FUNNY FACE - DVD review

I didn't appreciate every song-and-dance sequence, yet I could hardly keep my eyes off the screen for all the showy merriment going on.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

In 1957 Fred Astaire was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and had been for decades. In 1957 Audrey Hepburn was one of Hollywood's favorite rising young stars. In 1957 Stanley Donen was among Hollywood's elite directors of classy entertainment. In 1957 the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin had been around and loved forever. In 1957 the city of Paris was still in most people's eyes the romantic capital of the world. And in 1957 the musical comedy remained one of the moviedom's most popular genres. Is it any wonder, then, that the combination of Astaire, Hepburn, Donen, the Gershwins, and Paris achieved success in the musical comedy "Funny Face"?

In this modern Cinderella story, Astaire plays the Prince, a high-fashion magazine photographer, and Hepburn plays the poor stepsister, a clerk in a New York bookstore. Screenwriter Leonard Gershe patterned the story on his friend, the famous real-life fashion photographer Richard Avedon, and Avedon's romance with fashion model Dorcas Nowell. Avedon acted as a consultant on the film, set up the photography sessions, and supplied many of the photographs we see in the story. One assumes the real Cinderella performed similar duties in respect to Ms. Hepburn, although the credits do not mention it.

The plot involves Maggie Prescott (played by nightclub entertainer, singer, dancer, pianist, and author Kay Thompson, a bigger-than-life Auntie Mame type), the editor of "Quality," a New York-based woman's fashion magazine, wanting to find a new "Quality" girl to represent them. During a routine photography shoot in a Greenwich Village bookstore, the photographer, Dick Avery (Fred Astaire), notices a mousey clerk, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), in the background shots and declares her the very "Quality" girl they've been looking for. She just needs a bit of a makeover, he says, and she could be a top model in the business.

Jo, an intellectual type with "character and spirit," wants no part of being in the fashion business until she learns there's a free ticket to Paris involved, where she will model some of the new line of clothing from a celebrated fashion designer, Paul Duval (Robert Flemyng). She doesn't care a whit about fashionable clothing, but she does want to meet her idol, French philosopher Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), and she sees the trip as her only chance to do so. Anyway, as we might expect, the makeover turns the dowdy Jo into a glamorous, sophisticated-looking woman of the world with "grace, elegance, and pizzazz." However, I thought she looked better as the plain-Jane bookstore clerk with the "funny face." Maybe it's just me.

"You don't have to be friendly to work together," says Jo to Dick. "Acquainted will do." But they become more than "acquainted." The movie's romance involves her and Dick falling in love. Never mind that Astaire by this time was in his late fifties and Hepburn still in her twenties. It's a long-established tradition in Hollywood for older men to romance younger, in some cases much younger, women. Besides, Hepburn probably has the longest history in motion pictures of romancing older men; consider her movies with Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Rex Harrison, besides Astaire. It's to the film's credit and to the actors and to the audience's suspension of disbelief that the romance angle works just fine.

There's also as much a "My Fair Lady" quality to the story as there is "Cinderella," with Jo's makeover foreshadowing Hepburn's character change from flower girl to cultured lady as Eliza Doolittle a few years later. In any case, Hepburn is here as naively appealing as ever, and Astaire is as elegant and graceful. Now, is it only me, or does anyone else think that Astaire was a dead ringer for Stan Laurel? Or was it vice-versa?

The sets, costumes, and scenery involve some truly eye-popping colors and some glorious location shots in and around Paris. I have to admit that I didn't care as much for the love story, though, and I didn't appreciate every song-and-dance sequence, yet the movie is so colorful and Edith Head's costume designs so attractive, I could hardly keep my eyes off the screen for all the showy merriment going on.

The musical portions of the movie include dance numbers choreographed by Fred Astaire and Eugene Loring, plus the songs "How Long Has This Been Going On?," "Funny Face," "Bonjour, Paris!," "He Love and She Loves," "On How to be Lovely," "Basal Metabolism," "Clap Yo' Hands," "Let's Kiss and Make Up," and "'S Wonderful." Along with the scenery, they are the film's primary attractions. If you don't care for music or dance, this probably isn't the movie for you.

What's more, the Academy nominated the film for four Oscars: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Writing. "Funny Face" is as cute, sweet, humorous, romantic, and colorful as they come. But you knew this. How could a movie directed by Stanley Donen ("On the Town," "Singin' in the Rain," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Kismet," "Damn Yankees," "Charade") be anything less?

Video:
The Paramount video engineers provide a high-bit-rate, anamorphic widescreen transfer for the 1.85:1 VistaVision production. The Technicolor comes up well, very bright (maybe too bright for real life but just right for musical comedy) and rich. Contrasts are strong, black levels are deep, and detailing is excellent. Moreover, the screen is remarkably clean, free of almost all age marks, with only a natural film grain to remind one of its photographic origins. About the only minor distraction is that if you inspect the picture too closely, you'll see that the engineers applied a little too much edge enhancement to achieve their desired effect, with obvious haloing around many of the images. However, from a normal viewing distance (no matter what size your screen), one cannot really notice the issue much.

Audio:
The disc includes the film's original monaural soundtrack and a newer Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. The 5.1 displays a good front-channel stereo spread, but it's also rather forward and edgy, occasionally even nasal. There is very limited surround activity except for a touch--a very small touch--of musical ambience bloom, and both the frequency response and the dynamic range sound restricted. So, while the video quality looks as good as almost anything made today (EE excepted), the audio shows its years compared to today's state-of-the-art sonics.

Extras:
Disc one of this two-disc Centennial Collection edition contains the feature film, along with nineteen scene selections and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.

Disc two contains a number of peripheral items relating to the movie. First up is "Kay Thompson: Think Pink," a twenty-six-minute biography of the entertainer who co-stars in the film. Next is "This Is VistaVision," twenty-four minutes on Paramount's widescreen process. After that is "Fashion Photographers Exposed," eighteen minutes on the photographer's art; then "The Fashion Designer and His Muse," eight minutes on the working relationship between Audrey Hepburn and designer Hubert de Givenchy; followed by "Parisian Dreams," seven minutes on the myth of Paris as the romance capital of the world; and "Paramount in the '50s," nine minutes on the studio's movies of the decade. Things finish up with an original widescreen theatrical trailer and galleries of production, movie, and publicity stills.

Because this is a prestige Centennial Collection release, Paramount also provide an illustrated booklet insert and a stunningly beautiful slipcover for the double slim-line keep case.

Parting Thoughts:
"Funny Face" may not be the most sparkling, the most original, or the most romantic of Hollywood musical comedies, but it's close enough to remain reasonably effervescent after all these years, and it's hard to resist Hepburn and Astaire in the leads or Gershwin's music playing second fiddle. Still fun stuff.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
6
Extras
7
Film Value
7