Thursday, November 18, 2010
Review – Funny Face
November 18, 2010
Funny Face – U.S., 1957
There’s something wrong with Stanley Donen’s musical Funny Face. Okay, maybe I should say there are many things wrong with it, but for the moment let’s just state the obvious – that Audrey Hepburn is 28 and Fred Astaire is 58 (and looks it), that the film seems to be advocating a rather shallow world, one in which young women are to be judged on their looks alone, that the world seems to be a slave to the fashion whims of one person, and that one of the best scenes in the film is apparently inspired by a movement that the film takes great pains to mock. However, perhaps the film’s fundamental flaw is its attempt to create the impression that Jo Stockton is somehow more beautiful after Mrs. Maggie Prescott, with her wardrobe of high-end fashion, and her entire make-up department get through with her. She isn’t. After all, this is Audrey Hepburn we’re talking about. Yet a film with this formula would not be complete without reinforcing the notion that behind every “ugly duckling” there is a stunning swam just waiting to be found and that all it takes is the right man to see it.
Granted, the film is a product of its time, and 1950’s America was filled with advertising executives whose job it was to keep products moving, and women accounted for a large part of the buying public. So Funny Face gives viewers Mrs. Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), a woman who is apparently so influential that she can tell the women of the world what color to wear on Monday morning, and by Monday evening, they’re wearing it. The beginning of the film shows her suddenly becoming aware of the importance of the color pink, and after a song-and–dance number extolling the wonders of the color (or is the number a montage of advertisements?), we learn that the women of the world now agree with her – pink is the new “it” color. Curiously, Mrs. Prescott does not wear the color herself. Instead, she’s already busy working on a new clothing line that will entice women with no interest in clothes to begin parting with their hard-earned money. The name of Mrs. Prescott’s magazine is Quality Magazine, and if that name doesn’t scream I know what I’m talking about, I don’t know what does.
The great Fred Astaire plays Mrs. Prescott’s long-time photographer, Dick Avery. Dick has an eye for beauty, and he sees in the “funny” face of the aforementioned Jo Stockton, who is working as a bookstore clerk. Jo is smart, well read, and has a fondness for the ideas of a certain French professor named Emile Flostre. After Mrs. Prescott and her team of experts leave Jo’s bookstore in complete disarray after an unauthorized photo shoot, Dick hangs around to help her clean up. Jo can speak of nothing but connectivity and empathy, so Dick interrupts her with a kiss. He even cracks a not-so polite joke about why he did so. However, instead of slapping him, Jo politely asks him to leave, and then with stars in her eyes, she wonders aloud in song whether “one kiss can do all this,” completely ignoring the fact that Dick has absolutely no interest in any of the things she values.
A great deal of Funny Face is set in France, and yet writer Leonard Gershe seems content to present Paris as simple a great place to sightsee, take pictures, and put on beautiful dresses. The film offers no insight into French culture and portrays the movements of the time as both eccentric and foolish. In one scene, we see a young woman yell at a man, then he slaps her, then they kiss passionately. Later, inside a club, we see people moving in an odd almost pantomime-like dance to music, a woman asks Dick to dance in an overbearing way, and Jo tries to have a conversation with a few men who cannot speak a word of English. They can understand her through her feelings, Jo explains. It’s an interesting idea. However, the film would rather present Jo’s beliefs as naïve, so Dick stands up and insults the men to their face to “prove” that they can’t understand her. I suppose it’s meant to be funny, but instead it spoke volumes of the generation gap that exists between the two characters and all she would be giving up if she chose to be with him.
By this point in this review, I have probably given the impression that I did not like Funny Face at all, which is actually not true, for it’s probably impossible not to like a film with this cast. The film is very well acted, and the songs in the film, many of them written by Ira and George Gershwin, are not only fun but also smartly written. I particularly liked “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” with Astaire’s amazing matador dance halfway through it. Astaire firmly believed that the audience should be able to see a dancer’s feet in a musical, and if you don’t understand why, you will after watching Astaire in that number. And there a scene in which Hepburn, in what to me is the highlight of the film, performs a dance that seems to be a blend of tap, ballet, marching, and Cuban dance, all the while displaying one of the most intoxicating smiles I’ve ever seen on captured on film. It’s clear she’s having fun, and it’s a joy to behold.
The rest of the film unfortunately plays like an episode of “Father Knows Best,” for everything the older characters say ends up being true, especially when it comes to all that Jo has believed in for so long, and it’s a bit disheartening to hear a female characters so educated and full of ideas appear so willing to give it all up for a man who does not get her. “Will I see you again?” Jo asks Dick. His answer: “If you model.” Deep sigh. A product of its time indeed. (on DVD)