Needing Release

The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon

It’s that time of year again… ūüôā

Funny_Face_1957
Wikipedia

About fifteen years ago, my family went through a very tough time. We’re OK now, but I’m not going to give any specifics because they aren’t mine to give, and anyway, they’re complicated. It was all stupidly, abusurdly, needlessly difficult, and I felt like life had sat on my head.

By chance one day, I put on the 1957 film,¬†Funny Face,¬†and when Fred Astaire’s face popped up, I legitimately smiled for the first time in days. He just seemed so kind and light and hopeful that I forgot all of the junk I was carrying. It didn’t hurt that the film is a frothy, sparkly confection of Gershwin music and 1950s fashion, either. Audrey Hepburn singing and dancing is a charming bonus, as is the presence of the towering Kay Thompson.

It opens at the offices of¬†Quality Magazine.¬†Editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) strides in with the proof copy of the latest issue, and says there’s work to be done. The issue is bland and needs a new angle. Then she has a brainstorm: Pink. It doesn’t take long for her gaggle of yes-women, er, secretaries to glom onto this latest thing, and soon even the office doors are pink.

Maggie’s next idea is to appeal to the women who aren’t interested in clothes. Only problem is, their star model is more concerned with picking up Harold’s laundry and reading¬†Minutemen From Mars than staring intelligently at art pieces. The photographer, Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) is patient but getting frustrated, so he and Maggie decide to take the whole crew down to the Village and find a bookstore.

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At a little shop called Embryo Concepts, the magazine people burst in and start taking over. They scare the poor clerk, Jo (Audrey Hepburn) half to death, and despite her protests, get their shots in. They trash the place so much that Dick stays behind to help her clean up. He also kisses her when Jo explains the difference between sympathy and empathy. “I put myself in your place, and I felt you wanted to be kissed,” he says. Jo doesn’t know whether to be aghast or intrigued.

Later on, when Dick develops the photos, he’s fascinated by Jo’s face, and sells Maggie on the idea of engaging her as a model. Maggie makes Jo an offer she can’t refuse–she has her secretary buy¬†$53.95 worth of books. Jo’s not exactly receptive to the idea of modeling, and when Maggie’s entourage starts to close in on her, she takes off running, finding refuge in Dick’s darkroom.

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Dick has better luck than Maggie and her yes-women in talking Jo into joining them, and what really sells Jo is that there’s a trip to Paris in store. Jo is going to not only be the new Quality Woman, but she will be the face of an exclusive collection by Paul DeVal, the world’s top designer.

While she is there to model, Jo’s reason for going to Paris is purely intellectual. She wants to sit in caf√©s and discuss important topics. Most of all, she wants to meet Professor Flostre (Michael Auclair), one of the premiere minds of empaticalism. Still, she takes to modeling like a duck to water. Dick barely has to say anything to her to strike the right mood, and the photos he takes are gorgeous and quintessentially nineteen-fifties.

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Inevitably, Jo and Dick begin to fall in love, and Jo is conflicted about which world she wants more: the world of Professor Flostre, or Dick’s world. The situation gets even hairier when she meets the famed professor and he turns out to be a handsome, young guy instead of the wise old owl everyone’s expecting. Dick pegs the professor immediately as being more interested in Jo as a man than from a brainy standpoint. Jo doesn’t believe him, and they have an argument onstage just as Jo is about to be introduced to the world. As they go back and forth, the press is waiting to meet her. When the curtain goes up, the stage is a mess, and Jo runs off in embarassment.

One guess as to where she goes, leaving both Dick and DeVal in the lurch. Maggie and Dick infiltrate a gathering of beatniks at Flostre’s house, where they’re mistaken for the evening’s entertainment. After hearing a Frenchwoman wail a song about murder and suicide, Dick and Maggie serenade the crowd. This is one of my favorite parts of Funny Face,¬†because¬†I’m seriously in awe of Kay Thompson’s performance–her ennunciation late in the number is amazing. It’s an unusual number for Fred Astaire as well, since the bohemian scene wasn’t usually his thing, and he basically lets Kay carry the piece:

Like most musicals,¬†Funny Face finishes¬†happily. The film didn’t make much money on its initial release, and it wasn’t until it was trotted out in conjunction with¬†Breakfast At Tiffany’s¬†that the movie became popular.

It’s not a typical Paramount musical, and there’s a good reason for that. MGM already had Funny Face¬†in the works, and writer Leonard Gershe¬†wanted Audrey for the part of Jo, but since was now a major star, Paramount was reluctant to loan her out. Ergo, the MGM folks loaned themselves out, which is why¬†Funny Face¬†is¬†commonly referred to as an MGM musical made at Paramount.

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Hepburn was thrilled to be working with Fred Astaire. Astaire was excited to work with Hepburn as well, and said in a 1971 oral history interview:

I liked it very much, and I loved Audrey. She was just about one of the loveliest people you could ever meet or work with, my goodness…She was good. I thought it was very good. I loved a lot of the picture. I thought it was fine.

The movie was beset with some minor problems during the location shooting, such as torrential rain, Hepburn and Astaire having to contend with mud and dancing uphill, but there was a real sense of fun that pervaded the production. All the inconveniences became a joke.

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Hepburn’s son, Sean considers¬†Funny Face¬†to be one of his favorites of his mother’s films, although he says he’s not objective enough to really choose:

I have always tried to answer {the question of which is my favorite film of my mother’s} by naming the movies I knew she had a personal affection for.¬†Funny Face¬†is one of these. It was a dream come true to dance with Fred; what a joy it must have been, after all these years to reconnect with her first love–dancing! She took off on a dance whirlwind that had been bottled up for years.

I think that feeling of joy is what makes Funny Face one of my comfort movies. I like getting lost in all the filmy fashion and watching Hepburn and Astaire twinkle at each other. The film is a wonderful reminder that things will be all right.

For more National Classic Movie Day celebration, please see Rick’s¬†Classic Film and TV Caf√©. Thanks for hosting, Rick–it’s always a joy! Thanks for reading as always, and see you next time, everyone…


This film is available on DVD from Amazon.


Works Cited

Ferrer, Sean Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit. New York: Atria Books, 2003.

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