The Second Annual Broadway Bound Blogathon
Welcome to the Second Annual Broadway Bound Blogathon! hosted by Taking Up Room. Knowing nothing about it, I saw Funny Face (1957) for the first time recently as part of a series at Arclight Hollywood. When I heard about the blogathon, it seemed like an opportune time to write about it. I’m looking forward to reading the other entries.
Like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Stanley Donen’s Funny Face is a musical comedy created for the screen. Not to be confused with the 1927 Broadway musical of the same name, the plot of Donen’s film is completely different. However, the Broadway musical, like the film, starred Fred Astaire and featured songs by George and Ira Gershwin.
As the movie opens, Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) is a photographer for a fashion magazine. No-nonsense editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thomson) is his boss. [Characters loosely inspired by photographer Richard Avedon and famed fashion editor Diana Vreeland] They’re under deadline pressure and decide a Greenwich Village bookstore is as good a place as any to make the cover model look smarter. Without bothering to ask anyone’s permission, Maggie, Dick and their crew walk in and commandeer the store. Mousey book clerk Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) can’t seem to convince them the owner would have a fit if he found them there.
Dick snaps a few shots of the reluctant Jo, never imagining they’d see each other again. The camera sees something in her that he doesn’t at first and neither does Maggie. After several plot convolutions, she becomes the “face of fifty-seven” or something to that effect.
Astaire made a credible leading man in the 1930s with perennial dance partner Ginger Rogers. By 1957, he was fifty-eight. While he could still dance up a storm, having him as the love interest to young lovely Hepburn stretches it more than a bit. In their review, Go London praises the film’s fashion but not the passion:
Still, if you’re prepared to do a bit of revisionist thinking, it all makes sense. Just imagine that Dick is a closeted gay… He’s enjoys flirting with his muse and collaborator; she’s tickled by his talent and wit. Hey presto: the happy ending becomes a happy beginning; they’re both ready for love, just not with each other.
In this, another rendering of the Pygmalion story, the jaded photog instructs bookworm Jo in the ways of the high fashion world, succeeding too well in transforming her. The role of an older man in a youth oriented business wasn’t far from the truth. Compared to Rex Harrison’s Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964), Dick is a diligent but kindly taskmaster. Both mentors fall in love with what they’ve created. As with the Hepburn’s cockney guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle, Jo at first resists the makeover, then embraces it.
Initially skeptical and not a fan, Maggie is fully onboard with the scheme when she finally sees Jo’s commercial potential as the new “it” girl. A devoted follower of esoteric philosopher Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), Jo begins to have doubts about her new celebrity status and wonders if she’s lost herself (any movie that satirizes both French existentialism and high fashion can’t be all bad).
In her excellent pictorial essay on Funny Face, Ada Pîrvu of Classiq Journal, notes that besides the high fashion wardrobe designed by Hubert de Givenchy (Breakfast at Tiffany’s ), Paris When It Sizzles ), there’s also an exploration of 1950’s beatnik style in Jo’s casual look:
The beatnik style, one of the elements that characterised the new youth culture movement which emerged in America and Europe during the 1950s. In the United States, the Beat Generation – writers (Jack Kerouac was one of them) and artists and their acolytes – thrived in New York in the Greenwich Village bars and coffee-houses, while in Paris they gathered in the cafés of St-Germain-des-Prés. Their uniform, an innovative style at the time was head-to-toe black (today it seems incredible that this had to be invented), described as a combination of “French bohemian, English intellectual and US hobo”. Journalist Lee Gibb said: “They have replaced the American haircut with the French haircut. They have replaced high heels by low heels, low heels by no heels and no heels by bare feet.” They wore polo necks and jeans, duffel coats and dark glasses.
It’s this style that Audrey Hepburn first immortalises on screen in Funny Face. She is introduced to us as a bookshop clerk and amateur philosopher, working in a book store in Greenwich Village, and, when in Paris, she is more interested in meeting philosopher Emile Flostre than in the fashion, walking the French capital’s streets in all-black and a beige trench coat on top, its design resembling a duffel coat.
The Gershwin songs are, of course, s’wonderful, to quote the title of one. Taken from Broadway’s Funny Face and other shows, they fit well in some cases but in others feel anachronistic and added on. Singer and dancer Kay Thompson belts out her numbers like a Broadway star. She spent her theatrical career in radio, movies and nightclubs. Fred Astaire was a singer’s singer and a favorite of many including Mel Torme who cut an album of songs made famous by Astaire. Dubbed by Marni Nixon in My Fair Lady, Hepburn had a lovely singing voice and performs How Long Has This Been Going On, a Gershwin song cut from Broadway’s Funny Face.
Hepburn and Astaire’s dance numbers, choreographed by Astaire and Eugene Loring, are captivating and where the film comes alive. We all knew Astaire could dance. Hepburn is the surprise.
Wonderful entry for this blogathon. Funny Face is a joy on many levels. It’s spoofing of so much of the popular culture gives us a chance to experience and enjoy it at the same time. The musical talents on display well serve the Gershwin tunes.
Even when I was a kid and thought Fred was too old for Audrey, I was able to shrug it off with the attitude of accepting that he was a leading man and couldn’t be anything else in this script.
– Caftan Woman
Funny, I never connected the film to Pygmalion / My Fair Lady. It does make perfect sense.
Excellent review! I also wrote about Funny Face not a long time ago for my blog Three Enchanting Ladies and it really was one of my most favourite films to write about. There’s so much to say!
Great post! I agree that Astaire was probably too old, but the movie’s still fun. Audrey’s joy at getting to dance is wonderful. Thanks again for joining the blogathon!
Besides their dancing, I did enjoy Fred and Audrey’s touching “affair of the heart.” Thanks for the replies.