“‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous!”
The film Funny Face had a rather unusual beginning. Screenwriter Leonard Gershe was looking to have his story, entitled “Wedding Day,” produced on Broadway as a musical. This did not materialize and Gershe sold the story’s film rights to MGM, who planned to augment the material with music that George and Ira Gershwin had written 30 years previously for the Broadway musical “Funny Face.” MGM’s producer for the film was Robert Edens who proceeded to line up Stanley Donen as director and enlisted the interest of Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn to star. But there were a few little hitches. Hepburn was under contract to Paramount and it refused to loan her out. The rights to the Gershwin score were owned by Warner Bros. so a deal would have to be struck to free them up. A number of months passed before a deal could be reached, but in the end, WB sold the song rights to MGM which packaged them along with a loan of Edens, Gershe and Donen to Paramount which then produced the film.
Funny Face opened in early spring 1957 to widespread critical acclaim and good box-office success. It later received four Academy Award nominations. Paramount has recently released the film on DVD as part of the Audrey Hepburn Widescreen Collection.
Editor Maggie Prescott of fashion magazine Quality is unhappy with the latest issue and wants something new to attract both readers and dress buyers. She decides her new campaign will focus on clothes for women who have no interest in clothes. Maggie enlists her chief photographer, Dick Avery, to provide appropriate support and he is soon photographing a rather plain-looking bookstore clerk, named Jo Stockton, in Greenwich Village. Jo thinks the whole fashion business is silly; further, she’s into empatheticalism, a philosophy based on feeling what another person feels, and longs to travel to Paris to study.
Maggie now decides she would like to choose a “Quality Woman” to embody her new campaign and have that person photographed in Paris modeling the campaign’s new collection, which has been designed by France’s leading couturier. Dick proposes that Jo be the model, and the gang is soon off to Paris. Dick proceeds to photograph Jo at all sorts of locations around the city, and it soon becomes apparent that the two are falling in love. Complicating things, however, is the leading exponent of empatheticalism, Professor Flostre, who proves to be a major distraction for Jo. The whole success of the “Quality Woman” fashion show and Dick and Jo’s relationship are soon in doubt.
Fred Astaire in a musical is pretty much a guarantee that you’re going to get your money’s worth (assuming you like musicals). He may have been 57 when this film was shot, but you’d never know it from his dancing. His work in the matador-inspired dance is certainly up to his usual effortless-looking standard. Add an Audrey Hepburn in her prime and doing her only singing in a musical; great familiar Gershwin tunes; location shooting in Paris; and Funny Face should be a lock.
And so it is. Funny Face is bright, infectious entertainment with some very imaginative photographic work. The character of the photographer that Fred Astaire was playing was based on real-life fashion-magazine photographer Richard Avedon who was hired as the film’s visual consultant. The result was the many striking images that linger in the memory long after the film is over, including: the rousing opening number with its emphasis on pink; the split screen views of Paris; the shots for a magazine layout that are frozen as stills, first as a negative, then gradually adding individual colours; and Fred and Audrey’s dance in the darkroom bathed in red.
Framing all this was music that included seven Gershwin numbers. Four of these were taken from the original “Funny Face” play — ‘S Wonderful, Let’s Kiss and Make Up, He Loves and She Loves, and the title song. In addition to watching the dancing, which is inventively choreographed, there is pleasure in the singing as well. Fred Astaire’s voice would never be mistaken for that of a Frank Sinatra, but he did have one thing in common with Frank, and that was an ability to really express the emotion behind the words. That comes through emphatically in Funny Face. Audrey Hepburn’s voice also possesses a pleasing timbre as evidenced by the limited opportunities she has. But at least we have the pleasure of hearing it, unlike in My Fair Lady where she was dubbed by Marni Nixon.
Paramount’s DVD of Funny Face for the most part delivers the goods. The image is framed at 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced, and utilizes 19 scene selections. I found the image to be a little dark overall, but the colours are vibrant and faithfully rendered. Skin tones are excellent. This is a nice clean transfer, virtually free of scratches or blemishes. There is noticeable evidence of edge enhancement from time to time. I would say that the disc captures the film’s striking images pretty well, but that it’s not quite Paramount’s best work. Note that the scenes around an old Country church are much softer-looking that the rest of the film, but this was intentional and is not a defect in the transfer.
A new Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track has been prepared for Funny Face, but it’s not a significant improvement over the original mono track which Paramount has restored and also included. In fact, I found that the mono track actually sounded richer than the new 5.1 one, which just seemed to dilute the sound.
I have to say that the supplementary material is pretty skimpy on this disc. Of course, that’s not unusual for Paramount, but I want to highlight it just in case it may help to spur the company on to more comprehensive efforts in the future. Aside from the theatrical trailer, we get a nine-minute featurette which speeds through Paramount’s top releases of the 1950s. This is an annoying piece. It tries to cover far too much material in too short a time. You just get interested in one film clip when it suddenly jumps to another topic. The whole thing is just frustrating. Concluding the disc is a photo gallery that consists of about a dozen production stills. This disc is part of what Paramount is calling the Audrey Hepburn Widescreen Collection. Well, how about some biographical and filmographical material on her and her principal co-stars and directors for a start.
Funny Face is a top-notch musical and a great example of 1950s filmmaking. It’s an excellent showcase for the talent of both a young Audrey Hepburn and an aging but still incredibly agile (both athletically and vocally) Fred Astaire. Paramount has done a fine job in delivering the film’s image and sound on DVD, although it’s perhaps not among their very best image transfers. Recommended.