thompson’s career included successes on the stage, as well as helming her own hit nightclub act. But in the 1940s she toiled increasingly behind the scenes as a musical collaborator at MGM, arranging scores and songs for other stars to achieve that lush – though never florid – sound that many today regard as instantly recognizable.
Donen, however, wanted Thompson ‘the performer’ to emerge. Thompson, a superb raconteur and appetizingly glib bon vivant really comes into her own in Funny Face, and in reviewing the film today one is immediately stricken by a genuine sense of regret that she never appeared in the movies again. With a visage reminiscent of Eve Arden – and a personality and wit to match – her writhe body miraculous in all its pert gesticulations as she joins Astaire and Hepburn during their travelogue of the city, ‘Bonjour Paris’, Thompson exudes all of the enthusiasm of an intercontinental adventuress out on a lark and a spree. Who can forget Thompson’s ‘pizzazz’ as she wickedly extols the life of a fashion editor with ‘Think Pink’; the celebratory lampoon of high style that kicks off the show? Thompson is also exceptionally brilliant in her duet with Astaire, ‘Clap Yo Hands’ – her inimitable gift for mimicry yielding a deliciously rich caricature of the southern belle.
Ultimately, the success of Funny Face belongs just as much to Thompson as it does her two co-stars; the ebullient and ever dapper Fred Astaire and translucently glamorous gamin Audrey Hepburn. To voyage with these three into the uber chic byways and street cafes of Paris is to be magically teleported on a grand holiday through Parisian haute couture. And Donen’s direction makes Funny Face so much more than mere sumptuous entertainment. It is a wry musical comedy taking a deadly sly poke at the fashionista guru. Under Donen’s expertise and Leonard Gershe’s capably crafted screenplay the exclusivity of haute couture evolves from haughty parade into a surreal exploitation of that impressionist and elegant lifestyle. This is a world created by human hands and ego, and, about as far removed from the one we find ourselves a part of at the beginning of our story. But that is precisely why Funny Face succeeds; because it parallels the mundane with the superficially sacred, and elevates the escapism to a most rarified art form.
Funny Face stars the amiable Fred Astaire as Dick Avery, a photographer working under the iconoclastic goddess-like renaissance of Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson, doing her magnificent lampoon of Helen Gurley Brown) as the publisher of ‘Quality’ Magazine. Seems ‘Quality’ is in a quandary. They need a fresh new face to launch their spring and summer campaign. But where, oh where to find that new look of inner intellectualism in a sea of cloned bubble-headed imitations? Well, to Greenwich Village of course, and a beatnik bookstore overseen by Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn). Jo knows as much about fashion as she does of brain surgery. Moreover, she thinks that ‘style’ is silly, self-indulgent and petite bourgeois, not to mention ridiculous. Dick and Maggie descend on her drab book emporium with a slew of photographers and Marion (Dovima) an utterly hapless super model who leers and leans as though she were about to make love to the stacks rather than expand her mind by reading their contents. The shoot goes well, particularly after Maggie locks Jo – who has begun to protest their interference - out of her own store. But Maggie still doesn’t feel that they’ve captured the ‘new look’ of the Quality woman.
Afterward Dick decides to stay behind and help clean up the atrocious mess they’ve made from the shop. He empathizes with Jo, but she is rather direct in her admonishment of his involvement in creating the mess. However, after Dick leaves Jo becomes perplexed by her reaction to a hat left behind by Marion, placing it atop her own head and staring at her image in a nearby mirror. She muses, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ – streaking through the shop with the hat’s lime green fasteners vibrantly trailing like the tail of a kite. The next day, Maggie views Dick’s pictures with displeasure. Not even a room full of books could makeover Marion into an intellectual.
But Dick discovers what Maggie seems to have overlooked; that the new ‘Quality’ woman right under their noses – Jo! Maggie admits that Jo has possibilities. But the girl is stubborn to a fault and completely resistant to the prospect of transforming herself into a supermodel – that is, until she learns that one of the perks is a trip to Paris where she could schmooze with her intellectual ideal: Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). Whisked off to Paris, Jo at first defies Dick and Maggie’s edicts for outward elegance, believing it will harm her inward socialism. Gradually, however, the allure of the fashion world works its sublime magic on Jo. She realizes that fashion does indeed serve a fundamental purpose – beyond mere vanity - but more importantly, recognizes she has fallen in love with her mentor – Dick Avery.
Denying her own feelings, Jo escapes into Flostre’s Bohemian enclave, jeopardizing the French debut of ‘the Quality woman’, only to discover that Flostre is a fraud; a rank capitalist who has exploited his intellectual theories for pure profit. Disillusioned and emotionally wounded, Jo opens fashion week in Paris, then makes a B-line for the airport to return to America. But at the last moment she cannot deny her feelings any longer. Still wearing the wedding gown after her hasty departure off the runway, Jo is reunited with Dick at the little church where she first began to develop her affections toward him. The lovers embrace and step onto a raft that sails them beyond the shimmering arbors – destined to love – as lover’s do.
Musically, Funny Face achieves many high water marks with Audrey singing in her own voice the poignant, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On.’ Astaire taps the exuberant ‘Let’s Kiss and Make Up.’ Astaire and Audrey do an elegant pas deux to Gershwin’s immortal, ‘S’Wonderful’ and the entire cast gets into the act with ‘Bonjour Paris!’ Arguably, the song which lingers the longest in our collective memory remains Kay Thompson’s acidic and comical ‘Think Pink’ – an ode to fashion for fashion’s sake. As Thompson croons – “Red is dead. Blue is through. Green’s obscene. Brown’s to boo…and there is not the slightest excuse for plum or puce…or chartreuse.”
Immeasurably aided by Paramount’s patented high fidelity widescreen process, VistaVision, and the sumptuous backdrop of Paris at its most photogenic (despite reoccurring inclement weather throughout the shoot), Funny Face emerges with a genuine sparkle and heart; an ultra-gorgeous musical with much to appreciate and admire throughout. ‘On how to be lovely’, Funny Face rates a perfect ten!
So why hasn’t Funny Face made it to Blu-ray yet?!? Paramount’s DVD re-issue is adequate. But the magnificently restored 50th Anniversary transfer deserves to be seen in hi-def. Instead, we get this same transfer repackaged as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection. One sincerely hopes that with Warner’s acquisition of the Paramount catalogue that we will see Funny Face in 1080p sooner rather than later. The DVD’s anamorphic enhanced VistaVision image positively glows from corner to corner. Colors are bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on. Fine details are evident throughout and age related artifacts are practically non-existent. The audio has been re-purposed to 5.1 and is surprisingly crisp, though occasionally strident. The film’s original mono mix is also included for purists.
Extras have been fleshed out on the Centennial Edition. All of the featurettes from the 50th Anniversary disc have been imported herein. These include Parisian Dreams, Paramount in the ‘50s and The Fashion Designer and His Muse. To these are added a fascinating, if brief, retrospective on Kay Thompson’s life, a featurette on the art and craft of fashion photographers, and finally, a very brief retrospective on Paramount’s VistaVision process with limited clips. In absence of a Blu-ray this DVD comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)