High powered fashion editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), in a moment of epiphanic abandon in Stanley Donen’s s’wonderful, s’marvelous Funny Face declares ‘Let’s give ‘em the old pizzazz.’ And Funny Face does just that, giving audiences one last blast in 1957 of the stylish charm of the great MGM musicals, which after that point were dead in the water (the bloated Gigi from 1958 exempted). After then the only original movie musicals churned out of Hollywood would be the penny-dreadful Elvis Presley musicals in the 1960s.
The only thing is that Funny Face was not an MGM musical — it was produced by Paramount. MGM’s Roger Edens was shopping around a film version of a play written by Leonard Gershe concerning the life of his friend, fashion photographer Richard Avedon and desperately wanted Audrey Hepburn as the photographer’s love interest. But Hepburn was under contract to Paramount and Paramount wouldn’t lend her out. Fred Astaire ambled into the mix, but he was no longer contracted to MGM and was freelancing. Eventually MGM’s Arthur Freed magnanimously loaned out key figures in MGM creative staff to Paramount — director Stanley Donen, musical director Adolph Deutsch, arranger Conrad Salinger, choreographer Eugene Loring, cinematographer Ray June — and the MGM-at-Paramount unit was in place, where it proceeded to put together one of the finest movie musicals of all time.
Funny Face is a zippy satire of fifties fashion magazines, the beatnik fad, and pop culture flourishes all wrapped up in an intoxicating package of bright, effervescent George and Ira Gershwin tunes ( ‘Funny Face,’ ‘S Wonderful,’ ‘How Long Has This Been Going On,’ ‘Clap Yo Hands,’ ‘He Loves and She Loves’ and ‘Let’s Kiss and Make Up’ — although there were three new songs composed by Rogers Edens and Leonard Gershe, too — ‘Think Pink,’ ‘Bonjour Paris,’ and ‘On How to Be Lovely’). But Donen also adds a smart and zippy style to the proceedings with dazzling set pieces (‘Think Pink,’ ‘Bonjour Paris,’ and an amazing five-minute fashion montage with Avedon himself offering up supermodel shots of Hepburn), taking the film out of the studio (as in On the Town) and onto the streets of Paris (movie musicals’ city of choice since the days of Ernst Lubitsch).
The story (not that it makes any difference) involves mousy Greenwich Village bookseller Jo Stockton (Hepburn) who meets up with fashion photographer Dick Avery (Astaire). In a presaging of Hepburn’s role in My Fair Lady some years down the line, Avery suggests that Jo come with him on a fashion shoot to Paris, where he plans to turn her into a glamorous fashion model. Jo is reluctant but agrees in order to meet her spiritual leader Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), the father of ‘Emphaticalism.’ Ultimately, the empathy is all Astaire’s as he transforms Hepburn from a Plain Jane bookworm into a fashion plate with love conquering all.
The stories of Funny Face and My Fair Lady are similar but not Hepburn’s charm in them. Hepburn is entombed in the heavy pomp of My Fair Lady but in Funny Face she is a gamine sprite, singing her own songs, dancing in black tights in a left bank coffee house, and elegantly modeling Givenchy fashions, including a jaw-dropping stairway descent in a flowing red gown. Astaire at 58 is still nimble and full of his well-patented charm and verve, particularly during an enchanting dance routine with an umbrella and a raincoat. And let’s not forget Kay Thompson, in her one great film role. Thompson, singing coach for Judy Garland at MGM and later writer of the Eloise series of children’s books, shows off her singing, acting, and dancing chops here — she holds her own with Astaire in the wacky beatnik parody number ‘Clap Yo Hands.’
At the end, when Donen turns the film into a soft-focus arboreal fantasy and Hepburn and Astaire, all shimmering white, embrace and head down a beatific lake in a dreamlike raft, the charm of all the great musicals drift away too, making you want to enter the screen and go with them. As Thompson declares in the film: ‘Banish the Black! Burn the Blue and Bury the Beige! … Just think Pink!’
The new Centennial Collection DVD includes a second disc stuffed with making-of featurettes and retrospectives.
Now who’s laughing?