Funny Face June 14, 2016
Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn are such classically lovable performers that their 30-year age gap doesn’t much matter in 1957’s Funny Face. Despite their characters being thrust into a cinematic relationship that never quite sells, the movie in which they're starring is very much a musical that takes pride in its farcical dynamism, its chic design — romance is only there because such a trait is a necessary component within a genre that depends on making its audience feel good.
And feel good we do: Funny Face is one of the most facilely likable films in the filmographies of its stars. Perfection it isn’t, but painlessly escapist it is. Written by Leonard Gersche and directed by Stanley Donen (On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain), it’s an exuberant lark that knows something about exploiting the kissable personas of its leads, that knows something about cinematographic ecstasy, that knows something about finding a faultless balance between song, spectacle, and story. I’m impervious to its charms. It all appeals to my most shameless weaknesses for blatant materialism.
But I’m unashamed to succumb to Funny Face’s sumptuousness. Its style is its best asset. The action circles around the behind-the-scenes chaos of the fictional Quality magazine, a Vogue copycat whose inspiration is severely lacking. Publisher and editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), whose frenetic workaholism makes her a splendid homage to Diana Vreeland, is tired of refined models and predictable lines. She’s desperate for something, or someone, to thrill her again after decades of being at the top of the fashion chain.
Her editor’s block doesn’t last long, though. After pondering various ideas that bring her temporary flashes of invigoration (one most notably coming in the form of briefly re-popularizing the color pink), she, along with top photographer Dick Avery (Astaire), comes to the conclusion that it’d be a refreshing change of pace to find a way to bridge the gap between the “beautiful” and the “intellectual.” It’s unheard of to find the brains within an industry as vapid as the fashion world’s.
Shortly after their brainstorming do they hastily crash a sleepy bookstore in Greenwich Village, where no one roams but the sharp Jo Stockton (Hepburn), who’s the shop’s substitute manager and who’s an aspiring philosopher. To Kay, she’s nothing but a nuisance — Jo isn’t amused by Quality’s abrasive barging in — but to Dick, she is the epitome of the magazine’s newest trend. With the right clothes and the right people looking after her, she could become the toast of the town.
As she dreams of traveling to Paris to bask in the teachings of esteemed philosopher Emile Flostre (Michael Auclair), it doesn’t take too long to convince Jo that she’s just as much a beaut as she is a brainiac. Quality and company makes their way to France to renew the publication’s rep for breaking new ground; but intrigue arises as feelings begin to fester between Dick and Jo.
Without its romantic detours, however, Funny Face would still be among the most auspicious musicals of the 1950s, though I suspect its stunning imagery is perhaps tricking me into thinking it’s better than it is. Shot in VistaVision, which is certainly the most underrated and most palatial of photographic processes in the history of the movies, its scenery is nothing short of breathtaking. Its fashions are eye-catching, sure, but more stirring is the way cinematographer Ray June seems to find the photograph within everything, deriving from Paris’s locales to the simple nourishing of Hepburn’s unearthly facsimile. Especially heart-stopping is the seemingly organic smokiness he achieves in several scenes, most remarkably during Hepburn’s show-stopping bohemian dance number and throughout her and Astaire’s rendition of “’S Wonderful.”
To look at Funny Face is a delight, and so it’s nothing less than prodigious that its material and its performers are never overtaken by its visual highs. Gersche’s screenplay is light and funny (though my cynicism remained intact as I wondered how its characters might have learned to sing and dance like Broadway stars despite their respective occupations), and Donen’s direction is so easily effervescent that it doesn’t take much to remind us that only a veteran of his caliber could make substance of Funny Face’s type seem to be so much more important than mere frivolity.
But the film’s conquering of us lies in its three leads, a corps d’elite of magnificent faculty. Astaire, as athletic and engaging as he was when he was winning over our hearts with Ginger Rogers, is a dependably inviting main that, predictably, owes much of his enchantment to his feverish feet. Hepburn is a headstrong headliner with as much wit to her name as timeless style — her incomparable beauty remains lush and new as it was when she was introduced to the world through 1953’s Roman Holiday. But best of all is Thompson (known to most as the author of the Eloise series), who had no other film roles (she spent the majority of her career as MGM’s top vocal arranger) and yet steals the entire project from two of the cinema’s biggest names. A comic riot with killer pipes and killer dancing ability, she gives Funny Face an edge that keeps it from playing it completely safe.
But even if the film were intensively safe, I’m not so sure it’d be able to stop being an utter joy. A fine piece of studio craftsmanship, it’s an amiable musical that makes superb use of its stars. Throw in songs by the Gershwins and choreography perfected by Eugene Loring and you’ve got a mini-masterpiece. A-