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Fred Astaire's last few films deal with an issue that would be a problem for most any other actor. Astaire never lost his energy or his dancing skills, but he was bothered by the question of age and had decided on retirement before coming back for 1948's Easter Parade. His dancing partners became increasingly younger. 1955's Daddy Longlegs can't disguise the disparity in age between Astaire and the 24 year-old Leslie Caron; he's more than twice her age. The Technicolor & VistaVision Funny Face matches Astaire with Paramount's box office sensation Audrey Hepburn, who gets top billing. Hepburn is 28 and Astaire 58.
The movie is centered firmly on the top-billed Hepburn, that charming beauty with a killer smile and a feminine appeal that runs counter to fifties' trends. Young women liked Marilyn Monroe but wanted to be Audrey Hepburn, an intelligent free spirit, vulnerable but strong. Hepburn acquits herself quite well in her first musical. Her 'beatnik' dance is a standout. She uses her own singing voice, something she couldn't do seven years later in My Fair Lady.
The title comes from a Broadway show Astaire had starred in over thirty years before with his sister Adele. Stanley Donen gives the film a high polish, aided by Hollywood's finest technical resources, fashions by Givenchy and music from the George Gershwin songbook. But the script has faults that undermine the film's overall appeal.
Funny Face begins as a tame spoof of the fashion world. The arbitrary whims of Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), the overbearing editor of Quality magazine, tell the world's women what to wear. Needing a model to embody the magazine's new look, Maggie accepts a candidate found in a Greenwich Village bookstore by fashion photographer Dick Avery (Astaire). Jo Stockton (Hepburn) exudes an intelligence and sophistication lacking in Quality's usual clothes horses. She accepts Maggie's job only after learning that it includes a trip to Paris, where she can meet her intellectual hero, philosopher Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), the father of "empathicalism".
Love blooms between Dick and Jo in Paris, conveyed via a glorious VistaVision super-travelogue of the city's familiar post-card settings. Distracted by the handsome Dr. Flostre, Jo can't be found when the premiere night comes for Quality's new "look". Dick and Maggie must penetrate the hipster society to bring her back for her debut.
Funny Face moves quickly between amusing musical numbers. Kay Thomson opens up the show with an elaborate piece called "Think Pink", and sings "On How to Be Lovely" with Hepburn. The most recognizable Gershwin tune is "S Wonderful". Director Donen applies plenty of cinematic gimmicks -- split screens, color effects -- while demonstrating that it's nigh impossible to take a bad picture of Ms. Hepburn. Every face she makes is a keeper; her biggest smile is almost too much for the camera.
Cinematographer Ray June and director Donen are particularly successful in scenes where Astaire pretends to photograph Hepburn in locations across Paris. The centerpiece montage contains at least six major setups with Hepburn in a variety of Givenchy fashions. At the perfect instant the image freezes, and several of the freeze frames do indeed look better than classy magazine layouts. Jo Stockton takes naturally to the presumed joy of modeling. In the film's signature moment she glides down a staircase holding up scarlet wings, telling Dick Avery to shoot, shoot, shoot. Other tasteful setups take us on a Seine barge and to a railroad station. A line of tiny schoolgirls reminds us of the storybook Madeleine. One recreation features Jo in a white dress holding a dove, a classic composition that will remind today's film fans of Edith Scob in Les yeux sans visage!
Funny Face is meant to be a carefree bubble of jokes and music, and on those terms there's little to complain about. But the Jo Stockton character is more than a little inconsistent. Jo's intelligent personality vanishes as soon as she hits Paris, and transforms into yet another silly innocent in need of guidance from the leading man. Dick Avery is a nice guy but his attitudes date badly. He states openly that he's not interested in Jo's intellect, as if the girl would do better to get rid of it.
We're accustomed to seeing European capitols used as backdrops in American movies, with "quaint" locals staying out of the way. Funny Face rather ignorantly tries to satirize postwar French intellectuals. Philosophy is difficult to understand and therefore must not be a phony racket. The confident Dick Avery points out that Jo's confab with three Frenchmen is a sham -- they're moochers who want her free drinks. The Emphaticalist guru is a sleazebag who uses his lectures to seduce foolish young American virgins. To show Jo the error of her ways, Dick and Maggie don disguises and infiltrate a musical gathering of idiotic French poseur-slackers. The movie goes all the way to Paris, just to insult French culture.
In musicals star appeal is everything. Astaire and Hepburn pull every ounce of entertainment out of the script, adding the sparkle that brings inert scenes to life. As always, Astaire is a pleasure to watch in motion. Hepburn is all natural elegance and effortless charm. Kay Thompson is appropriately loud but also a great singer and dancer; she comes across as a total pro on all counts. Young Ruta Lee is a fashion assistant and Suzy Parker and Dovima appear as top models. The sight of the French designer Paul Duval will turn a few heads -- he's played by English actor Robert Flemyng, better known as The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.
The 2-disc Centennial Collection DVD of Funny Face sports a fine transfer of this top-of-the-line Paramount performer. Colors are uniformly good and the image is fine most of the way. In scenes using heavy diffusion the DVD resolution has difficulty handling the (purposely) fuzzy image. Heavy filtration is used for two key scenes at a country church, the one with the magical raft and the flowers and doves seemingly nailed into place. He image is so soft that one shot of the dancing Hepburn distorts her face rather badly.
The overall temptation is to ask why Paramount's entire Centennial Collection isn't being offered on Blu-ray. Funny Face's difficult-to-transfer visuals really require the heightened resolution. After a 50th Anniversary Edition and an Audrey Hepburn collection, this is the fourth DVD iteration of the title in only seven years.
The latet edition adds some new featurettes. A piece on Kay Thompson is a revelation. The star seems to have had twenty amazing careers -- singer, dancer, fashion designer, choreographer, musical arranger, author -- she even became a bandleader. An interesting featurette on VistaVision has some excellent images of the unusual sideways film format but eventually goes off on a tangent about special effects on the original Star Wars. Fashion Photographers Exposed recreates a fashion shoot to present a superficial but colorful parade of interview bites. A beautiful young fashion expert assures us that a good photo requires a model, lighting, clothing and cameraman. The Fashion Designer & his Muse is an informative and affectionate look at the association of Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, with some excellent photos.
Some older items haven't aged well. Parisian Dreams' cinematic analysis arrives at a stack of obvious conclusions: it's a Cinderella story, etc.. The Paramount 50s retrospective piece is the same promo repeated from a number of Paramount discs. The still galleries would be good, but the photos are reproduced at a distractingly low resolution.
Audio is available in a processed 5.1 stereo track or an original mono, with mono choices also in French and Spanish. An insert pamphlet contains some pretty images and more information on the genesis of the production -- it started at MGM as a Leonard Gershe script called "Wedding Day".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Funny Face rates:
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