Saturday, April 16, 2016

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face was Audrey Hepburn’s first musical and it was one of Fred Astaire’s last. A romantic pairing between the 28-year-old Hepburn and the 58-year-old Astaire might seem a little incongruous but it works. In fact everything in this movie works. It’s scrumptious from beginning to end.

Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), the editor of a fashion magazine called Quality, is looking for a model who can be the Quality Woman - the model that represents what the magazine stands for. She thinks she’s found her in the person of Marion (played by real-life supermodel Dovima) but she’s wrong. Photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) knows that she’s wrong. The Quality Woman has to be not only new and fresh, she has to be intellectual. Maybe if he photographs Marion in a bookstore he can make her seem intellectual. It doesn’t work. But Dick has found the right model - the mousy bookstore clerk  Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn). She seems like an unlikely star model but Dick knows that she’ll be perfect.

Unfortunately Jo is more interested in philosophy than fashion. She doesn’t really approve of superficial things like fashion. Convincing her otherwise will be a daunting task but there is one thing that might persuade her to try the modeling idea - a trip to Paris. That way she could get to meet her hero, Professor Emil Flostre, the philosopher who founded the Empathicalist school of philosophy.

Of course we know that Dick and Jo will fall in love. This romance gets established quite early on but there will be obstacles to overcome. The plot is wafer-thin but that’s actually an asset - this movie has so much going for it in other areas that too much plot would have been a distraction. When you’re enjoying a luscious dessert you shouldn’t be worried about whether it has any nutritional value. Just concentrate on enjoying it.

This is the kind of movie that makes the weaknesses of the auteur theory very obvious. There’s no question that Stanley Donen was a very stylish director and he does a superb job but to describe this as Stanley Donen’s Funny Face would be quite misleading. The songs (by George and Ira Gershwin) contribute just as much as Donen’s direction - this is one musical that is not let down by the songs. The art direction (by George W. Davis and Hal Pereira) is just as important. As are Edith Head’s costumes. Not to mention the gowns that famed couturier Hubert de Givenchy designed for Audrey Hepburn specifically for the movie. While this is not a pure dancing musical Fred Astaire’s choreography is, as always, a major asset. Ray June’s glorious Technicolor cinematography is crucial. And without the delightful performances of Audrey Hepburn and Astaire (ant not forgetting Kay Thompson) it just wouldn’t be the movie it is. It’s a movie that works because it’s a collaboration between so many talented people, all of them at the top of their game.

The character of Dick Avery was inspired by Richard Avedon, one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time. Avedon acted as a consultant on the picture and was responsible for the wonderful opening title images.

If you love the style of the 50s (as I do) then you’ll be in seventh heaven. Everything looks fantastic. Even aviation geeks don’t miss out - you get some footage of a Lockheed Constellation, surely one of the classiest airliners of all time. The clothes were wonderful. The cars were wonderful. The interior design was wonderful. This movie captures the 50s style at its best.

Now to be brutally honest Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn may not have been the greatest singers of all time. It doesn’t matter. Their voices are pleasant and they deliver the songs with a great deal of warmth and charm. The only problem with Hepburn is that early on when she’s supposed to be the ugly duckling she still looks fabulous. But then that doesn’t matter either - after all we have to believe that Dick can see the potential she has to be a great model.

Astaire and Hepburn have the right chemistry. Maybe it’s hard to buy the idea of a great passion between them but we can readily believe that they take to each other immediately. He represents everything that’s missing from her life - glamour, sophistication and style. She represents everything that’s missing from his life - freshness, spontaneity, innocence. They like each other and that’s really what their love is based on - warmth and affection and a simple pleasure in each other’s company. It works.

Kay Thompson is superb. Why she made only a handful of films is a mystery.

Paramount’s Region 4 DVD offers an anamorphic transfer which looks pretty good.

Funny Face is magnificent entertainment. It’s light and frothy and it has style, style and more style. Highly recommended.

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