“If a girl isn’t pretty…”
For over a year, Barbra Streisand starred in the stage musical “Funny Girl” — opening first in New York in March 1964 and later in London in April 1965. Meanwhile, Columbia announced that it had made a deal to bring the musical to the screen and it soon transpired that the company’s first choice to play the lead role was not Streisand, but Shirley MacLaine. (Streisand, Columbia felt, was an unknown as far as film audiences were concerned.) Producer Ray Stark who was the prime mover behind both the play and film wouldn’t hear of it, however, and insisted on Streisand.
Veteran William Wyler finally agreed to direct Funny Girl after initially claiming that he was too hard of hearing to do so. Shooting began in the summer of 1967, first on the East Coast in New Jersey and New York, then moving to the West Coast for most of the interiors. Production was completed in late autumn and the film was released in September 1968. The $8.8 million production was a smash hit, grossing $26.3 million for Columbia and later nominated for eight Academy Awards. Barbra Streisand won the award for Best Actress.
Columbia has now released Funny Girl on DVD after undertaking a three-year restoration necessitated by the poor condition of original film elements. The wait has been well worthwhile.
Only Fanny Brice’s mother believes that Fanny has any future on the stage. After several abortive attempts, Fanny manages to get a break when her comic antics during a musical number performed on roller skates gains audience approval. Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld soon discovers her and invites her to join his show, the Ziegfeld Follies.
Meanwhile, she meets suave Nicky Arnstein, a gambler with whom she falls in love. Eventually the two marry and appear to have an idyllic life in front of them. Nicky’s luck changes, however, and everything he touches now seems to fail. As his star falls, Fanny’s rises even higher, placing incredible stress on their relationship. Finally, Nicky gets involved in a shady deal that brings the situation to a head.
Part of the reason that Funny Girl works is the fact that both Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand had strong personalities and neither possessed the classic beauty that show business has so often demanded. The believability that Streisand thus brought to her portrayal was half the battle in making the film successful.
Funny Girl is basically a one-person show. Yes, Omar Sharif is around a fair bit playing Nicky Arnstein in quite a likable fashion and Walter Pidgeon pops in and out as Florenz Ziegfeld, but this is Barbra Streisand’s film and she makes the most of it. She had suggested early on that the picture be approached as a dramatic film, with musical numbers, and that’s certainly how it comes across. Even the songs themselves are delivered in a similar vein — “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but none more so than the climactic “My Man.” Overcome by the heartbreak caused by the end of her marriage, the slow transformation during the song from an uncertain, shaky voice that seems unlikely to make it beyond the first row to the powerful intensity of a singer in full voice is conveyed convincingly and with conviction by Streisand. Whether one is a Streisand fan or not, one cannot deny the talent that she displays in this film. Singing, dancing, serious or comedic acting — all are handled with adroitness, as though she’d been doing this sort of thing for ages. The positive critical reaction that her work in Funny Girl elicited was fully justified.
One distinct advantage that Streisand had was William Wyler as her director on the film. Wyler was known for getting the very best out of actors and Streisand was eager to please. The two apparently got along very well despite at least one minor incident where Streisand suggested a bit of business that would have emulated an entrance that Greta Garbo made in Anna Karenina, descending from a train through a cloud of smoke. Wyler wouldn’t go for it, but it was an early hint that Streisand would one day want to direct herself. In general, Wyler felt that Streisand was ready to try different things in order that the picture be the very best it could. That was what he wanted too.
For the same reason, Wyler insisted on the help of a first class musical director and choreographer to handle the musical numbers. Herbert Ross, who had directed and choreographed many Broadway shows, was hired for that purpose. His contribution to the completed film was substantial, for it is the skill and exuberance of the production numbers that really stands out in Funny Girl. These were shot entirely by Ross, although Wyler was present during their shooting and he did reserve the right to reshoot Streisand’s character songs. Wyler in fact reshot the climactic “My Man” solo that we see in the film because he felt Ross’s version lacked spontaneity and feeling. Judging from the song’s impact as it appears in the film, Wyler’s decision was the right one. The number is potent indeed.
When Columbia took a look at Funny Girl for purposes of a DVD release, it found that the original negative was in very poor condition and the decision was made to completely restore the film. Three years were devoted to the project, which involved replacing up to 20% of the negative; consulting with original editor Robert Swink on colour timing and stylistic choices; and digital clean-up of the soundtrack. The results are impressive and amply demonstrated by Columbia’s recently released DVD. Funny Girl is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced, and looks simply gorgeous. The colours are bright and vibrant, blacks are deep and glossy, and shadow detail is very good. Edge enhancement is minimal. Columbia seems to be back on track with its image transfers of late. High marks on this one!
Impressive too is the Dolby Digital 5.0 sound that was generated from the six-track stereo mix that was used with the film’s original 70mm blow-up prints. The resulting sound on the DVD really does justice to the songs in the film. They sound rich and warm, and create a sense of envelopment even if there is little real use of the surrounds. Anyone who has become used to the weak audio of previous VHS or laserdisc versions of Funny Girl will be very pleased by what they hear on the DVD.
Despite the desire of Streisand to approach the material as a dramatic film with musical numbers, it is mainly in the dramatic parts that the film is weak. Much of those components are too reminiscent of other musicals. Incidents such as husbands suffering because their wives are more successful or allowing their pride to prevent themselves from being helped were old chestnuts (true or not) when they were used by Columbia over 20 years previously in The Jolson Story. Much of the dialogue accompanying them is pretty unoriginal too (for example: “We’re just not good for each other.”). Sometimes Streisand’s efforts overcome the material, but too often we’re left muttering to ourselves for the actors to get on with it and move to the next musical number. The problems are most evident in the second half of the film.
Having spent three years restoring Funny Girl and having taken care to provide a top-notch looking and sounding DVD version of the film, I’m surprised to have to report that Columbia dropped the ball on the disc’s supplements. We get two curious short featurettes, contemporaneous with the making of the film itself, called “Barbra in Movieland” and “This Is Streisand.” The first tells the tale of shooting the arrival of the Ziegfeld Girls at the New Jersey central railroad station from the point of view of the disused station’s aging custodian. The second is a real puff piece extolling Streisand’s virtues. There’s not a lot of useful information in either of these pieces and given that they represent all the disc contains about the making of the film (aside from the usual two-page insert of production notes), they’re a real disappointment. The only other supplementary content consists of trailers for three Streisand films (but not Funny Girl), incomplete filmographies for the director and the three main cast members, and song highlights (which simply provides direct scene access to six of the film’s songs).
Despite some weaknesses in the dramatic aspects of the film, Funny Girl is about the music and it provides plenty of fine production numbers and lots of opportunity to see and hear Barbra Streisand at the top of her game. Columbia has provided a stunning-looking and very-fine-sounding DVD rendition of the film which more than makes up for a rather thin set of supplements. Recommended.