Funny Face (1957)

Title: Funny Face (1957)
Director: Stanley Donen
Writer/s: Leonard Gershe
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From the very first scene in this Gershwin classic in which Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) the editor of Quality marches into the offices of the magazine and begins barking orders at all her secretaries we are transported into a magical world of colourful visuals and song and dance numbers that will lift any spirit. The first musical number “Think Pink!” is a veritable extravaganza of intense Technicolor and progressive visuals of dancing women and pink toothpaste. The plot is nothing to write home about, but the thought that went into these routines and the mind-blowing cinematography are enough to make this a musical that stands out from other musicals of this era. Fred Astaire’s character, Dick Avery is actually modeled on the persona of Richard Avedon, a portrait and high fashion photographer whose work for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Life magazines made him well known during the reign of Diana Vreeland who was Vogue’s editor until 1988 when Anna Wintour took over. Miss Wintour is also well known for her work in the magazine and fashion world, and still reigns. It is after Diana Vreeland though that Maggie Prescott is modeled, and it is the magazine world that we find ourselves being introduced. Ever watch The Devil Wears Prada (2006)? Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly was modeled on Anna Wintour and I guess she was also modeled on Maggie Prescott who was modeled on Diana Vreeland. Get it? Got it? Good.

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Right, so we have the ball busting no-nonsense magazine editor looking for the new face for a new collection. In the studio Ms Prescott and her photographer Dick are looking for someone with “character, spirit and intelligence”, and the model they have is a whiny vapid prima donna with nothing on her mind other than “Harold’s laundry”. Hoping a change of scenery might help they decide to take a cab to Greenwich Village to find a “sinister” little bookshop in which they can perhaps photograph said vapid whiny model to give the illusion of intelligence and character. They find a dark and dingy bookstore named Embryo Concepts and charge in and immediately begin rearranging all the books on the shelves. Enter Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) who works in this particular bookstore. She is a student of “Empatheticalism” and a huge fan of a French philosopher called Emilie Flostre. In her frustrated dealings with the magazine people, Jo ends up in a few of the shots taken by Avery, after which she is promptly and rudely locked out of her own shop.

After the photo-shoot the magazine team leave and when Jo walks back in she discovers they’ve left a huge mess of the place. Dick Avery however has chosen to remain behind and help her tidy up. As they restock the shelves she explains her desire to visit Paris and talks about her philosophies. All of a sudden Avery kisses her, and Jo’s world doesn’t seem so ordered anymore. Avery leaves and as Jo dances among the dark and dusty shelves wearing a bright orange and green hat forgotten by the magazine model, and singing “How Long Has This Been Going On?” her realization and the beauty of the effects of colour are a wonder to watch.

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Soon enough Maggie Prescott and Dick Avery realize that Jo Stockton, the girl from the bookstore will make the perfect new fresh face for their campaign, and they lure her to the magazine offices by ordering some books and having them delivered. When Jo arrives she is pounced upon and in a panic runs off and finds herself taking shelter in Dick Avery’s dark room. He shows her the photos he took of her at the bookstore and Dick sings to her about her “Funny Face”, her “sunny funny face”, and we fall in love with him because who doesn’t want to be serenaded by Fred Astaire despite the fact that he was twice Audrey Hepburn’s age at the time. He sings under the glow of the red dark room light and spins Jo in a chair and it’s all so romantic.

All Jo wants to do is witness her hero Flostre lecture in Paris, and by convincing her she can do just that if she will only agree to be ‘the face’ of Quality, Dick manages a feat Maggie Prescott was unable to achieve. They finally have their muse, and the rush to France begins…

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I think the only part of this musical that disappointed me was the rather cheesy musical number in which Dick, Maggie and Jo are separately wandering around Paris and being typically touristy and typically American. In “Bonjour, Paris! (Pareee)” we are shown all the most famous Paris landmarks and sites in the City of Love. The three main players dance around parts of the city that reflect their own personal and vastly different personalities. In fact these particular three are so damn different it often seems quite a stretch that they would even remotely get along in the ‘real world’ (but I guess that’s what so great about the movies, and even greater about musicals – anything can happen). Anyway so they dance and sing all over Paris and conveniently end up bumping into each other at the Eiffel Tower laughing at the sheer coincidence of it all.

The night of the big show that Jo will headline is looming and when she doesn’t pitch up for rehearsals Dick goes in search of her in the dreariest parts of Paris. Through the dingy and dark alleyways Dick finds Jo in a smoky nightclub surrounded by drunks and beatniks and poets. Chatting innocently to a group of older men about the benefits of Empathicalism, Jo is dressed all in black and embodies the Bohemian spirit of the time. When Dick tries to get her to leave she challenges him by dancing around the club to a strange sort of jazzy cacophony. Hepburn was classically trained as a ballerina and it shows. She is utterly brilliant and this has got to be my second favorite performance of the entire film. The banging, clanging sounds of life in a nightclub in Paris, France during the height of 1950’s beatnik and jazz are intoxicating. I could watch Audrey Hepburn do a performance like that over and over and over again – it is unquestionably retrospective into its coolness.

Upon picking her up at the night club and after her ‘impromptu’ performance, Dick walks Jo back to her hotel and makes her promise to attend the rehearsals the following day. She also reveals to him that she hasn’t actually met the famed Professor Flostre yet. Below her room in the alleyway Fred Astaire does what Fred Astaire does best which is a magnificent display of a man who can still dance the hell out of life with little or no props. In this case all he has is an umbrella and a coat that he turns inside out revealing a red lining which allows him to turn into an imaginary matador. I do love Fred Astaire, but I admit I have yet to see any of the films he made with Ginger Rogers which are the ones to watch I guess. He convinces her to do the work, and we know they are starting to fall in love. Neither one has forgotten the kiss in the bookstore back in New York.

A montage of their work in Paris highlights famous landmarks, as well as the fantastic use of Technicolour and of course the process of Jo and Dick falling in love. He takes photographs of her dressed in the most beautiful clothes, and just these visuals alone are enough to dazzle the eyes. Richard Avedon (whom I mentioned previously was the inspiration for the character of Dick) was a technical consultant for these shots of Jo modelling in Paris. During one of the photo shoots Jo wears a white wedding dress outside a little church. A nun in a bright blue habit and a group of little girls in red dresses file past her creating another beautiful image. A priest walks out and mistakes Jo and Dick for a couple about to be married. This makes Jo sad because she feels like a phony wearing that dress and pretending that the man she loves is waiting inside the church for her (which is what Dick asked her to imagine as he set up the shot). She runs off into some beautiful gardens next to a lake, and it is next to the lake that Jo kisses Dick and tells him that she loves Paris, and she loves this little church and she loves him. Like beautiful swans they dance next to the lake and perform “He Loves and She Loves” one of the few original songs to survive the Broadway production in the motion picture production. (Yes, this was originally a stage production, however the original also starring Astaire has very little to do with this plot).

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To throw a proverbial Givenchy dress into the works Jo is all ready to be presented to the press, and finds out that her hero Flostre is making an appearance at a cafe that same night. She dashes off to meet him completely forgetting her previous engagement with the society press. At the café Flostre turns out to be young, and charming and good looking which takes Jo by surprise. When she doesn’t show up Dick goes looking for her and drags her out of the café. They have a huge argument at the show and cause a terrific scene which results in Jo’s presentation turning into a complete disaster including a broken water fountain and a collapsed stage setting. In one of the designer dresses she dashes from the hotel amidst a distraught crowd of designers, photographers and people in the fashion industry.

On the night of the final show Jo is still missing and the designers are getting concerned. Dick tells them they have nothing to worry about because Jo has ‘integrity’ and will therefore show up. Upon investigating the phone messages sent to her hotel room (most of which came from Dick himself) they discover a message from Professor Flostre. The phone message mentions “an evening of international philosophy, poetry, song and meditation” at his (Flostre’s) home and they realize that is where she will be tonight.

Prescott and Avery make their way to Flostre’s home dressed as a couple of ‘beatniks’ from Tallahassee Florida who are exuding “friendly vibrations”. They pretend to be another couple invited to the soiree and gain access and acceptance by performing the amazing “Clap Yo’ Hands”. This is definitely my favorite collaboration, and Astaire and Thompson are phenomenal! Kay Thompson has a no-nonsense attitude to performing and Fred Astaire is oddly great at comedy. I have subsequently watched and re-watched this particular performance countless times. I think everyone should do the same. The image of these two dancing and singing in the middle of a bohemian’s loft surrounded by chain smokers, depressives and intellectuals is one of the most inspiring and fun scenes I have ever seen. Every inch of this is a masterpiece as the bright red of Maggie Prescott’s vest counteracts the black berets and smoky surroundings.

After the performance they find Jo talking intimately with Flostre about Empathicalism, and when they try to get her to come back with them she refuses. Of course once they’ve gone it will only take a couple of minutes before Flostre shows her his true colors and tries to seduce Jo. Disillusioned and shocked, she knocks him on the head with one of his own statues and escapes the party.

When Jo gets back and announces she will do the show, Maggie tells her that Dick has left for New York. When Jo wants to run off again and find Dick they promise to find him before he gets on his plane if she will just do the show. So Jo walks down the runway as the new face of Quality magazine, and when it’s all over and they still haven’t found Dick she leaves the hotel in a state. Dick on the other hand has changed his mind about leaving after he runs into Emile Flostre at the airport who tells him about how Jo hit him over the head with a statue and knocked him out. Dick is delighted and returns to the runway show only to find that Jo has now left. Cue cheesy realization that Jo will of course be at the little church if she is anywhere in Paris and when they find each other again, and kiss again and dance again we know that the world is alright again. The Technicolour dream world is over, but Audrey Hepburn will live on in this truly magnificent film about fashion and empathy and Paris, and of course unwavering love.

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