In the mid-1950s Stanley Donen established himself as director of peerless, elegant and frothy entertainments; champagne cocktails, really, of sleek sophistication and very stylish panache. The trick and the wonderment of Stanley Donen’s movie career is, of course, that he was equally adept at telling stories outside the musical mélange as he was at extolling the very best qualities of this time-honored genre. Without question Funny Face (1957) is one of his best; an adroit poke and subtle jab at the smug, self-involved superiority of the fashion world, and, a sublimely wicked and extremely astute slap down of the beatnik generation. In a word, Funny Face is charming – the quintessence of class with the cultured Fred Astaire perfectly cast opposite the dreamily ethereal Audrey Hepburn.
Donen’s career stretched all the way back to the early 1940s when he was hired as a dancer/extra in Broadway’s Best Foot Forward. When MGM bought the rights to the play they imported Donen along with several other principle cast back to Culver City: 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 creative control. But Donen quickly proved he could hold his own without Kelly’s influences.
The fifties were a turbulent period for American film makers, particularly at MGM – the purveyor of grand and glorious musicals. Slowly, the studio had already begun to sink into the mire of frequent mismanagement at the executive level and the toppling of their iconic star system. Amid this chaos Donen became a freelancer. It was a tough sell at first, but Donen persevered; his forte in romantic comedies and musicals gradually acquiring more ballast; his leitmotifs dealing with more serious subject matter yet seemingly with equally effortless aplomb. Funny Face is unmistakably one of Donen’s most urbane offerings; its May/December romance between a naïve bookseller cum fashion plate and the cynically charismatic middle-aged photographer who discovers something alluring and magical in her ‘sunny, funny face’ touches upon the schematics of a deeper cultural divide.
The girl, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) wants something more out of life, mis-perceiving to have discovered it in the philosophical meanderings of a pseudo-intellectual living in Paris. The man, Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) has no illusions about this modern age or the importance of high style. He merely toils in the creative mire of both to support his highly comfortable living. In essence, the plot of Funny Face is nothing new. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy sings a song and gets girl. But Donen finds interesting ways of introducing socio-psychological paradigms into his seemingly straight forward narrative – the archetypes becoming less clear-cut and dry as the story progresses to its inevitable conclusion.
What makes Funny Face utterly fascinating entertainment is that we’re never entirely sure Dick and Jo have found true happiness together; not even as their floating palette sails down a narrow stream with the two on board moments before the final fade-to-black. They’ve found each other - this much is true enough. But are they destined to remain in each other’s arms? Jo’s sacrifices have matured her outlook on life. Yet her invested innocence has only slightly scuffed the surface of Dick’s generalized social disparagement. He’s still a craggy middle-aged guy, primal doubts and all. Are they a match or just a temporary quick fix destined to fizzle once the intoxicating allure of Paris has fizzled? Of course, none of it would work at all without the intervention of a third wheel; one that is never villainous, though often ruthless and demanding in her pursuit of perfection.
Stanley Donen’s one and only choice for the part of fashion maven Maggie Prescott was Kay Thompson; the impeccably groomed, wraith-thin, and angularly shaped trendsetter who had blazed a career crossing all popular media of her day, including successes on the stage, as well as starring in her own smash hit nightclub act. In the 1940s, Kay Thompson gave up the spotlight to toil increasingly behind the scenes as a musical collaborator at MGM, arranging scores and songs for other stars and achieving a uniquely lush – though never florid – sound that remains instantly recognizable to this day.
Donen, however, wanted Thompson ‘the performer’ to reemerge in Funny Face. 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 reedy frame 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 exoticism and 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 deviant caricature of the prim southern belle.
Ultimately, the success of Funny Face belongs just as much to Kay 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 wondrously teleported on a grand holiday through Parisian haute couture. And Funny Face is a wry tickle as well as a sardonic snub of the fashion world. Under Donen’s expertise and Leonard Gershe’s capably crafted screenplay Maggie Prescott’s exclusivity devolves from a haughty parade of wax mannequins into a surreal and impressionist exploitation of that superficially modish lifestyle. For 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 trivially sacred, elevating escapism to its most rarified art form.
Funny Face stars the amiable Fred Astaire as Dick Avery, a photographer working under the iconoclastic fashion goddess Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson, doing her magnificent lampoon) 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 the fashion world. 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 orange and yellow bonnet’s lime green fasteners vibrantly trailing like the whispy tails of a kite behind her. 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 or this grand experiment will be a trip to Paris where she could schmooze with her intellectual ideal: Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). Whisked off to Paris, Jo nevertheless defies Dick and Maggie’s edicts to be outwardly elegance, believing it will harm her inner empathicalism. Gradually, however, the allure of fancy clothes takes hold and Jo realizes that fashion does indeed serve a fundamental purpose beyond mere vanity. But more importantly, she has fallen in love with her mentor – Dick Avery.
Denying her own feelings, Jo escapes into Flostre’s Bohemian enclave, jeopardizing the Paris launch 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 comes to her senses. Still wearing the wedding gown off the runway, Jo is reunited with Dick at the little church where she first began to develop affections for him. The lovers embrace and step onto a raft that sails them beyond the shimmering arbors – destined to love – as lover’s do.
Both esthetically and musically, Funny Face achieves many high water marks. The film is an embarrassment of riches; Donen achieving a stunningly lush recreation of the city of light – more magical, fanciful and utterly appealing than even a boat trip down the Seine. Funny Face does not evoke the Paris that is or even was, but rather the one we all wish it could be – the architectural elements aside; the film extolling the virtues with none of the vices left to question. Arguably, Donen does Paris one better, perhaps nowhere more cleverly than in the moment when Audrey emerges from behind the famed statue of Winged Victory at the Louvre, her lurid red satin strapless gown and lithe chiffon wrap (also red) rising in the same gesture before the rigid marble statue, looking every bit the physical embodiment of it brought breathtakingly to life. Even when Donen descends from arch elegance into Über Bohemianism he cannot help himself; the Café Montmartre transformed into a smoky, seedy, and very sexy den of iniquity with Jo unleashing her inner tramp for a few quick stepping moments of ‘Basal Metabolism.’
As for the score, Audrey sings 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 is 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 chronically reoccurring inclement weather throughout the shoot), Funny Face emerges with 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!
There’s good news and there’s bad news for fans of Funny Face on Blu-ray. Paramount Home Video has given us a pluperfect hi-def rendering. Good news – it’s region free. Bad news – you’ll have to do an import from Amazon if you want this title. Good new – one simply could not have asked for anything more from this 1080p rendering. It’s dreamy – showing off Paramount’s patented ‘motion picture high fidelity’ VistaVision to exceptional advantage. Colors are bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on. Fine details pop. At times the image seems to acquire an impressive and unexpected depth and dimensionality. Everything is crisp and refined, the audio (remixed from original mono stems into DTS 5.1) still marginally lagging behind true stereophonic sound. VistaVision never supported six tracks of audio, but relied on the inferior PerspectaSound or flat mono instead.
Bad news – we get NONE of the lavishly appointed extras Paramount featured on their Centennial Edition DVD. The comprehensive package that once included Parisian Dreams, Paramount in the ‘50s and The Fashion Designer and His Muse, plus 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 have all been jettisoned from this European hi-def reissue. Despite these inexcusable excisions I’m still going to recommend Funny Face on Blu-ray because the transfer is bar none spectacular. The movie looks as ravishing as anything yet seen and Audrey is luminous with or without her fancy clothes. Bottom line: a must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)